Investigations | Section 2.1

Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation by Adam J. McKee

Section 2.1: Crime Scene Photography

A series of poorly planned, poorly executed, and poorly displayed photographs have the potential to directly affect the success of other facets of the crime scene investigation. Therefore, crime scene photography is a major component of the entire investigation process.  The most basic purpose of crime scene photography is to create a visual record of the crime scene, which ideally includes all pertinent features. In other words, the pictures should tell the “story” of the crime scene; they should recreate the scene in the mind’s eye of the finder of facts.  In keeping with this purpose, it is important that the scene is recorded (as much as reasonably possible) before it is disturbed. Good crime scene photography depicts the original, uncontaminated features of the scene.

Completeness is of critical importance.  In days gone by, the cost of the film was a factor in deciding what to photograph and how many photographs to take.  Training manuals stated that this factor should be placed as a secondary consideration after completeness. In the modern era of digital photography, there is no excuse for insufficient photographic documentation.  

If a potential photograph has the slightest possibility of being useful later in the investigation, take it. Always remember that crime scenes are tricky and your initial theories about what is important may later prove incorrect.  When your theory of what happened at a particular scene is reevaluated, what at first glance seemed inconsequential may become critically important to the investigation.

Crime scene photography will utilize overall (long-range), medium (mid-range), and close-up coverage.  That is, the compilation of photographs will progress from the very general to the very specific. These ideas should be applied to the crime scene as a whole, as well as to each individual segment of the crime scene.  

Thus, a long-range photograph of a large building would constitute an overall or long-range shot, as would a photograph of a long hallway leading to the particular room within that building where a crime took place. In other words, the meaning of the various range descriptors used in crime scene photography is fluid, and the exact meaning will depend on the nature of the overall scene as well as the particular segments of that scene that are important to recreating the story of what happened there. The use of the term “segments” suggests that crimes generally happen in multiple steps, and each step should be considered and photographed separately.  

Long-range photographs should provide the viewer with an overall impression of the scene as if they were viewing it from a standing position.  In other words, it should record as accurately as possible what the first responder saw when she first arrived at the scene. This is usually best accomplished by taking photographs from eye level.  The camera should be a sufficient distance from the scene to capture as much of the area of interest as possible in a single photograph.

Mid-range photographs are usually taken from a range of ten to twenty feet from the subject matter.  The range is dictated by what the photographer is trying to accomplish: The mid-range photographs should establish the location of the subject matter within the larger crime scene.  Thus, enough of the area surrounding the subject matter must be included to achieve this effect.

Close-up photographs are usually taken within five feet of the subject matter.  The purpose of close-up photographs is to provide details about items of interest that were not readily apparent in the mid-range and long-range photographs.  

Each item of evidence to be collected should be photographed twice:  Once without measurement scales and evidence identifiers, and again with those investigative tools present.  The photographs taken with measurement scales present are critical in facilitating the recreation of size and spatial relationships.  The photographs without scales are “uncluttered,” and may be demanded by the court.

Many investigators find it valuable to include the vantage point of each photograph within the sketch of the scene.  In this way, disputes about camera angles that arise in court can easily be sorted out. Some authors recommend attaching such a sketch to each photograph with the camera location clearly marked in colored ink on that sketch.  

The question of what exactly to photograph can be answered by keeping several facets of the investigative process in mind.  Photographs must answer questions about the location of the crime, the nature of the crime, the results of the crime, the evidence existing at the scene, and follow-up tasks that are not directly related to the crime scene.  

The location of the crime photographs should depict the overall crime scene, placing points of entry, potential exit points, and specific areas of interest within an overall picture.  Aerial photographs, exterior pictures of buildings, and the like are examples of this idea. Extend this idea into a dwelling or other building to place rooms in relation to each other, such as the progress of a crime from a living room, down a hall, and into a bedroom.  

The nature of the crime photographs should provide information to the investigator as to what type of crime occurred.  They should also differentiate between types of crimes as well as differentiate between crimes and acts that are not actually crimes.  For instance, investigators are often called upon to determine if a death was the result of homicide or suicide. Pictures that show the trajectory of bullets and the nature of the wound will be vital in this determination.

The results of the crime may be simple and straightforward or they may have several elements.  For example, in a rape case, the rape may have been preceded by a breaking and entering, an assault, vandalism, and myriad other acts by the perpetrator.  The photographs must present the results of each of these acts in a logical progression that recreates the sequence of events that occurred during the commission of the crimes.

The physical evidence of the crime is arguably the most important series of photographs that the investigator will take.  These are necessary to facilitate the connection between the evidence, the accused, and the crime scene in court.

The follow-up photographs can be considered an extension of the crime scene investigation.  Autopsy photos and photographs of bruising on living victims are common examples of this type of forensic photography.  In addition, victims, suspects, witnesses, crowds, and vehicles should be photographed.

The need to photographically document additional perspectives should be considered.  The perspectives of witnesses may be useful in court. Aerial photographs may be useful, especially with large, outdoor crime scenes.  The area under a body should always be photographed once the body is moved.

A shoebox full of photographs is obviously not useful in court.  The courtroom presentation of crime scene photographs must be organized and logical.  Items of evidence must be related to photographs. To accomplish these organizational and relational goals, it is critical that investigators keep a log of all photographs taken at a crime scene.  The log should contain a complete record of the record of all photographic efforts at the crime scene.

To be admissible in court, photographic evidence must meet four legal standards:  It must provide accurate representations, it must be free of distortion, it must be material and relevant, and it must be unbiased.    In addition, the photographs must follow what has been informally called the maggot rule. The idea is that the probative value of the photograph must outweigh its prejudicial effect against the defendant.  If a particular photograph depicts the gruesome nature of the scene and is likely to “excite” the viewer, it may be thrown out by the court on the grounds that the prejudicial effects of such a photograph outweigh its value as a source of truth.

Photographing the Deceased

Before the body of a deceased person is moved, it should be photographed. The following guidelines should be followed: Take photographs from all possible angles. Show a facial view, and the positions of the hands and feet when possible to do so without altering the body, its clothing or position. Wound photography should be conducted at close-up range. Take photographs while moving around the body and from an overhead perspective.

Photograph the body from two perspectives, when possible: As though looking at the body from a standing position From the same level as the body is lying, such as at ground level when the body is lying on the ground Use oblique lighting to show wounds on the body, such as bite marks, with and without a scale. After the deceased has been removed from the scene, photograph the area where the body was. Signs of activity can include:

  • TV and room lights turned on
  • A glass holding a cold beverage (ice melting or still frozen) and a plate with fresh food on it
  • Scattered clothing, magazines, or other objects
  • A landline phone that was in use and is making a loud notification sound
  • Misplaced furniture, as with a tipped stool beside a body
  • Cigarettes, lit or remains piled in an ashtray
  • Tool marks in an unusual location or near entry/exit
  • Shoeprints and/or fingerprints
  • Drug paraphernalia

Include the time that photographing was begun and completed in the notes. Remove the film or download the digital images and store in a secure location according to departmental regulations.

Photographing Impression Evidence

Tire Impressions: For tire impressions, take a series of overlapping photographs showing the tire’s entire circumference.

Impressions on Glass: When the impression is on glass and when possible: Protect latent prints Position a colored card or piece of cloth that contrasts with the impression behind the glass Include in notes that this approach was used for contrast purposes to obtain the photograph

Impressions on a Mirror: When the impression is on a mirror, hold the flash to the side (oblique lighting); use a tripod to avoid being in the photograph.

Dust Impressions: When photographing a dust impression or an impression in a soft material (e.g., wax or putty), use reflective lighting (also known as oblique lighting). When using reflective lighting, if a detail does not appear sufficiently, block the ambient light and then experiment with positioning the light or flash in other locations until the desired result is achieved.

Impressions on a Porous Surface: When the impression is on a porous surface, position the light or flash wherever the best results or contrast can be achieved, such as at a 90-degree angle from the impression. Photograph bloodstains or other bodily fluid stains using color film or digital camera. Carefully place the camera plane perpendicular to the plane of the stain and ruler. Stay alert to the location of the bloodstains, so equipment isn’t inadvertently touched to the stain. It is extremely important that the ruler be on the same plane as the impression. If the stain is on a wall, use an adhesive label with a ruler on it. Otherwise, tape a ruler beside the stain, or have an assistant hold the ruler beside the stain. Indicate upward direction. Ensure that the camera lens is perpendicular (90 degrees) to the subject. Adjust lighting when photographing the stain to obtain the best contrast and result. When the stain is on glass, position a colored card or piece of cloth that contrasts with the stain behind the glass, making sure to protect latent prints; include in the notes that this approach was used for contrast purposes to obtain the photograph. When the stain is on a mirror, hold the flash off to the side (oblique lighting) and use a tripod to avoid being in the photograph. The camera will show in the photograph when the mirror is 90 degrees from the lens.

Close Up Photography Techniques

If not using a digital camera, photograph wounds using color film.  Carefully place the camera perpendicular relative to the wounds to obtain accurate measurements.  Photograph the body of a deceased person before moving it and also photograph it at the morgue. Include scales where appropriate.  Adjust lighting when photographing the wounds to obtain the best contrast and result.

Take multiple shots with the light held or placed at different angles to the subject in order to achieve the best results. Retake photographs of wounds such as bruises at different intervals to capture changes, such as in color, over several days.  Photograph serial numbers on weapons or VIN numbers on vehicles: Carefully place the ruler, camera and placard relative to the item to obtain accurately scaled photographs. Place placard and ruler on the same plane as the weapon.

It is extremely important when the photo needs to be accurately scaled, that the ruler is on the same plane as the subject. The camera lens should be perpendicular (90 degrees) to the subject.  Position the lighting to obtain the best possible contrast and results. Take multiple shots with the light held or placed at different angles to the subject in order to achieve the best results. Photograph vehicular damaged areas, the license plate and the registration decal. Include the time that photographing was begun and completed in the notes. Remove the film or download the digital images and store in a secure location according to departmental regulations.

Aerial Photography

Take aerial and/or overhead photographs of a scene to show geographic relationships of locations or objects and aid identification of objects shown in other photographs.  Obtain aerial photographs by taking the pictures from a helicopter or plane. News footage can sometimes be a useful source of aerial photographs. Overhead photographs, in this context, are taken from above the scene, such as from a ladder, a second story, a cherry picker; they are not taken from the sky, as from a plane.  Aerial and overhead photographs must be overlapping. Remove the film or download the digital images and store in a secure location according to departmental regulations.


Today, investigators often choose to use video recordings as a useful supplement to still photography.

Plan the video shoot carefully.  Take a video of the scene in its original state from multiple angles and distances.  Take a video of fragile evidence first. Avoid disturbing the scene. Always take a video of the scene before and after alteration, such as when placards and scales are placed near evidence. Exclude officers, bystanders, and others at a scene from the video. Turn audio off. Take overall (long-range) video to show where the crime occurred, midrange video to show relationships of evidence and other points of interest, and close-up video to show individual items and their characteristics.

Use a sturdy tripod whenever possible to reduce movement while taking video. Take video from angles that result in the best representation of that scene. Avoid panning side to side or up and down. Avoid zooming while out of focus. Always use the designated safe route when moving through the scene. When applicable, include the names of those assigned to specific tasks in your notebook. Plan the videography route. Take a video of transient objects, such as bloodstains or latent prints, as soon as possible. Move from the exterior to the interior of the crime scene, and from general to specific focus. The videography session should occur in an uninterrupted, systematic, focused manner. When planning the route, ask: How did the victim or suspect arrive at or leave from the scene? How was the crime committed? Which items were handled? Which items were moved? Which items are broken or stained? Have potentially flammable vapors been detected at the scene?

Go beyond boundary markers to take video only when necessary. Plan and prepare lighting for each scene and camera angle. Front lighting places the camera lens at a 90-degree angle to the recorded object. It is often the most appropriate type of lighting to use at crime scenes. Side lighting places the lighting source at a 45-degree angle to an object. It is used: to show details such as tool marks, surface irregularities or textures to show vehicle accident damage when videotaping in closets or other small spaces when videotaping polished surfaces Control the use of lighting by manually changing the focus settings and turning on/off flash settings. It is important to have a detachable flash or, if the flash is not detachable, another light source. Turn audio off.

Record overall video of the house/building exterior, vehicles, other structures at the crime scene, including entrances and exits, and bystanders. Slowly pan in one directional sweep; never move the camera side to side or up and down. The overall video should include a 360-degree view of the entire scene including landmarks, entrances and exits, and identifying marks, such as a house number or license plate. Always use slow camera movements such as when panning and zooming. Use a tripod whenever possible, unless using it will disturb either the scene or other team members. When recording a long, narrow area, such as a side yard or train tracks, use a tripod and slow zooming.

Always avoid walking while taping these shots Record entry/exit points from all possible angles. Show any paths used during the crime, when possible. While taking a video of a scene, record related information in notes. Specify any changes made to a scene while taking video, such as when a light was turned on or the tripod left a mark. Film midrange and close-up exterior video (within 5 feet of the subject) immediately following the overall recording of a scene. Record in a systematic, focused way.

When recording video, use slow camera movements such as when panning and zooming. Before zooming, stop filming, zoom, focus, then start the filming. Use the tripod whenever possible. When recording a long, narrow area, such as a side yard or train tracks, use a tripod and slow zooming unless using it will disturb either the scene or other team members. Always avoid walking while recording a long, narrow area.

A high camera angle, such as with an overhead view, may be required to show individual objects that are on similar planes. Record entry/exit points from all possible angles. Show any paths used during the crime. Move to the interior and take overall, midrange, and close-up video. When recording interiors: Always use slow camera movements such as when panning and zooming. Use a tripod whenever possible, even though it takes more time to set up, unless using it will disturb either the scene or other team members.

When recording overall video in tight spaces, such as a closet or bathroom, use a high camera angle from a corner. When recording a long, narrow area, such as a hallway or porch, use a tripod and slow zooming. Always avoid walking while recording these shots. When necessary and possible, use artificial lighting to get the best possible clarity.

Consider using a blue filter over artificial light to achieve similar lighting as daylight. Complete note-taking. Include in the notes such items as events that occurred while recording and the time recording was completed. Remove the videotape from the camera or download the digital video before storing the camera in a secure location according to departmental regulations. Summary: A well-documented scene ensures the integrity of the investigation and provides a permanent record for later evaluation.

References and Further Reading

Bureau of Justice Assistance. (2014).  Video Evidence.  Available:

National Institute of Justice. (2013).  Technical Advances in the Visual Documentation of Crime Scenes.  Available:

Modification History

File Created:  05/02/2019

Last Modified:  04/30/2021

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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