Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mini-Tutorial: Crime Scene Photography

Taking Injury Photographs

We human beings are somewhat fragile creatures. Our bodies of skin, flesh, and bones injure rather easily. Daily life is filled with opportunities to bump and bruise ourselves into our home first-aid kits or worse, the emergency room. It's the risk we take every day doing the things we do.

Fortunately, the majority of the time we easily heal with an ache, lingering bruise, or maybe even a scar to remind us of our mishap.

Unfortunately, we also live in a world where some people choose to inflict pain and injury on others. Be it a gang fight, drunken brawl, or violent spouse, people hurt each other, and it happens every day.
This phenomenon does not discriminate by gender, skin color, or socioeconomic status. For this reason, rarely does a work-day go by that a crime scene investigator is not called upon to take injury photographs.

Injury photographs are often the most powerful evidence used to convict the people who perpetrate these crimes. Wounds heal, memories fade, stories change, but good photographs accompany the jury into the deliberation room.

The key to excellent injury photography breaks down to two things: proper lighting and good depth of field. Come to think of it, these two things play a major role in most, if not all photographs, ...but I digress.

Lets discuss the order in which to take your photographs and how to light them. First, always identify your subject. A three-quarter vertical shot of your subject with the case number, your initials, the date, and your subject's name tells the viewer the "who" and "what" they need to know. (The "why" may be a bit more difficult to ascertain.) For this photograph, using your flash on-camera will do fine.

Your next photo should be a mid-range shot showing what area of the body the injury is located. On-camera flash will generally work here as well.

Lastly, move in for close-ups that will document the details of the wound. Taking a series of photographs in this order allows the viewer to follow the overall, mid-range, close-up style of crime scene photography. In this case, think of it as: "Here is the injured person, here is their arm with the injury, and here is the injury itself."

The close-up photographs are where you need to change your lighting technique. Where on-camera flash will do the job for your overalls and most mid-range shots, you will get much better close-ups by using off-camera flash. Getting your flash off the top of your camera will allow you to properly light the wound from the best possible angle. This can be done by using an off-camera sync cable and hand-holding your flash unit, but using one of the many camera/flash brackets available makes the job easier and gives you more control. Also consider using a wireless flash sync to free you from the sometimes annoying and often in the way cable dangling between your camera and flash. Sticking with equipment that is the same brand (or compatible) as your camera and flash will allow them to properly communicate and fully function with each other.

Use a scale for your mid-range and close-ups. Hold the scale close to, but not touching the injured area. Keep the scale as close to the same plane as the wound and as near 90 degrees to your camera as possible to minimize distortion. Using a small scale that allows you to hand write your case information, name, and date will help you to later identify a close-up photograph as yours.

Remember, this is not portraiture. Our goal is not beauty but good detailed documentation. No need, or time for that matter, to set up your light stands and shoot-through umbrellas. Save them for that promotion portrait or a shot of that Medal of Honor winner. That said, our injured subjects can quite often be very shiny and modifying the light coming from the flash a bit can help keep those nasty little reflections to a minimum. A diffusion dome over the flash head works quite well without making the light too soft.

Depth of field can be defined as the closest item in your photograph in sharp focus to the furthest item in sharp focus. When is comes to crime scene photographs, we usually want plenty of it.

One of the negative by-products of shooting close-ups, including injury photographs, is the closer we get to our subject, the less depth of field we have. Therefore, we must increase our depth of field by shooting with small aperture openings.

The aperture is located in the lens on your camera. It functions like the iris in your eye, opening and closing to control the amount of light coming through the lens. Aperture openings are represented as f/stops on your camera, i.e. f/4, f/5.6, f/8 etc. The camera's LCD will often show the f/stop selected as f8 or just 8. The larger the f/stop number, the smaller the aperture opening of your lens. The smaller the aperture opening of your lens, the more depth of field. Without getting into to much detail within the confines of this tutorial, remember this: a bigger f/stop number will give you bigger, or more, depth of field. (More depth of field details to come in future tutorials.)

We want our injury photographs to be as in-focus, or sharp, as possible, so select a larger f/stop number. Depending on just how close you are to the subject f16, f22, f32 should do the trick. Don't worry about using such a small aperture opening. Your flash can put out more then enough light at these close distances.

Last but not least, be sure to carefully focus on the injury. If your auto-focus is having trouble, switch to manual and critically focus on the wound.

With a little practice, these techniques will become second nature and should help you produce excellent and consistent injury photographs.


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  2. Great post! Love it! Wish the other sites could be this in-depth! All in All great! Most informative!