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10 crime scene photography must-haves besides a camera
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#1. A Sturdy Tripod: Since much of our work happens at night, a tripod is a must. Without a stable place to put your camera, nighttime photography with its long exposure times would be virtually impossible. Not just any tripod will do however. One needs a tripod that will not sway in the breeze or shake at the approach of an oncoming vehicle. Flimsy bargain tripods need not apply. A good tripod can also be used to fend off aggressive dogs or raccoons. Stranger things have happened. - photo by Paul Rimmasch
As an 18-year veteran crime scene investigator, I had already been working in the field for several years when the first CSI television show made its debut.

Since that time, I have often been asked how the shows compare to reality. My typical response: the CSI shows are basically science fiction. They bear as much resemblance to the state of modern forensic science as Starfleet's Star Trek universe bears on NASA's reality.

Primarily, the show overemphasizes techniques and technologies that have little effect on day-to-day fieldwork and de-emphasizes the basics. One of the basics Hollywood neglects is crime scene photography. Oh, sure, TV producers may show a camera at work during a musical montage sequence or to add texture to a scene, but photographys importance is basically ignored.

In reality, photography is one of the most crucial activities at a crime scene. For starters, photography is critical for documenting evidence that will be analyzed by experts at a later time, such as latent fingerprints and blood spatter.

Equally as important is the fact that crime scene photographs are the main way an eventual jury understands the crime scene. Without good photographs, the jurys difficult job of rendering judgment would be even more challenging.

In no particular order of importance, here are 10 must-have tools for every crime scene photographer, besides a great camera.

1. A sturdy tripod. Since much of our work happens at night, a tripod is a must. Without a stable place to put a camera, nighttime photography with its long exposure times would be virtually impossible. Not any tripod will do, however. One needs a tripod that will not sway in the breeze or shake at the approach of an oncoming vehicle. Flimsy bargain tripods need not apply. A good tripod can also be used to fend off aggressive dogs or raccoons. Stranger things have happened.

2. Number markers. Those little yellow markers displaying numbers or letters seen in the background of TV crime shows are not just cinematic eye candy, but are also one of the most crucial tools in your kit. These markers offer a link between the scene photos, the scene notes, the sketch and the evidence reports. The number or letter on a piece of evidence with a marker stays with it for a long time. Markers are also critical in being able to distinguish similar items, such as shell casings in the road, from another in the photographs.

3. Lasers. OK, I admit it, as a child who grew up watching "Star Trek," I always wanted a laser. Now I have one, and I get paid to use it. Beyond the sheer geekiness of it all, lasers are an indispensable tool for documenting a shooting scene photographically. It allows the photographer to illustrate where the projectile came from as well as where it went. And did I mention that its a laser?

4. Canned smoke. I know it sounds like something youd use at a barbecue, but for forensic photographers, its something different. Canned smoke is portable, theatrical fog produced by smoke machines used in the theater or on Halloween. Its used to make the entire beam of a laser visible for the photograph and is very convenient.

5. Rulers. Scale is very important in crime scene photography, especially when the photos are of items that will be analyzed later, such as impression evidence. If a photographer doesnt have a proper ruler in his or her photograph of a tire track, for example, he or she might as well not take the picture.

6. Umbrella. Inclement weather is always a possibility when working a scene, and a good umbrella is a must. Its not for the photographer, however -- its for the camera. Skin is waterproof; a camera isnt.

7. Flashlight. Dont leave home without a good flashlight. A powerful light not only helps you focus your camera on a dark road, but it also allows you to do painting with light and other specialized nighttime photography techniques. A flashlight has its uses during the day as well, such as oblique lighting for the photography of fingerprints.

8. Practice. As the saying goes, Practice makes perfect. You dont want your first-ever photograph of a shoeprint in the snow to be when that shoeprint is the only evidence you have in a homicide.

9. Notebook. While the metadata captured by a digital camera limits the necessity of writing down information such as the shutter speed and aperture of a given photograph, the camera cannot tell you what you are taking a picture of or why. Good notes are always a must.

10. Convenience store nachos. For reasons I cant explain, convenience store nachos become a sublime culinary experience after 2 a.m. What do nachos have to do with taking good crime scene photographs? Well, high-performance machines need fuel, dont they?

Looming in the background of this list, of course, is education and training. Back in the day, if you wanted to work as a crime scene photographer, you had to be a police officer first, and then work your way into your desired specialty assignment.

While this dynamic may still exist in some places, it is much more common now for jobs such as crime scene investigator and/or photographer to be a civilian position that requires a four-year degree.

So if you are interested in the field of crime scene photography, and thus experiencing nachos as they were meant to be experienced, check out your local universities and see which ones have degrees in forensic science and photography.
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