We are all familiar with the work of the Forensic Photographer through detective shows such as CSI. While it may not always be quite as glamorous as depicted on TV, forensic photography is still a fascinating area of work suitable to highly organised photographers who combine excellent technical skills with a methodical and meticulous working practice. While it is the job of many other photographers to interpret a brief, it is the job of the Forensic Photographer to produce accurate, detailed photographs that faithfully record the location and evidence as clearly and as objectively as possible.
Forensic photographs are used for measurement or analysis, to accompany forensic reports, articles or research papers. Forensic Photography is an integral part of criminal investigation procedures employed by police and security forces throughout the world. Photographers must therefore follow a standard methodology and produce images of a rigorous technical standard so that they can be used as evidence in hearings, tribunals and court proceedings. Since the subject matter often relates to accident, injury or criminal investigations, Forensic Photographers will be expected to be able to work efficiently in distressing and challenging environments, without disturbing other evidence or interfering with the work of other investigators.
What is the job?
Forensic Photographers produce a permanent visual record of the scenes of accidents and crime scenes for use as evidence in court. They must be able to produce detailed recordings of all the available evidence at the scene, including overview photographs as well as accurate images of tire marks, fingerprints, footprints, blood spatters, bullet holes and other unique evidence at the scene. They must also be able to take detailed photographs of injuries sustained through accidents or assaults and may also be required to photograph dead bodies. Much of the work is routine, but photographing crime scenes and road traffic accidents, or visiting patients in hospital, can be emotionally distressing.
Many Forensic Photographers are forensic scientists employed directly by the police or a specialist forensic services company. They work pre-defined shifts and enjoy the benefits of a salaried post. There are also other independent Forensic Photographers who provide forensic photo imaging services to lawyers, insurance companies and some police forces. However, most of these will have worked as Forensic Photographers with a police force or the Forensic Science Service before branching out on their own. Photographers specialising in forensic imaging are usually expected to work unsociable shifts, and be part of an on-call rota.
Typical career routes
While most Lead Photographers in Forensic Photography Units will usually have a strong background and qualification in photography, most Forensic Photographers start as Crime Scene Investigators or Scene of Crime Officers (SOCOs) before specialising in photography and forensic imaging. While it is not necessary to have a formal photographic education in order to gain work as a CSI, some photographic qualification (e.g. BTEC National Diploma in Photography) or previous photographic experience will often enhance the chances of selection.
Once working as a CSI, officers usually receive general training in crime scene photography at Centrex, the Central Police Training and Development Authority or on an approved University short course. Further specialist training in Fingerprints, Footwear, Lighting and Documents is often conducted in house by the Forensic Science Service and other forensic service companies.
Most forensic scientists in the United Kingdom are currently employed by the Forensic Science Service (in England and Wales), by specific police forces (in Scotland), and by regional government (in Northern Ireland). They are also employed by private companies which also specialise in providing primary forensic science services to the police such as Forensic Alliance Limited and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist. Aside from these, there are a number of other organisations which focus on specific areas of forensic science such as fire investigation, questioned documents, and advising the armed forces and the ministry of defence.
Forensic Photographers providing services to the insurance industry and legal profession will often have a background as CSI or as a photographer working within the armed forces (see Job Profile for Staff Photographer) where they have received their training in Forensic Photography, before branching out into independent work.
Vacancies for Forensic Photographers are advertised in the national press and in specialist journals such as New Scientist, Police Review and the British Journal of Photography.
Essential knowledge and skills
Forensic Photographers need a thorough grasp of photographic principles, particularly those involving non-standard techniques, such as high-intensity and low level aerial imaging, as well as an appreciation of the importance of their work. They must also pay close attention to detail, and take a meticulous approach to image and data recording. They must be able to select and use the best equipment and techniques for the job in all environments and lighting conditions. Photographs must be correctly lit and exposed, have maximum depth of field, be free from distortion and be in sharp focus. Experience of digital imaging techniques is also desirable.
Forensic Photographers need a good grounding in police methods and conventions, and a sound understanding of anatomy. They must be able to methodically record the original scene and the initial appearance of physical evidence without the photograph appealing to the emotions of the jury or in anyway prejudicing the case. They must also keep detailed records of exactly where photographs were taken, the type of camera and lenses, what stock the picture was taken on, and whether flash or artificial lights were used.
This work requires a dedication and care which is not always necessary in other, less objective, forms of photography. The role also requires tact and discretion when dealing with distressed victims of crime, and the ability to interact with a wide variety of professionals including police officers, doctors, lawyers and court officials.
There are National Occupational Standards (NOS) for Photo Imaging. These give a detailed breakdown of the knowledge, awareness and skills needed to effectively carry out a particular job role. The NOS relevant to this job are listed at the end of this profile.
Training and qualifications
Forensic Photographers usually receive general training in crime scene photography once they have already been selected as a Crime Scene Investigator or a Scene of Crime Officer. The qualifications necessary to gain work as a CSI or SOCO are usually at least good passes at GCSE or Standard Grade, including English and either science (Biology/Chemistry) or Maths, and at least one A level or Higher in a science subject.
A typical route to employment a Forensic Photographer is to complete a recognised course in photography (e.g. City & Guilds or BTEC National Diploma in Photography) and to apply for jobs with police forces or specialist forensic service companies, taking advantage of subsequent on the job training. Larger police forces, such as the Greater Manchester and the Metropolitan, employ dedicated forensic photography units to work alongside CSIs (Crime Scene Investigators). In smaller forces CSIs cover their own forensic photography requirements after an intensive training course in forensic photography, which is often conducted at Centrex, the Central Police Training and Development Authority centre.
There are also some specialist courses that deal with forensic photography and forensic imaging, as well as photo imaging modules on forensic science degree courses. More specialised training in Fingerprints, Footwear, Vehicle Examination, Lighting and Documents is often conducted within the photographic units of the police forces or forensic science companies. Some employers may also support work-based courses, such as NVQ/SVQs.
Employers may support work-based qualifications, such as Apprenticeships and NVQ/SVQs. Photo Imaging NVQ/SVQs are currently available at levels 2, 3 and 4.
Health & Safety - All photographers need to understand Health & Safety legislation, and should be capable of assessing and managing the risks and potential dangers associated with the use of electrical lighting, equipment and props. Forensic Photographers may be subject to physical stresses from carrying heavy camera equipment and lighting, indoors and out, in all seasons and all environmental conditions. They should therefore seek advice about appropriate techniques for lifting and moving equipment. There may also be a range of other risks specific to their area of work and they should seek suitable training in appropriate risk management procedures and best practice.
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