No light? No problem.

Photographing crime scenes in poor lighting situations

     Darkness descends upon the earth. A cold, lifeless body lies on the ground amidst a field of evidence beckoning to give up the secrets of what had occurred only several hours ago. A knight dressed in blue stands at the edge of the abyss, as a cool breeze blows in the nighttime air. A chill runs down his spine as he contemplates what he is about to undertake …

     Could this be an excerpt from a best-selling suspense novel? More likely this describes the feeling many novice, and even veteran, crime scene photographers experience when faced with the prospect of shooting a crime scene in total darkness or very low-light situations. Although low-light and nighttime crime scenes can be challenging to even the most seasoned crime scene photographer, with the proper equipment, a little training and a good dose of practice, documenting night scenes can become almost as routine as capturing scenes with ample lighting.

Essential equipment

     With the proper equipment, any crime scene photographer can take nighttime photos that look as if they were shot during the day, and remove pesky shadows to make even the darkest items appear as though they were photographed in a studio.

     The following is a list of essential equipment for low-light and nighttime photography:

  • 35mm or digital SLR camera with a hot shoe
  • Flashlight
  • Flash unit with fresh and spare batteries or rechargeable battery pack
  • Off-camera flash cable
  • Remote shutter release cord
  • Tripod
  • Fill flash

     Many times items of evidence are found under a car, tree or other obstruction that casts shadows over the evidence and causes the photo to appear underexposed. The fill-flash technique helps photograph items obscured by shadows. When using this method, the flash mounts to the camera via the off-camera cord. This allows the photographer to aim the flash in the direction of the evidence. When the flash fires, the light it produces removes the shadow and illuminates the item.

     When using this technique for items under a car, the photographer will take a midrange photo from a natural perspective using a 50mm lens focal length. A flashlight can be used to illuminate the evidence for lens focusing purposes. After focusing the lens, the photographer should aim the flash in the direction of the item being photographed. If the item being photographed lies in the shadow of a tree or other obstruction, and the photographer cannot position himself with the sun to his front, a fill flash technique can be used to remove the shadow cast by his body or the obstruction. The photographer simply focuses the lens and holds the flash above him or level with the camera aiming at the item. Any shadows will be eliminated when the flash fires.

Oblique lighting

     Oblique lighting, sometimes referred to as cross lighting, is another useful tool. Prior to entering a crime scene or area where evidence is located, the crime scene photographer should get on his hands and knees and shine a flashlight perpendicular to the floor. Using this technique, oblique lighting may yield trace evidence that may not be seen from a standing position.

     This same technique is also useful in crime scene photography, particularly regarding written documents in suicide cases, prescription fraud, forgery and check fraud cases. When a person writes on the top page of a tablet of paper, the writing indents on subsequent pages of the notepad. In suicide cases where a victim is found in a location with a single-page note nearby, questions may arise as to who wrote the note or where the note was written. If the notepad can be located, investigators can check for indented writing on the remaining pages to determine where the note was written and possibly, through handwriting analysis, if the victim wrote the note. Photographers can use oblique lighting to help document this impression evidence as well as tire and shoe impressions and patent (plastic) fingerprints.

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