Forensic Photography: Not for the Faint of Heart

forensic photographyIn the world of crime scene investigation, everything must be documented down to the very last detail. Shows like CSI and Law & Order have glorified the role of a forensic photographer, but the reality of the job is not as wonderful as these shows make it out to be. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to photograph crime scenes. You’ll need a strong stomach, a level head and the ability to remove yourself emotionally from the crime scenes. You’ll photograph a lot of horrifying images as well as a lot of banal details. If you’re thinking about becoming a forensic photographer, you should know what you’re getting yourself into with the criminology world.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the world of forensic photography and see what these people really do – not what the television shows tell you they do. You may be surprised what you find out!

What Does a Forensic Photographer Do?

You’re the guy (or gal) lugging around all of the camera equipment at the crime scene. But you’re not on the sidelines snapping journalistic images – you’re right in the middle of it all. Every blood spatter, every piece of hair, every broken window pane; your job is to document every little detail. It’s important that you have both an eye for detail and a technological grasp of photography. Since your images are going to be the ones that police and courts use to determine exactly what happened and what the motive was, there’s a lot of pressure to capture every detail perfectly.

You’ll need to have taken a handful of photography courses and have a strong grasp on lighting, exposure and composition. You may be required to photograph crime scenes in the middle of the night, in old, musty basements or during a bad storm. Because of this, you’ll need to have a handful of lenses, tripods and external lights in your arsenal that you can whip out at any time. You’ll need to have a lens that will capture an entire wide scene, and you’ll need to have a lens that can get up close and personal to capture every little speck of dust.

Artistic photographers beware: it is not your job to make the crime scene aesthetically pleasing as you are not an artist in this job. Your job is to know camera techniques well enough that you can produce accurate images of the scene – not create your own beautiful images. You’ll need to have more than just a minor grasp of photographic techniques. Not only will you be using traditional film and digital cameras, but you may also be required to use infrared or ultraviolet cameras to pick up on evidence that the naked eye cannot see.

It’s Not All Fun and Games

You’ll need to take general pictures of the entire crime scene, but that’s not all. Depending on the type of crime, you’ll need to photograph severely injured subjects, written notes, blood spatter, tire marks, footprints, bullet holes, broken objects and more. When photographing all of these details, you’ll need to ensure that you’re not getting in the way of policemen, detectives, scientists or anyone else involved in the case. You’ll need to be sure that you don’t touch anything, which may make setting up equipment particularly difficult in some situations. Anything you move even slightly can disturb important evidence, so you’ll need to figure out ways of documenting the scene without any disturbance.

Once you have the images, your job isn’t over. You’ll need to create charts, mount or frame finished photographs, perform minor color and exposure corrections on digital images and process and scan film if you’re not using a digital camera. You’ll need to keep careful documentation of exactly when and where each photograph was taken, which requires strong organizational skills. Since you’ll likely be presenting your images in court, you’ll need to also have great public speaking and persuasion skills.

Qualifications and Salary

Due to the rise of budget cuts, many forensic photographers are hired from within the system. This means that photographing the crime scene may not be your only duty. You’ll need to have a strong understanding of how to take accurate photographs, but you may also need a background in forensic science. Because of this, it’s important to either get a degree in this field or take a lot of classes that help prepare you for this role. In addition to taking the photographs, you may also need to gather fingerprints, operate microscopes or work directly with forensic scientists in a crime lab. Most forensic photographers specialize in one particular area – whether it be working for a hospital or the police force – so the qualifications differ depending on what you’d like to specialize in.

The salary also differs depending on how long you have held your position, whether you are just a photographer or perform other duties as well, what you specialize in and what city you work in. The average salary for a forensic photographer is around $29,000 annually, but this salary can span from $16,000 up to $63,000.

Are You up for the Challenge?

The hours can be long and grueling, and you may be required to be on call at all hours of the night. Since crimes can happen at all hours of the night, you may never know when you’ll be required to be on the job. In some cases you may be the only person at the crime scene, which can be traumatizing to the wrong type of person. While many people can numb themselves to these emotions after photographing enough crime scenes, others can be permanently scarred. If you have a love for photography, a desire to help solve crimes and a strong stomach, this may be the perfect job for you.

If you want to hone in on your photographic skills and start preparing yourself for the unpredictable world of forensic photography, Udemy has a great course that will teach you everything you need to know about your new DSLR.