Picture perfect

     It has always amazed me that in close proximity to most police academies lies police supply distributors. This is not a coincidence. We all know an academy graduate (me), who upon completion of training hit the police supply store and purchased the latest and greatest in policing and crime scene processing equipment, 10 colors of latent powder in both standard and magnetic, five different types of latent brushes in several sizes, every type of fingerprint lifter known to mankind, both clear and frosted tape in multiple sizes along with white and black pre-printed latent backing cards. We may not have known what we were doing, but we sure looked good doing it.

     After a couple of years we get smarter, ditching everything but the basic black powder, a good fiberglass or feather duster, and plain 3-inch by 5-inch cards. We got rid of all the other stuff that made us look like we knew what we were doing to make room for the equipment we needed and used daily.

     The same is true of new crime scene photographers. I, for one, am like a kid in a candy store when I go into the local camera shop. But even for me, coveting was replaced by practicality over time.

     With all the equipment available, deciding what is absolutely essential on the job can be confusing to the novice, and even seasoned, photographer. But like the appliance repairman who needs the correct tools to fix an appliance during the first repair call, the crime scene photographer needs the right gear to get the job done right at the crime scene, where there may not be a second chance. The following article suggests basic equipment for the crime scene photographer and showcases a couple "nice to have" items as well.

     Because budgetary constraints are at the forefront of all law enforcement manager's minds, this article presents how to assemble a basic photographer's toolkit at either end of the budget spectrum. The article covers official "crime scene photography" equipment as well as inexpensive do-it-yourself products that will save time and money.

Bags and tripods

     First and foremost in the photographer's arsenal of equipment must be a good camera bag or case. The photographer should not skimp on a carrying case for an expensive camera, lenses and flash. Some photographers opt for a hard-sided camera case with customizable foam inserts or a less expensive soft-sided padded camera bag. Whichever style you choose make sure the case or bag adequately protects the equipment. For other photography tools, a gadget bag from camera or electronics stores will do the trick. If cost is an issue, a padded, insulated, partition-able lunch box works just fine.

     As any good crime scene photographer knows, a high-quality, sturdy tripod is essential equipment that must be readily available at the crime scene. Tripods are necessary when photographing impression evidence, blood spatter or when camera shutter speed falls below 1/60th of a second. Just as the photographer should not skimp on camera bag quality, he should invest in a high quality, sturdy tripod. For crime scene work the tripod must have a head or center shaft that can be mounted upside down. Another good feature to look for is a mount shoe that can be detached from the tripod head, mount to the camera bottom and remount to the head. Digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras are particularly heavy so a tripod with a heavy-duty head should be obtained. I find tripods with metal quick-release latches, as opposed to twist-type friction locks, on the legs are more user friendly and durable.

Lens care and lenses

     Any photographer worth his salt will have basic lens care products in his bag. Today's 35mm and digital SLR camera lenses have a protective coating on them but cleaning the lens and shutter mirror is still occasionally required. A soft bristled lens air brush, lens cloth and liquid lens cleaner solution is a must in any photographer's toolkit. A lens maintenance kit can be purchased at camera shops and department stores for just a few dollars. Replacement tissues are available at just about any optical or drug store. Some photographers use small personal packs of facial tissues but I have found these leave small tissue fibers on the lens that are next to impossible to remove. Replacement lens cleaning fluid is also available anywhere eyeglasses are sold.

     Regarding lens cleaning, one drop of lens cleaner will suffice. Forego cotton swabs, as they will scratch the lens' protective coating. For all lenses, I recommend the use of a ultra-violet (UV) polarized or anti-haze filter. These filters protect the lens, are easily replaceable if scratched, and eliminate pesky glare and sun spots.

     If using a fixed focal length lens, then a set of magnifications rings are must. Magnification rings screw onto the end of the lens and can be used with existing filters. When using a filter make sure the magnification rings are sized for the filter as opposed to the lens. These rings are used for close-up or macro photography and can be combined for various magnifications.

Flash and lighting tools

     Every photographer's toolkit should include several flash and lighting tools. The first device, considered an absolute must, is an off-camera cord that mounts to the camera's hot shoe at one end and the flash shoe at the other. An off-camera cord allows the photographer to direct the flash where needed when using oblique or fill flash techniques and is required when photographing shoe and tire impressions.

     The next item to include is a flash diffuser, which is used to reduce flash output when photographing highly reflective items such as jewelry. All camera shops sell clip-on flash diffusers. These devices are usually flash-model specific and have a fixed opacity that may not provide adequate flash diffusion. One solution for flash diffusion is a 12-inch by 12-inch piece of white cotton cloth and a rubber band. The photographer controls the amount of flash diffusion by folding the cloth over on itself, multiple times if needed, and securing it to the flash head with a rubber band. I cut my cloth from the back of worn out white T-shirts. Another source of white cotton cloths, usually under $10 for six or so would be white cotton polishing cloths available where automotive care products are sold.

     Another handy item is non-reflective backing to place items for close-up photos. My preferred backings are blue surgical towels. Multiple blue surgical towels come in a single package. Once the package is opened, the unused towels are no longer sterile and are disposed of. Befriending a surgeon or surgical assistant can unearth an endless supply of these nifty little items. Blue shop towels, available from auto parts stores, also work. Make sure these towels are new and unused, not gently used and cleaned cloths, which may have oils or solvents embedded in the fibers.

     A diffusion dome comes in handy when photographing reflective evidence. These pricey little items are found in the photography section of most crime scene product catalogues. Diffusion domes allow the photographer to place the camera lens in an opening at the top of the dome and put the flash against the side to diffuse and bounce the flash when the photo is taken. The MacGuyver solution to the expensive dome is at hand, using a discarded plastic milk or orange juice jug. Simply cut the bottom off the jug and cut a hole in the top large enough for the lens to pass through to create a low-cost diffusion dome. Any type of white or frosted plastic container will work, but be sure to test the opacity to make sure light will pass through it. This can be done by placing a small flashlight against the side and seeing how much light shines through.

     Perhaps the most important item to include is two to three extra boxes of flash batteries. Not only will it save time but regularly replacing flash batteries keeps the flash unit operating at optimal efficiency. Keep in mind, alkaline batteries deteriorate during extreme changes in temperature, so rotate these batteries frequently if the kit is stored in the squad car trunk.

Little things to complete the kit

     It's often said little things mean a lot. This is true of the items that complete the basic crime scene photographer's toolkit.

     To photograph shoe and tire impressions, blood spatter, in low-light conditions, or to paint with light, the photographer needs a shutter-release cable or cord. For older manual 35mm SLR cameras, the shutter-release cable is a mechanical plunger-type cable, with a lock nut on or near the shutter-release plunger button, that screws onto the top of the camera's shutter-release button. Automatic 35mm SLR film and digital SLR cameras use a shutter-release cord that mounts to an electronic connector on the camera body. Both the cable and cord can be had at most local camera shops, online or by special order at electronics stores selling 35mm film SLR and digital SLR cameras.

     One of the required little things is a good set of rulers. Not the type teachers once used to rap unruly students across the knuckles, but 3- and 6-inch evidence rulers. These little jewels come in an assortment of colors including white, black, gray, orange and hot pink. Unless I am shooting with an alternate light source, I prefer a gray ruler. Evidence rulers have a standard and metric measure, and when used in close-up photography they provide a perspective of the evidence's size. Photographs containing evidence rulers also permit the photo to be accurately enlarged to a 1:1 ratio, or life size.

     Many crime scene evidence supply companies offer pre-printed evidence labels that also incorporate a ruler. These little cards, typically a one-time use item, are neat but not very cost effective. A ½-inch wide roll of smooth, weatherproof first aid tape solves the labeling problem quickly and cost efficiently. Simply tear or cut off a 1- to 2-inch strip of tape, apply it to a 6-inch evidence ruler, below the measurement markings, and label the tape with the item number, case number, date and photographer's initials for evidence identification.

     Another handy and useful item to toss in is a couple rolls of two-sided tape. Two-sided tape secures an evidence ruler to vertical or overhead surfaces and can hold the ruler in place during windy conditions. Any crime scene photographer who's had to photograph blood spatter or bullet holes in a wall or ceiling will attest to the usefulness of two-sided tape.

     Crime scene photographers using manual 35mm SLR cameras must tuck in an extra camera battery as well. There is nothing worse than having the camera battery die at 2 a.m. half way through a crime scene shoot. On the same note it also would be a good idea to include both an AC and DC charging cord in the kit if the camera uses rechargeable batteries.

     Because criminals don't check the weather forecast before committing their crimes, a rain cover and lens hood for the camera and lens is in order to prevent fatal moisture damage. Good quality rain covers and lens hoods are available at camera shops and photographic supply stores. If caught off guard, a 1-gallon freezer bag with a lens hole cut out works in a pinch to protect the camera but provides little or no protection for the lens.

     Finally include several Sharpie or similar-type weatherproof markers in both medium and fine tip in the kit. These markers are indispensable when it comes to labeling evidence bags and the tape used on evidence rulers. One evidence tech I know keeps an assortment of Sharpie Mini markers on similar colored lanyards around his neck. He uses a different color marker for each room he photographs and processes.

The not so basics

     If budget constraints are not an issue, there are an array of gadgets and gizmos designed to simplify the crime scene or evidence photographer's job. The following items also could be included in the ultimate photographer's toolkit.

     A Quantum or similar type rechargeable battery pack will operate a flash unit for days, so to speak. This device could be included in the must have items if the photographer does a lot of flash photography. One caution when using these battery power packs, be sure to allow the flash to adequately cool during multiple flashes. I have found that if not careful these powerhouses will melt a flash unit in a New York minute.

     An adjustable output ring flash, which mounts to the front of a lens, is extremely useful when photographing bite marks, dental work or in nearly any other close-up photography. An adjustable output ring flash, while costly, between $450 and $700, is worth its weight in gold.

     Two or three extra flash units capable of operating in the master/slave mode are extremely useful for painting with light and other nighttime photography. While actual flash units with master/slave capability run between $300 and $500 each, there are several dedicated slave flash units on the market for around $50 each.

     For those using digital SLR cameras, a dual battery attachment is a worthwhile investment. The dual battery attachment mounts to the camera bottom and looks like an auto winder. These attachments come complete with their own shutter-release button and flash controls, which are particularly useful when holding the camera in portrait position. Two batteries are used which doubles the camera's time of use. Some of these dual battery attachments have an optional AC power adapter allowing the user to plug the camera into a wall outlet for unlimited shooting time.

     A set of stand-up evidence markers prove their worth at scenes with multiple items of evidence scattered about, such as a scene with multiple shell casings scattered about. These markers come in kits with numbers 1 through 50 and/or A through Z. Markers bearing numbers above 50 and alphabetical markers AA through ZZ are also available from crime scene and evidence collection product suppliers. Some of these markers even have a flat area in front of the number or letter with an "L" shaped cut out incorporating a evidence ruler.

     The last item to include in the ultimate crime scene photographer's toolkit would be a set of blood spatter rulers. These rulers, which typically come in pairs in a hard plastic carrying case, are approximately 3 feet long and are used for photographically documenting scenes containing blood spatter. These tools are also available from crime scene and evidence collection product suppliers. While 3-foot yard sticks, available at the local hardware store, will do, the photographer provides a more professional appearance with official blood spatter photographic documentation scales.

     Photography equipment is expensive. In a perfect world, the crime scene photographer would have it all, but today's law enforcers must keep a watchful eye on expenses. Keeping cost down requires scrapping the "kid in a candy store" mentality and replacing it with practicality.

     Troy Lyons is a 17-year veteran with the York County/City of Poquoson Sheriff's Office, where he spent three years in the patrol division before being promoted to the Investigations Division. He worked as a criminal investigator for 10 years before being promoted to lieutenant supervising the Investigations Division. Lyons served as the agency's primary crime scene tech for seven years, processing and photographing hundreds of crime scenes with both film and digital SLR cameras. As a state-certified general law enforcement instructor, Lyons regularly teaches crime scene processing and scene photography. He may be reached at lyonst@yorkcounty.gov