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How to Utilize Night Photography at a Crime Scene

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"How to Utilize Night Photography at a Crime Scene"
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During the course of any crime scene investigator's career, there will be times when you need to photograph large scenes at night. This creates a challenge because of the nature of flash photography. Flash units are becoming more powerful as technology advances, but they still have a very limited range. Large scenes, such as traffic accidents, cannot be photographed adequately with 'conventional' photography. Usually, investigators attempt to document the scene with dozens of photos that show small sections of the scene that can give an accurate representation when viewed together, but will never be as informative as one photograph that captures all of the information at once. This can be done with a technique called "Painting with Light".

Painting with light, like any technique, can be tricky at first, but becomes fairly easy with a little practice. The equipment you will need includes a camera, a separate flash unit, a tripod, and a remote shutter release. Set up the tripod in an area where you have a line-of-sight view of all of the elements in the crime scene. Attach the shutter release cable to the camera and adjust the camera's settings to open the shutter when the release cable is pressed and close the shutter when the release cable is not pressed. This is usually called a "bulb" setting. Focus the camera on the most important part of the scene. The next part is the most difficult to accomplish...turn off all of the lights. Don't worry about street lights, but try to extinguish all emergency vehicle lights, headlights, and any other lights you can control. For safety reasons, if the scene is on a roadway, you still need to block the roadway to traffic, but the roadblock needs to be out of the line-of-sight of the camera. If there is a curve to the roadway, just place the roadblock on the other side of the curve. If this isn't possible, then just try to eliminate the majority of the light entering the camera by adjusting the camera's position.

After you get the scene as dark as you can make it, carefully open the shutter on the camera and lock it open. Be careful not to shake the tripod, or your photograph will be blurry. After the shutter is open, go to the far end of your scene - the quicker you do this, the better because no matter how dark it is, light is still entering the camera. Using your handheld flash, beginning setting off flashes behind the last object in the scene to illuminate the background. Continue setting off flashes to illuminate the rest of the scene as you begin walking back toward the camera. Be careful not to set off flashes toward the camera, as this will wash out the photograph. Ideally, you want to set off each flash toward the area you were standing in for the previous flash. This will essentially 'remove' your own image from the photograph. After you reach the camera, close the shutter on the camera. You will now have a photograph with all of the scene elements clearly visible. It is preferable to use a digital camera, so that you can immediately view the results and make sure you don't need to take another photograph.

Some important tips to remember are:
1) Safety is your first priority.
2) Don't point the flash toward the camera.
3) Don't aim the flash toward the ground.
4) Move as quickly as possible.
5) It is difficult to have too many flashes.
6) It is easy to have to few flashes.
7) Experiment, experiment, experiment.

You can have a lot of fun learning this technique. Practice on your own house! You will get a really great picture of your home that everyone will ask you about. Try it on large areas and small areas. Experiment with it in other ways. For instance, have someone stand in front of the camera in a dark room. Open the shutter and set off the flash one time. Have the person change their position and set off a second flash and then close the shutter. By doing experiments like that, you will learn that if there is a vehicle in the scene, you can open the door and set off a flash inside the car, then close the door and set off a flash outside of the car. The final picture will show the vehicle, with the door closed, and the interior illuminated. That is almost impossible in daylight conditions!

Once you learn how the camera reacts to this technique, you will have another tool in your arsenal of crime solving techniques.

More about this author: Paul McManigal

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