Digital labs for a photo finish
Mark Newth of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Lab is one of three forensic photographers who handles photo processing for the state police's 1,200 troopers. "Their film is our highest priority," says Newth.
For major crimes such as homicides, primary images are photographed with film and backed-up with a digital camera. A few years ago, those secondary images were made with either slide film or Polaroids. "We still shoot mostly film," states Newth, "but we have digital input now."
Newth and his team process film and images for the entire department, producing approximately 1,000 to 1,500 images per day. His team also archives negatives and CDs and generates reprints for the courts. Attorneys can order case-related images from the department's Reports and Records division.
The lab's standard production size is 3 1/2 inches by 5 inches, but its Noritsu QSS-3211 also produces images up to 12 inches by 36 inches which, Newth notes, "a lot of state attorneys like to use for court presentations." The machine also makes index prints in any size. "We're making 8-inch-by-12-inch index prints that many troopers say is all they need for their reports," explains Newth. "I no longer have to make them a set of pictures for minor cases. They simply file away the index print, and if (the case) goes to court and pictures are needed, they can order them down the road."
This is the lab's third Noritsu machine. Its first minilab, purchased in 1992, was a Noritsu 1501 that is no longer in use. In 1998, the lab added a Noritsu 2211. "The 2211 was a workhorse that kept up with our demand," says Newth, "but it couldn't take digital input, which we started to get a lot of. All we could do with those images was put them in our PCs and try to burn CDs or print inkjet and dye-sub prints. It took forever and it wasn't cost efficient."
The Noritsu QSS-3211 creates a marriage between the digital and film worlds for the agency. "With this machine, we can now take almost any digital input and simultaneously produce prints and CDs at high volume," Newth says.
Before the minilabs were added, the lab used tabletop processors that were a bit slow, creating backlogs in returning images to officers. Now officers get their images back within a calendar month. "This may seem a bit slow, but it's probably faster than they'd like," laughs Newth, "because once they get them back, they have to do their photo reports."
He notes faster turnaround times are possible when necessary. "Photo processing is only one of our many responsibilities, which is why we have a one-month turnaround," he says. "But if someone needs something back in a hurry, we can push it through quickly."
The department also purchased three Noritsu CT-2 kiosks for the three major crime squads in the state. These systems allow the department's major crimes unit to shoot digitally and electronically submit photos to the lab. Officials simply remove the cards from the camera, insert them into these units and send in the pictures. Doing this reduces processing time by two to three weeks from the time a homicide scene occurs to the time images are delivered to the state attorney's office.
The Baltimore (Maryland) Police Department also is finding utility in digital processing labs. Its photo staff, which includes supervisor Bob Smith, and photographers Helen Younkins, Roman Hankewycz and Richard Steelman, has a small army of Noritsu minilabs at its disposal — the QSS-2301, QSS-3213 and dDP-621. The units are used for a variety of tasks including printing, scanning and copying. "We loaded Adobe Photoshop into the QSS-3213 so we can scale and clarify fingerprints, shoe prints and tire impressions," says Hankewycz. "The built-in scale really helps a lot."
The department once printed old black-and-white negatives using an enlarger. But with the QSS-3213 officials scan things on a flatbed scanner and drop the images into Photoshop. The system also allows them to create enlargements up to 12 inches by 36 inches without returning to the darkroom.
The machine also helps correct "human errors." "We get a lot of crime scene images that are under- and/or overexposed," admits Hankewycz. "The QSS-3213 does a great job of handling those kinds of negatives. It does a lot of things we couldn't do by hand on a custom enlarger or any other machine."
The lab still uses both the Noritsu 2301 and dDP-621 on a regular basis, though mainly as backups to the QSS-3213. "We can't afford to be without photographic services for any extended period of time," Hankewycz explains.
The Baltimore PD's photo lab has experienced staffing cuts over the past 25 years, but the Noritsu equipment has helped the unit accomplish more with fewer employees. "(The machine) has really sped up the work," Smith says, "and that's what we need here since there are only four of us and the workload has increased."
Next year, the photo lab will be ASCLD (American Society of Crime Lab Directors) certified, and the lab's staff credits its Noritsu minilabs for helping them achieve that status.