Exploring the History of Crime Scene Still and Video Photography

by Elizabeth Hall
A good photograph is tantamount to stopping the clock.
-unknown (quoted on page 35 in Chapter 3 (fire investigation) of the book "Forensic Engineering" by Kenneth L. Carper (CRC Press 1998))
When we look at crime scene investigation as a whole, Osterburg & Ward (2007) define the process as both the collection and interpretation of evidence and information for identification, apprehension, and apprehension of criminals and the process of reconstructing past events.  The invention of photography equipment and the technological advances that followed in the decades after contri
Black and white print of a Peter Mark Roget po...
Black and white print of a Peter Mark Roget portrait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
bute immensely in the criminal investigator’s tool bag.  A picture of a crime scene serves to preserve every aspect of the scene providing a clock stopping assessment of the original scene, complete with measurements, stains, and any other evidence that will be preserved in those images for decades to come.  In this article we will explore the history of forensic photography both in still picture form and video from the first methods of crime scene photography to the benefits we enjoy today of complete digital photography and video capabilities.
First Methods of Crime Scene Photography
The roots of modern crime scene photography, also known as forensic imaging, are credited with the camera obscura, the first camera also known as a pinhole camera, notes Robinson, (2010).  Three additions were necessary to make this equipment functional for actual photography; the lens, which was contributed by Girolamo Cardano, was the first.  The second was in the form of curved mirrors allowing the camera image to appear upright comes from Giovanni Battista Della Porta in 1558.  A third addition, the diaphragm added in 1568 is credited to have originated with Daniele Barbaro (Robinson, 2010).  

Important Developmental Stages in the Technology
From the simple obscura camera, the important developmental stage in the evolution of crime scene photography was in 1614, when a man named Angelo Sala notices that the light of the sun c
English: Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) G...
English: Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) German Scientist Deutsch: Johann_Heinrich_Schulze Nederlands: Johann Heinrich Schulze, of Schultz, (12 mei 1687 – 10 oktober 1744) was een Duits professor en Uomo universale uit Colbitz gelegen in het Hertogdom Maagdenburg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
auses silver nitrate to turn black (Robinson, 2010).  This was not useful until later when Johann Heinrich Schulze also researched silver salts and noted that sunlight turns them black.  The first person to use the term photography was Jean Hellot who used the technology to muse over secret writings.  By 1777, another man, Carl William Scheele advanced the silver salt theories by using silver chloride to blacken by light, then applying ammonia to the silver chloride leaving the blackened portion behind which is considered the basis of modern photography (Robinson, 2010) .  
According to Robinson (2010), the first person to attempt to take an actual photograph with a camera obscura, Thomas Wedgewood, did this in 1795 but failed.  Sir William Herschel made the discovery of a region in the spectrum in 1800 that is invisible to the naked eye, infrared, which is utilized by law enforcement even today.  It is also in the early 1800’s that the first photograph emerges with the work of Joseph Nieꞌpce experimenting with photography as he produces the first still photograph by utilizing John Herschel’s work using hydrosulfate of soda on the silver salts. 
Motion picture development was also underway in the 1800’s, stemming from technologies developed after Peter Mark Roget completed a paper concerning vision, including the first flip book, a thaumatrope, stroboscope, and Faraday’s Wheel (Robinson, 2010).  Adding to the advances
William Herschel
William Herschel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 is Daguerre’s daguerreotype, which allows the photographer to use silver nitrate in a suspension liquid that reacts to light and utilized with a mercury vapor development system allowing the image to come through.  This is the first known marketable process for using photography (Robinson, 2010).  The invention of the daguerreotype led to some important technological advances in the industry today.    
The Importance of Technological Advances in Camera Equipment
The daguerreotype had three significant upgrades and uses that played important parts in the photography equipment we still use today (Robinson, 2010).  Engravers began using them to provide images in the printing and news industries, which led to the industry becoming leaders in the manufacture of the equipment.  The first professional use of photography is in this era as well, as the first photography studio was opened.  Another technological advance is directly tied to law enforcement, as the Paris police department discovered that they could use the daguerreotypes for mug shots to help apprehend criminals (Robinson, 2010).
The next discovery and invention is still in use today, as Fox Talbot is credited with the development of a calotype paper negative using gallic acid and silver nitrate (Robinson, 2010).  Following this, photogrammetry is founded as a science, and the wet plate process was discovered.  Since then, the ambrotype and the ferrotype were also discovered, making general photography cheaper to use.  There were also advances in photography allowing the use of color to make color photographs by Dr. Hermann Wilhelm Vogel allowing color sensitivity to utilize reds.  The real beginning of crime scene photography taken seriously happened when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Luco v. U.S., 64 U.S. (23 How) 515, 162L Ed 545, that holds that a photographic image of any document is as good as the document itself. 
As with any other type of equipment, once the technology is made available, criminals figure out how to use it to commit crimes.  This begins the era of photograph fraud, with early examples, such as holding séances for people with newly dead relatives, which still occurs in many forms today (Robinson, 2010).  What makes all of the early developments that we have named along with the others so important is that they paved the way for the future of video and technology that law enforcement uses today to document crimes.  Another reason is because it serves as a handbook to decipher how newer technologies may influence the way crime scene photography is utilized in the future (Robinson, 2010). 
The Introduction of Video to Documentation Resources
The fifties and sixties ushered in the beginning of the use of video tapes in the courtrooms and of course in crime scene documentation, with the introduction of the videotape recorder in 1957.  In 1963, Polaroid introduced us to the self developing pictures we all know as “Polaroid’s”, and by 1967 videotapes were regularly accepted and used as evidence in the criminal justice system.  This goes hand in hand with the development of forensic imaging as a science, and in 1970, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals laid this issue to rest with U.S. v.  Cairns, 434 F2d 643 (9th Cir. 1970), which stated that facial identification testimony is admissible.  Forensic odontologists use photography to compare bite mark evidence in cases where there are bite marks, some jails visitation systems are dependent on video, and these days some defendants never see the inside of a courtroom, as their testimony can now be heard through a video screen (Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, 2012). 
ไทย: Johann Heinrich Schulze
ไทย: Johann Heinrich Schulze (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
According to the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit (2012), this capability to separate out the criminal from the procedure also represents more safety for the staff that must handle transporting prisoners to and from court.  This becomes relevant, because the more violent or high escape risk defendants now do not need to leave the jails or prison facilities to participate in their hearings.  The addition of video capabilities also adds the dimension of sound and movement to the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, because you now can have both on record as evidence in the court systems.   As technology has progressed now we do not even have to wait for film to develop or go through any processes as the digital age is upon us.
The histories of crime scene photography and imagery have come a long way since the first days of the simple obscura camera.  As the technology advances, law enforcement capabilities advance with it, as we can see in modern days that the benefits of switching to digital imaging in crime scene photography and video capabilities are immense including being able to edit your pictures immediately to make sure that you have the right shot. There is no more wasting film, now you can just hit delete and take the shot over again.  The benefits of video conferencing have added numerous safety benefits to our criminal justice system, at a time when violence is used as a first resort more often than it used to.  With the addition of more and more advanced technology law enforcement gets numerous advantages especially with the capabilities of gathering cell phone and other data from afar that larger agencies have today.  They do this by utilizing mobile technology and infrared technology to keep our officers safer with less hands needed to document a scene or arrest someone, as most of this technology can fit in a pocket these days, the smaller the better. 


Eighteenth Judicial Circuit (2012).  Florida State Courts: Video Conferencing.  Retrieved From: http://www.flcourts18.org/video_conferencing.html
Osterburg, J. & Ward, R. (2007).  Criminal Investigation: A Method for Reconstructing the Past, Fifth Edition.  Matthew Bender & Company, Inc., a member of the LexisNexis Group.  Newark, NJ.
Robinson, E.M., (2010).  Crime Scene Photography: Second Edition.  Boston, Elsevier, Academic Press.  

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