Consider a career in forensic photography
A forensic photographer will photograph major crime scenes, traffic collisions and items of evidence as part of an investigation
By Steve Paxton
Have you ever considered a career in forensic photography? George Reis is a highly respected instructor, author and photographer. He specializes in image/video enhancement and analysis, as well as forensic and technical photography. In this interview, he shares his experience and insight on moving into a career in forensic photography. Learn more about George Reis and his work at ImagingForensics.com and GeorgeReis.com.
How did you end up working in forensic photography and imaging analysis?
I’ve been a photographer all of my life. I worked for my weekly newspaper, The Gardena Valley News, while still in high school, and eventually worked for the Los Angeles Times for a couple of years. After this I freelanced for several years; but, after a few years I needed to find regular work, and I ended up in a custom photo lab for two years.
Then I answered an ad for a “police photographer” at the Newport Beach (Calif.) Police Department. Altogether, I had over 12 years of experience in photography prior to going to work as a forensic photographer.
When I took the position at the police department, I thought it would be temporary and that I’d return to something more creative after a year or two – but I ended up fascinated by the work and stayed with the department for fifteen years. In 2004, I decided to go back out on my own and have been operating Imaging Forensics since 2004.
What is forensic photography and how does it differ from other photography fields?
I would first categorize forensic photography into the public and private sectors.
In the public sectors there are positions at police and sheriff departments, state crime labs and federal agencies. In these agencies, a forensic photographer may be a specific position, or it may be one duty among several by a police officer, crime scene investigator, or other position. In these positions, a forensic photographer will photograph major crime scenes, traffic collisions and items of evidence as part of an investigation.
The forensic photographer may also maintain the “photo lab” by maintaining and managing all the images taken by personnel at their department, preparing images for electronic and/or printed distribution. This person may also work in photographic and/or video analysis, providing image enhancement, comparison, authentication and analysis services. All of this work is done at the time of the incident, and many of these cases will never be litigated for a number of reasons.
In the private sector, a forensic photographer is generally hired by attorneys to work on cases that are in the litigation stage. At this point, the crime scene or traffic accident are long past. Items of evidence have been collected. But the forensic photographer may be retained to photograph an item of evidence, or the scene after the fact, or the injuries to an individual to show things that may not have been originally photographed by the investigating agency.
For instance, the investigating agency will photograph injuries as soon as they can, but those photographs don’t show the results of scar tissue, multiple surgeries or skin grafts. Or the investigating agency may not photograph the scene from a witness perspective, showing the lighting conditions and distance to determine what the witness actually could have seen. In addition, the areas of comparison, authentication, enhancement and analysis are frequently done by private forensic photographers. There are many civil lawsuits that involve photography – perhaps to show the value of property to use to investigate construction defects.
In my own private practice, my work comes from both criminal and civil cases, and from law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, plaintiff attorneys, defense attorneys and insurance companies. The way that forensic photography differs from other photography fields is that the purpose of the photography is to provide accurate images that will help the trier of fact (judge or jury) to understand the evidence and scene that they were not present to see. As such, it is important to photograph things, not to make them pretty or impactful, but as they are.
Documentation is also essential – it is important to know where the photograph was taken, when it was taken and what the subject was. Eventually, the photographer may testify in court about the photographs, and will be asked questions about the images and the subject matter – their notes need to be complete enough to be able to describe these images and answer the questions asked by the attorneys.
Can you briefly describe the steps involved in photographing a major crime scene?
It’s important to not change anything in the scene until photographs have been taken. And, it’s important to get an overall understanding of the scene prior to starting any photography. For these reasons, an initial walk through the scene is very helpful before any photographs are taken.
After this, it’s time to begin the process of photography and documentation. For each photograph (or grouping of photographs) it’s important to write a description of what is being taken. It’s also important that others looking at the photographs can follow what you were photographing – so it’s best practice to begin with wide-view shots that provide orientation to the scene.
These can be followed with mid-range shots to show how items of evidence relate to each other. And, lastly, close-up photographs can be taken. By shooting in this order, one can see the whole room, then a group of items in the room, then the individual items – and will know what is what in each of the images.
Perspective and focal length choice is also important in these images. The images should be taken so that there is not excessive distortion and so that the relationship between objects can be properly determined.
What type of camera(s) and equipment do you usually use in forensic photography?
I use dSLR cameras and a variety of lenses from 18mm through 200mm, tripod, both portable and studio flash units, and several light modifiers. The lenses I use most are a 35mm and a 60mm macro. I usually have two portable flash units with me with small softboxes. In addition, I carry a gray card for white balance, a hand-held light meter, several rulers, a laser distance meter, pens and paper for note taking, a flashlight, spare batteries and memory cards.
Which format (JPEG or RAW) do forensic photographers primarily utilize? What is your preference?
If one considers all forensic photographers, from the police officer at the three-person department to those at federal agencies, it’s likely a fairly even mix between JPEG, raw, and TIFF (yes, there are some cameras that have a TIFF file format – but it’s 8-bit, and has the color balance burnt-in, so it’s not much better than a high quality JPEG). Some people I know shoot both raw and JPEG, but I don’t personally see the advantage in it.
I shoot everything raw. I then convert the raw files to DNG on download. The advantages of raw are that I get unrendered files so if I need to color balance or adjust tonal values there is less loss in doing so. Also, the greater bit-depth is beneficial. The DNG format provides a better archive should the proprietary raw file I use no longer be supported by the manufacturer.
You’re the author of a book on using Photoshop in imaging forensics. Is there a standard workflow for using Photoshop in forensic photography?
There isn’t a standard from the position of something that is required by all courts in all jurisdictions. But there are Rules of Evidence and case law that allows us to develop standards that we all should follow. But I think most of these can be boiled down to a few short concepts:
- Archive the original images;
- Only work on copies of those images;
- Only use processes that affect the quality of the image but that don’t change the content;
- Use methods that allow all processes to be repeated and verified.
By following these, a forensic photographer should be able to answer to any legitimate challenge to their image post processing.
Do you have any suggestions for someone interested in pursuing a career in digital imaging forensics?
First, if pursuing that career at a government agency, I suggest calling the agencies you are interested in working for and finding out if they use civilians or police officers in those positions, what their requirements are, and ask if you can go on a ride-along with someone in that unit.
Next, I would join the International Association for Identification – especially your regional division, and attend the conferences. Network with others, let them know of your interest and show them your work.
Third, I would consider taking any position at an agency. This gives you experience at a law enforcement agency and provides networking opportunities.
Finally, if you don’t have a college degree – it may be time to work on it. Jobs in forensics are more and more competitive. Some agencies now require college degrees, others simply prefer it. Degrees in a science are often preferred.
Learn more about George Reis and his work at ImagingForensics.com.
About the author
Steve Paxton has been a police officer for 23 years. He is currently a detective assigned to the Forensic Investigations Unit at the Everett (Wash.) Police Department. His primary responsibilities include recovering and analyzing surveillance video, examining mobile devices, critical incident photography and managing the department’s digital forensics lab. Steve can be reached on LinkedIn.