Friday, January 10, 2014

photography and forensics

A couple of days ago I had the opportunity to help a friend teach his forensics class about the basics of photography and how to take photos in a forensic/crime scene setting. The first part was easy; after all, I've been studying and dabbling in film photography for the past ten years. It was enough time for me to understand how it works and impart my knowledge to others. For the latter topic, I had to do some research and make use of the ol' coconut and common sense. During this process, I picked up some new things, of which I am thankful for. One really never ceases to learn.

The short lecture was held at the anthropology lab. The last time I was there, I was a student myself, taking that final exam on physical anthropology. I blogged about it here. There were only 15 students--a good number, actually--and a mishmash of cameras, from compact point-and-shooters to ones I can only dream of having. I came to the class armed with my trusty Canon AE-1 Program, the best camera in my arsenal to teach the basics of photography with. I also brought three different types of film to show to the kids who probably were too young to remember (they do remember, thankfully).

Before I began my lecture I gave a disclaimer: I shoot in film and I have no experience taking photos of crime scenes. I said the basic principles were the same, and technical photography is technical photography, so let's get started. I was only given 45 minutes, so I breezed through the basics part as slowly as I could (I hope that makes sense), while stopping every now and then for questions. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure, flash. The next part was trickier, because aside from my online research, the only other sources of information on forensic photography I have are crime series (I love Bones), so my friend supplements my info with his real-life crime scene experience. Overview shots, close-ups, fingerprints, impressions, lighting methods. It was fun.

After the lecture we planned to set up "evidence" to take photos of while the students were on 15-minute break. That was when I realized how many of them, those who borrowed their cameras, do not know how to use the cameras' manual settings and adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. They asked me how, but because I have no substantial experience handling digital SLRs (no two models were the same), I found myself in quite a predicament. It was in my lecture that photographers take the time to read the camera's user manual, but I guess the students got this tip a little too late. We had to make do with what we knew, and what we could.

From my research and common sense, crime scene photography is very technical. Sharp focus, no distortions, clear details. Different lenses are needed, and various lighting methods need to be used. How should you take a photo of a fingerprint on glass? How about a gun in a dark corner? A strand of hair on a white surface? Powder on a reflective floor? There are several items that are very difficult to photograph if you don't have the right gear. We were limited by what we had, so I took note of the limitations and difficulties we encountered. It was a great learning experience for me as well.

Sorry for the crappy tablet photos. :P

My friend will soon depart on a new forensic "mission" abroad. I'm wondering what will happen to the anthropology program with him gone, because as far as I know he is the only one teaching forensic methods. Oh well. I think that's another story for another person to tell.

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