Forensic Photography

Forensic Photography – Documenting a crime with light

Forensic photography has evolved as a crucial method to visually document a crime scene for records and investigation. And if your mind is leading you to think of it as a cool and intriguing profession, then hold on! This kind of photography isn’t charming, it isn’t about capturing the picturesque. Forensic photography would often be about capturing the goriest and most macabre of events. This photography is not to satiate one’s hobby or passion. Such photographers always have a specific purpose for capturing each image.

Forensic photography, also known as crime scene photography is the creation of visual records of accidents, crime scenes and the like for measurement, analysis, investigations and as a permissible evidence in the court of law. It is defined as the activity that documents the original appearance of the incident scene along with the available physical evidence.

The start and evolution of Forensic Photography

1843-44 was when photographic documentation of prison inmates first took place in Belgium and later in Denmark in 1851. These pictures which were often taken by amateurs and sometimes even prison officials or policemen were not governed by any scientific or technical parameters.

Eventually, this practice spread to other countries and professional photographers started capturing the posed portraits of the perpetrators. There was yet no application of any standardization or other parameters to render such photos apt for serious forensic evaluation. Gradually, with the increase in the number of crimes and criminals, the organization and archiving of such photographs became a real challenge. It was only later that this problem caught the fancy of a clerk-turned-criminologist – Alphonse Bertillon.

Alphonse Bertillon – The man who revolutionized Forensic Photography

Speaking of the history of forensic photography, his is a name which is quintessential. He is credited as the man behind the globally accepted forensic photography standard of the mug shot. Although criminal photography had begun as early as the 1840s, it was only in 1888 that a basis for standardizing such photographs was developed by Bertillon. He realized that unless such crime scene photographs were standardized against the same lighting, angle, and scale, they would be nothing but mere pieces of art!

He replaced the traditional methods of criminal photography by introducing the concept of the anthropological study of profiles and identification of criminals using full-face shots. His judicial photography journal – La Photographie Judiciaire – was a breakthrough for forensic photographers. It provided the rules for scientifically performing identification photography. He emphasized on parameters such as proper lighting when filming a suspect as well capturing the full face and the profile of the subject with the ear visible.

“Every contact leaves a trace” – Dr. Edmond Locard

Dr. Edmond Locard pioneered the principle that a perpetrator will always bring something to the crime scene and leave while taking something from it. This forms the basis of Locard’s Exchange Principle which holds a crime scene in high regard as a fundamental source of physical evidence. Locard was a firm believer of the fact that even in the absence of a human witness, traces of physical evidence which are bound to be left at a crime scene act as a silent witness against the perpetrator. Forensic or crime scene photographers thus shoulder the critical responsibility of recording the initial condition of a crime scene along with all its physical evidence.

Following is a list of the critical pieces of evidence that are sought and photographed at a crime scene.

  • Chemical Evidence – This includes any evidence that has the presence of distinguishable chemicals in it.
  • Trace Evidence – This includes evidence which are so small and obscure that they can be easily overlooked.
  • Biological Evidence – This includes any evidence belonging to a living entity (plants, pathogens, bodily fluids etc.).
  • Patterned Evidence – This includes any such evidence which shows a predictable pattern.

Every crime scene essentially witnesses the following three levels of activity.

First response: The first responders in an incident scene are usually the ones who work on reflex to save lives or catch the suspect(s). This makes it highly likely for the physical evidence to get unintentionally lost, altered or damaged at this stage. It is thus imperative for a crime scene investigator to get first-hand information from the first responders to understand if any alteration or damage to the initial condition of the crime scene has occurred prior to the arrival of the investigator. Forensic photographers also come under the category of first responders. They are thus required to nimbly capture the original condition of the crime scene without any tampering/loss of evidence.

Securing the crime scene: Locard’s Principle cites the crime scene as a significant piece of physical evidence. Thus, securing the crime scene is of absolute importance in order to avoid any tampering or loss of evidence. Tampering with the crime scene can significantly alter the attempts to render justice to the victim.

An initial survey of the scene: This is where the crime scene investigator comes into the picture. First, the discernable physical evidence are documented. Any transient evidence (such as freshness and color of bloodstains) or temporary pieces of evidence (such as footwear impressions on melting snow) should be immediately preserved and documented.

Basics of Forensic Photography

The three elements that are compulsorily taken into consideration in forensic photography are – subject, scale, and a reference object. Crime scene photography is no child’s play. Such photographers bear the onus of representing a crime scene in the exact way how it appears originally. They need to ensure that the subject is properly focused and that there is no alteration of the color which may mislead the investigators or juror. Additionally, photographs need to be clicked keeping a scale or ruler next to the focus object. This enables investigators to resize the image in order to precisely reconstruct the scene.

And then there are overall photographs and medium-range photographs. Whereas an overall photograph is meant to provide a complete summary of the incident scene such as the position of evidence and original condition of the scene, a medium-range photograph aims to document the appearance of the object in question. Care must be taken by the forensic photographer to adjust the lighting and other photographic parameters in a way that the photograph is an accurate representation of what is visible to the naked eye.


Documenting a forensic or crime scene photograph in a photo log is of prime importance. Responding officers are required to diligently document the time and date of the photograph along with other relevant comments. Care must be taken to maintain such logs within an incident report or a case file as they are a crucial part of the inspection record.

Use of Flash

Forensic photographers should be really mindful of the use of external flash. While external flash can be very useful for the proper documentation of an evidence, care must be taken to avoid flash reflections. This requires photographers to take the direction/angle of the flash and the subject’s position into careful consideration. Flash reflections can be avoided by either removing it from the camera body or by bouncing it off the ceiling.

Digital Photography

Modern day cameras offer the photographer a plethora of options to ensure proper lighting and focus on the subject. The three main parameters to adjust these are – ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. A forensic photographer needs to have a strong hold over the proper combinations of all three parameters in order to ensure that the photograph is an exact representation of the crime scene in its original state. For instance, a higher ISO enables photographers to capture subjects in low light conditions. However, a high ISO also leads to higher possibilities of camera noise which can cause visual distortion. Similarly, whereas a slow shutter speed enables the capturing of a clearer and brighter image, it would not do any justice to a moving subject which requires a higher shutter speed setting. Thus, forensic photographers are required to not only be skilled at understanding forensic principles but also the principles of photography.

What does it require to be a Forensic Photographer?

For starters, grit, mental toughness, emotional stability and the commitment towards duty’s call at any time of the day! It demands immense mental resilience and requires forensic photographers to be emotionally numb. Forensic photography could involve taking thousands of photographs over hours, sometimes even jeopardize the photographer’s life or health. While it can be emotionally distressing, forensic photographers have a vital role to play in the criminal justice system.

They are required to capture the incident scene and all available evidence in minute details. This includes overview photographs as well precise images of fingerprints, footprints, tire marks, bullet holes, blood spatter, and all other unique evidence. They are expected to work in challenging and sometimes unpleasant conditions to capture images of assaults, injuries and dead bodies, while also ensuring that neither the evidence nor the work of other investigators is disturbed.

Incognito Forensic Foundation (IFF Lab) – A premier private Forensic Lab in India

Incognito Forensic Foundation (IFF Lab) is a premier private forensic lab in India – headquartered in Chennai and having an office in Bangalore. In the league of private forensic labs in India, IFF Lab is a class apart. Empowered with forensic experts catering to multiple forensic domains and a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory, it strives to create new standards in the criminal justice system.

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