Evidence Photography

Oct 22, 2011 by

By Bill Sommers

Here you are, at the scene of an accident, autopsy, or you are at an insurance vehicle storage yard, and you have with you, your camera. You are going to take pictures of the evidence that lies before you. Why? Why are you going to take photos of the evidence at hand?

Every peace officer, accident investigator, reconstructionist, insurance adjuster, or other person with an interest at stake takes pictures of the vehicle, or injuries to persons. The reasons fall into two main categories. These reasons are, generally, (1) preservation of evidence; (2) telling a story.

Evidence is very transitory. Skid marks fade, deceased persons are buried, wounds heal, cars are repaired or junked, weather and light conditions change, roads are repaved or widened. The reasons go on and on.

Let us confine our focus to vehicles and people, and not scenes. Each item of evidence, as we mentioned before, has its own do’s, and don’ts, so let us start with vehicles.

Since cars and trucks are either repaired or disposed of after an accident, we must get to the vehicle in a timely manner, and examine and photograph it in its damaged condition.

Part of this photographic process is understanding what you are trying to show with your pictures. This means understanding what is important to your case, be it a particular theory, or proving an infraction of law. Remember, too, your photographs may very possibly wind up in court and you will be identified as the photographer. Someone will try to attack your work, and no one wants to be embarrassed by deficiencies that could be avoided.

Always approach your case with an open mind, not one with any agenda. Remember, not all clients and insureds will give you an honest scenario as to what happened. Remember, too, police reports are not always correct or accurate.

Photographing the vehicle:

The first thing to do is to identify the vehicle. Photograph the VIN plaque (on the dashboard) and/or sticker (on the driver’s door edge), and write any numbers you may have assigned to the case on a piece of painter’s tape (no residue left behind) placed on the vehicle’s surface. This last item not only identifies the case, but it helps you at the office, when it is time to separate photos from case “A” from those of case “B” or others. Somehow all photos look alike when they get dropped on the floor or arrive from the processor in a big envelope.

Start with the basic “Eight around-the-clock”.  Generally speaking an exposure from the 12 o’clock, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10 o’clock positions will best show depths of intrusion and wrinkling of metal surfaces.   Isolate any damage you may find and then move in for close-up shots at different angles. Remember, we are telling a story, (the second reason we are taking pictures).

Let us say that we found that the brake reservoir was empty. We would take a picture of the front of the car, and then a picture of the front with the hood open. We would take a picture of the interior of the engine compartment that shows the components housed there with the brake reservoir centered. We would take a close-up picture of the reservoir with the lid in place, and then a couple from different angles showing the empty reservoir, with the lid off. We have just taken the viewers of our pictures and led them by the hand to the evidence we wanted them to see. A close-up photo of a streak or dent in a door panel looks like a dozen other places on the car. By taking a series of photos of the area, and finally getting to the close view we wanted in the first place, we have eliminated any confusion that may later arise.

Plan each of your pictures. Is my reflection going to be in the photo? Is glare from the flash going to bounce back into the scene? Does a photo of a car in a lot look like a pole or tree is growing out of the top of the car? Try to envision what your photo is going to show. Single lens reflex cameras are the best for photo composition. You can plan every part of your photo because what you see in the lens is what you will get. If you are photographing an interior, and you must shoot through glass, be sure to position yourself at an angle so that your own reflections are not included in your picture.

Oftentimes we must shoot the brake, or gas pedal of the car. Sometimes we find evidence which may be deposited on the floor or on interior surfaces. Use a flash fill. Even today’s forgiving digital cameras can benefit from a little help from a flash fill to expose the details of an otherwise dark corner.

One way to isolate a particular part of a damaged area from the rest of the scene is to use “selective focus”. A good single lens reflex camera should have a method by which you can control the camera’s f-stops. A large lens opening (small number on the f-scale) will give a very shallow focus, and will throw items in the foreground, and in the background, out of focus. This allows you to clearly point out what you want your trier of fact to see, but with out damaging the scene.

When taking photographs, be sure to include a scale. “Pocket Rods”© have scale markings in two colors, red on one side, black on the other. This allows you to find a color that will contrast with whatever is in the background, and will offer some scale to the picture.

A word of caution when photographing vehicle interiors must be said. S.A.E. Paper, # 960898, points out that investigators “often work in an environment where there is disease potential”. The presence of Blood Borne Pathogens or BBP’s presents a whole new set of dangers to people who work around wrecked vehicles. Just a few BBP’s that lurk out there are HIV, Hepatitis B virus, and Hepatitis C. The first two can kill you, and the last one can make you so sick you feel like dying. Watch for sharp edges. Work gloves, surgical gloves, and safety glasses should be part of your camera kit.

Get good photos of SRS (air bags) systems. GEI worked a case where the air bags deployed. When the reconstructionist closely examined the car, he found that the air bags had been cut from their installed positions in an effort to bolster the claim of a hard frontal impact. Photos of the cuts taken with a magnification factor of ten clearly proved the investigator’s report. The entire case had been one of insurance fraud.

Photograph seat positions. How far was the seat back in its tracks? How high, and how far back were the head rests? Was the seatback bent? Was the seatback lying down? Were there deposits on the seat surfaces? Remember our old friend flash fill, as it may be needed when picturing the seat track mechanism, or other darkly lit parts of the seats.

What about seat belts? Are they deployed and jammed? Photograph them in whatever condition you find them. Are there stria on the plastic “D” ring insert? How about the plastic insert on the male portion of the latch? Ten power photos of the belts can show fiber tearing, fiber cutting, plastic burning, stria, and melted plastic deposits on the belt surface. You may want to use a handheld or remote flash to shoot evidence such as this, as a grazing light is often very useful when trying to highlight small deposits and stria. You may want to look for transfers of the occupant’s clothing to the seat belt. This is a clue to belt use that should be photographed.

Examine and photograph the windshield. If it is not damaged, one or two pictures should be enough. What if there are defects on the glass caused by the crash? Did the air bag cause a break in the glass? Was the glass broken because something like a passenger’s head hit it? Did the glass break due to frame flex? All of these produce a different kind of glass fracture, and should be photographed from several angles. There are times when hair or skin is deposited in or on the windshield glass. Again, general photos showing where the defect is, and progressively closer views until you get to a 10X view of the hair or skin. These photos may be very valuable in determining the seating positions (who was driving?) of the car’s occupants.

Try to get the exterior view of the vehicle at a point that is level with the part you are photographing. There is also a powerful tool that is used to show damage, forces, and what part of the car actually got hit. That tool is the overhead view. Sometimes you can stand on the roof of a car next to the one you are shooting, if you are in a junk yard, or storage yard. It may be of value to rent a “cherry picker” type piece of equipment to position yourself over wrecked cars. The author has, at the actual scene of a crash, used fire department ladders to get an overhead view. Helicopters are often used to get general overhead views of a complete scene. Such views soften curves in the roadway by showing what the actual configuration of the roadway is, and they are beneficial to public agencies that may be sued for a roadway having a dangerous curve.

Photographs of personal injuries:

General views of the affected part of the person should be taken after a view is taken that identifies the person being photographed. Close-up views, with, and without flash should be taken and close-up views should include some measuring scale.

Whether the photographed person is deceased or living, private areas of the body should, if at all possible, be covered to preserve personal dignity.

A day or two post-event will often give better photos as the bruising (ecchymosis) is developed by then, and it offers contrast. The same is true for photographing deceased persons as post mortem lividity is usually set in by then. Always keep in mind what the purpose is for taking the photographs. Keep in mind that you are going to tell a trier of fact a story, whether the story is about a piece that is damaged on a car, or an injury to a person. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words cannot be more accurate. How would you explain a light blue paint transfer on top of a blue paint finish that is only a shade or two different? How would you get the full extent of a severe impact to the side of a car to a jury or arbitrator? You do it by showing accurate, well-exposed, and well-planned photos of the items you wish to be considered.

Here are some questions you should be prepared to answer:

How long have you been so employed ?
What is your training or experience?
To whom are your services available?
How are you paid? When were you retained for, or assigned to this case?
What were you requested to do?
Did you take the photographs you brought today yourself?
Where and when were they taken?
Do they accurately represent the scene, and/or evidence as you saw it the day of the photographs?
How and when were they processed?
Is this processing method your normal routine? If not, why is it different?
Once the film or storage chip is processed, how is it stored?
Who has access to the photographs and/or storage media/negatives?
Are the photos, and/or negatives/storage media kept in a locked and secure place? Have these prints, negatives, and/or storage media been altered in any way?
Are these photos, prints, negatives, and/or storage media a true and accurate representation of the evidence you are testifying on today?

In Summary:

With a good camera, a good idea of what it is you wish to convey to a person looking at your photos, and a good plan, you can tell the story in a convincing manner. Don’t clutter the photos with too much information. The point you are trying to make will be lost. Too many photos are a much better choice than too few.

A good quality 10 megapixel digital camera will allow you to “zoom” into a scene, and extract some hidden or small point that is contained within the picture. The author has often found little overlooked gems of evidence after he has gotten home, expanded a 10 meg image on the computer screen, and examined the photos with a critical eye.

Good shooting!!

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