Copyright held by The John Cooke Fraud Report. Reprint rights are granted with attribution to The John Cooke Fraud Report with a link to this website.
By Bob Gentile
In looking at the basics of fire scene photography, the following question must be answered first, “Why photograph a fire scene, anyway?”
Once an on-scene determination of origin and cause has been made, an investigator may consider his work done. However, if the investigator is later asked to testify in a criminal or civil case as a result of the fire, clear and comprehensive fire scene photographs will assist in recalling the fire scene and help to substantiate the findings.
Actual photographs are an accurate representation of the fire scene, and they are a record of events and conditions both during and after the fire.They provide visual documentation of the investigator’s observations and investigative procedures. Most importantly, fire scene photographs provide an objective basis for the investigator’s professional opinion. The investigator’s determination of who, what, when, where, why and how is backed up with proof provided by careful on-scene photographs.
Photographs are particularly valuable when there is a significant period of time between the investigation and the investigator’s testimony in court. They can provide an opportunity to revisit the scene and refresh the memory as part of the preparation for the trial.
Also, fire scene photographs are an excellent tool in training firefighters in preserving the scene for investigators. Photographs from actual case studies can help effectively teach firefighters what to look for, what to do and what not to do. Any investigator who has tried to conduct a fire scene examination after the fire crew had effectively shoveled all of the contents out of the window and washed down the floor, can appreciate the need to educate firefighters on the importance of fire scene preservation. Photographs can help drive this point home.
Hopefully, by now you’re sold on the need to carefully photograph your fire scenes and are wondering what you need to get the job done.
Let’s start with the camera.
The camera itself should be fairly simple to operate, but above all, it must be rugged, reliable and easy to handle. When purchasing a camera for your needs, optical quality should be considered first – over any other options that the camera may have.
An out-of-focus photograph is of no use to anyone. Auto-focus cameras have come a long way in the past few years. The early auto-focus designs did not function well in dark, damp and humid atmospheres. Their focusing mechanisms were unable to find a focal point, and the camera would either keep moving the lens in and out trying to focus or lock out and not allow the shutter to operate. Now, with the use of infrared and ultra-sonic systems, the problem has been resolved.
Experience has proven that a 35mm single lens reflex is the best camera for the task. This provides “through the lens” viewing. For the most part, what you see in the viewfinder is what you will see in your picture. There may be a slight difference, and it varies from camera to camera. Only experience with your particular equipment will provide that information. As with any new piece of equipment, you should practice before using it on an actual fire scene.
Finally, for optimal efficiency, the camera should be capable of using auxiliary lenses. If you are using a fixed-focus camera, a zoom lens function is preferable. These cameras are referred to as point-and-shoots. Although this type of camera can do the job, it is not advisable. Certain investigative reference material actually addresses this aspect of these cameras, and you would be well advised to consult with your specific operational procedures to see where your department stands.
In dealing with lenses, a little thought can save you a lot of expense. A 50mm lens may be sufficient for detail and to assist in depicting distances, but shots such as the sides of a building or a vehicle may require something with a wider field of view. In such a situation, a 35mm or 28mm lens is needed, but then you have to add lenses for close-up work and telephoto lenses for specific distance photos.
The list goes on and on – until your camera case weighs more than your tool box and is twice the size. Have faith. There is an alternative.
If you have a little time and some money to spend, you might look into multi-focal lenses. These lenses allow you the luxury of changing from one field of view to another without changing individual lenses.
One example would be a 28 to 80mm lens. This lens covers the wide angle needed for getting an entire room or building, then can be zoomed in to handle any detail or close-up work that needs to be addressed.
To complete your lens package, an 80 to 210mm should be able to meet any needed telephoto requirements. By utilizing multi-focal lenses, you can cut down on the amount of equipment that must be purchased, carried and maintained. Some of these lenses are also equipped with a “macro” setting that allows for extreme close-up photography.
One rule that should be followed religiously is: No lens goes on your camera unless it has a filter on it. Failure to follow this one simple rule could be the most expensive mistake you make. Once the optics of a lens are damaged, the lens is useless, and it must be repaired or replaced.
Filters come in many types, such as skylight, ultraviolet, polarizing and clear glass. The small expense involved in putting filters on your lens can save you the expense of having to replace the lens that is damaged from a piece of debris from the scene.
The next consideration should be what type of artificial light to use. There are two ways to go here. The first is portable lighting. Although this option provides more than adequate light, the units are bulky, expensive and need AC power that might not always be available. The other option is portable flash units. They are compact, inexpensive and operate from batteries. Many camera manufacturers produce flash units for their specific model of camera.
When you purchase your camera, a knowledgeable salesperson can assist you in selecting a proper flash. There are some important facts you should consider when purchasing your flash unit. First and foremost, verify the flash is compatible with the camera you will be using. A flash unit that does not properly operate with your camera is useless. Secondly, purchase a flash that does not need to be permanently mounted on top of the camera.
The flash should also be able to provide light from different angles. There are times when direct light from the flash unit is not appropriate and can actually produce an improper photograph. Therefore, it is important to have a flash unit that allows the operator to control the amount of light the unit gives off with each exposure.
The final consideration when purchasing a flash unit is the power source. There are many options available. Most professional units will operate off batteries or battery packs. Battery packs, although more expensive that regular batteries, provide for longer operation, and the packs usually are rechargeable. You should select the options that meet your needs as well as your budget.
Once the equipment is purchased, the next step is to understand how the equipment works. The best time to do this is before you use the equipment on a fire scene. (It may sound unbelievable, but I have taught several classes on basic photography, and I have had students arrive with elaborate camera equipment … and no idea how to load the film.)
There are too many cameras with too many options to cover all of them here. Two of the best ways to understand how your camera equipment works are: (1) To read the manuals that come with the equipment and (2) go out and use the camera.
The best method is to run a few rolls of film through the camera, noting what you did. Make note of the shutter speed and flash settings and compare the results. Another option is formal training. Many camera shops, as well as local community colleges, offer basic photography programs that allow you to make use of your personal equipment.
The selection of film plays an important part in the end result of your photographs. As most people are aware, film is available in many speeds – ranging from 25 to over 1000.
Film speed deals with the amount of light needed to produce an image on the film. The larger the film speed or A.S.A. number (200, 400, 1000), the less light needed to expose the film. As a rule, 200 or 400 speed film is used in photographing fire scenes, although slower film can be used if proper lighting is employed. You must be aware that the faster the film, the more grain will be visible on your photograph. This grainy appearance is caused by the larger grains of light sensitive chemicals on the film. Faster speed film requires larger grains to absorb the lower light and still produce an image. This grain also becomes more visible the larger a photograph is enlarged. If you feel that you will be requiring large reproductions of your photographs, you might want to consider shooting a slower film.
Finally, you will need some type of case to hold all of this newly-purchased equipment. There are many on the market that will suit your needs. You should remember that any case you buy should be large enough to handle all of the equipment you have and leave adequate space for any new equipment you purchase, spare batteries and spare film, Armed with this information, you should be well on your way to taking clear and concise fire scene photographs.
Before closing, the use of video and digital cameras should be addressed. Although there have been many agencies that have made use of video cameras to videotape a fire scene, their use in court is still somewhat limited. Photographs can be enlarged to provide more detail of a scene, whereas video cannot.
There have been several occasions where comments on the audio track of a video tape have proven detrimental to the investigation. Remember, just like the photographs, video tapes are evidence and any editing (such as removing the audio track) can be considered evidence tampering. These are just a few reasons why video tape is extremely limited in its use for documentation of a fire scene. The use of digital cameras has been discouraged in the past. The main reason was digital photographs (or images as they are referred to) are easily altered with no record of the original image. The result was rightfully questioned as to whether they were true and accurate representations of the fire scene with no hard evidence to support these claims.
New technologies now exist that have corrected this problem, and the use of digital cameras is becoming more commonplace. As digital cameras improve and provide more options for lenses and auxiliary flash units, their use in fire scene photography will increase.
In summary, your equipment should:
% Have a good optical quality.
% Have multi-focal lenses with filters.
% Be easy to use.
% Have auxiliary lights or flash units.
% Be practiced with before it is used on a fire scene.
Using these basic guidelines will assist you in obtaining good quality photographs of your fire scene.
Robert Gentile is an investigator with Investigative Resources Global, Inc. in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He can be reached at 704-341-0105.
© Copyright 1999 Alikim Media