July-August 2018

Mastering photos with a point-and-shoot camera

Larry L. Melton

District Attorney’s Investigator in Montgomery County

Investigators in prosecutor offices may be called to photograph any number of scenes or subjects. You may need to document evidence received via a search warrant or use a video-capable camera to record a witness’s statement. And depending on the size of your office, you may be involved in active crime scenes. My office, for example, sends an investigator-and-prosecutor team to the scene of major crimes, vehicular homicides, and officer-involved shootings.
    Whatever the scene or subject, I hope this article will provide a better understanding about the average point-and-shoot camera’s functions and capabilities—which are greater than you might think. My advice won’t make you into a crime scene investigator (CSI) or forensic photographer—those disciplines require many hours of study as well as experience in the field—but the next time prosecutors ask you to take follow-up photos for a case they are preparing for court, you’ll be ready.
    As an aside, this article addresses only consumer-grade point-and-shoot (P&S) cameras. High-end point-and-shoots (called DSLRs, Digital Single Lens Reflex) are normally too expensive for a county budget (they start around $500 but can quickly balloon to $1,000 with all of the gear). Also, this article will examine only digital cameras. While someone out there may still be using film, most people use digital.

What P&S cameras can do
P&S cameras are normally compact, lightweight, and easy to use. Virtually anyone can use a P&S with very little training. Their processors are designed to view the scene and automatically set the proper shutter, aperture, and ISO (called the exposure triangle) to properly expose said scene. The lens is not removable, and the flash, though tiny, is suitable for illuminating subjects at reasonable distances. Some P&S cameras even have decent video capability.
    As good as modern P&S cameras are, though, they work best for medium-range photos in a well-lit environment. As soon as you wade into poor lighting or need to shoot extreme close-ups or extreme telephotos (faraway shots), the P&S automatic functions are not as useful.
    That said, the average P&S has more features than you would imagine, providing you know a few tricks that will fool your P&S into thinking it is a much bigger camera. It’s just a matter of knowing what settings to change given the scene or situation and how you can assist the camera with its shortcomings.
    Before you can become effective using a P&S, you must learn how your camera works. If you received an operating manual for your camera, get it out, dust it off, and read it cover to cover with the camera in hand. If you don’t have or can’t find the manual, a quick Google search will usually pull up a PDF version which can then be printed off. If you can’t find one or don’t have time to read it, I feel your pain. Cameras are so sophisticated nowadays that the accompanying manual resembles an encyclopedia—but that’s exactly why you need to read it!
    P&S camera manufacturers began using easy-to-understand icons that help with common scenes. Do you need to photograph a bloody knife close-up or snap a wide view of the scene of a homicide? How about photographing a scene at night? Set the P&S camera on the appropriate icon setting, and the camera will select the settings that are best for that subject or scene. Check your manual to see what settings are available. If a manual is not available, then consult the chart that depicts typical camera symbols and will guide you to the proper selections. You can find it or something similar by pressing your menu button and working your way down the menu.
    It is important to know where the controls are that allow you to change camera functions. There are two basic layouts. There might be a control wheel on the top of the camera body that allows you to access the more advanced features. If the controls are not on the top, then look on the back and you will find a small control wheel and a menu button. The functions you can access differ by camera brand and even model, but most follow a general pattern. Again, this is where the manual is handy.
    Once you have a general sense of your camera’s controls, you can overcome many of the difficulties of P&S photography. Here are some of the most common.

Problem: Photographing a subject that’s too close to the lens, resulting in a blurred photograph.
Solution: Most P&S cameras have a close-up feature that will allow you to focus much closer. It might be an enlarged flower symbol or perhaps a face. A tight photo taken with the close-up setting can capture every detail of the subject. Just don’t forget to change back to normal after your close-up is done.

Problem: A too-bright or too-dim flash that loses details. Most investigators have seen photographs where you can’t discern a crime victim’s injuries or bruises because the flash was too close to the subject, washing out and blurring the details. Standing farther away so the flash is not as overwhelming isn’t the answer, as details fade with distance.
Solution: In addition to using the close-up feature, I utilize a trick from one of my photography teachers: I hold some type of translucent filter over the flash. It doesn’t have to be an expensive commercial accessory—one can use a handkerchief, Kleenex, or sheet of plain white copy paper. Be sure and use only white filters, as anything other than white can throw a color cast on your subject. The filter can either be taped onto the camera or simply held over the flash with your other hand—just be sure you are not covering the lens with your filter. This method will reduce the intensity of the flash and catch the details.

Problem: Because the small size of a P&S makes it difficult to hold steady, taking good photographs in poor light normally results in an out-of-focus photograph.
Solution: Some P&S cameras have an image stabilization feature you can activate. This feature helps with camera shake with internal gyros that stabilize the lens. If your camera has this feature, take advantage of it. However, if you place the camera on a tripod, turn this feature off. Due to the physics of how image stabilization works, using a tripod with this feature on will actually result in blurry photographs.
    In some situations, a tripod will be helpful. When do you need a tripod? When the camera’s lens is set to telephoto (especially extreme magnification), extreme close-ups, and shooting in low light without flash. If you have a smooth-moving tripod that functions for both still photos and video, then mounting the camera prior to shooting video is recommended.

Problem: Nighttime photos that are too dark.
Solutions: There are lots of things you can do to improve the quality of nighttime photos. Some P&S cameras have a “scene” function for shooting at night. This almost always requires a tripod. If your flash is adjustable, set it on “SLOW SYNC.” When you take your flash picture in low light, the flash will illuminate your subject, and then the shutter stays open longer to expose the background. Photographers call this “dragging the shutter” or “burning in the background.”
    It is possible to properly expose a scene in almost complete dark conditions. Your camera needs the ability to adjust the shutter speed. For illumination, you can use a bright flashlight; you can also use a cheap external flash or strobe. External flash units can be picked up used at local camera stores or pawn shops for very little money. The flash does not have to be the same brand as your camera—it is only necessary that the flash has a manual test button.
    Set the camera on a tripod and adjust the shutter to stay open the maximum time. The camera may not focus by itself in the dark; you have to help it by shining a bright flashlight on your subject. Set the timer for two seconds, and when the shutter opens, move the flashlight back and forth over the subject as if you were painting it with light. If using an external flash, after the initial flash, quickly step about 10 feet in a semi-circle to the right or left and pop another flash at the subject. Again, quickly move around to the opposite side and repeat flashes. With the shutter open during this time, accumulated flashes will light the scene as if in daylight.
    Be careful not to trip or knock over your camera in the dark, and don’t stand between the lens and your subject or in front of your light source. If your camera has a multi-exposure feature, then you have the ability to extend the time your shutter is opened, so long as you don’t move your camera during the process. Experiment a bit with this technique, and you’ll find that with practice, you can completely bathe a subject in light during nighttime conditions. This is especially helpful to illuminate nighttime traffic crashes.

Problem: P&S cameras tend to be knocked around and left in places that accumulate dirt and debris. Wear and tear from normal use can compromise a camera’s picture quality.
Solutions: Always store the camera in a case designed for it. Keep the lens and monitor clean. Do not use alcohol, thinner, or other volatile chemicals to clean the lens and monitor. Yes, that means no glass cleaners, as they frequently contain ammonia.
    Also, don’t wipe with a paper towel or Kleenex. Paper is nothing more than smashed-up wood fibers, so don’t clean easily-scratched glass with a pulped tree trunk. Use a soft cloth, such as those that are designed for cleaning eyeglasses. Microfiber cloths are good, and in a pinch a clean T-shirt will suffice.
    Keep the camera dry and avoid sudden changes in temperature. There is nothing more frustrating than having the lens fog up at the very moment you need to take a picture. Lens fogging can happen when the camera goes from a heated or air-conditioned location into temperatures that are the opposite—say a hot car into winter cold or an air-conditioned office into the summer heat. To prevent fogging, leave the camera bag open and the lens cap off while you are traveling to the scene. This will allow the temperature inside the camera to stabilize.
    Keep away from strong magnetic fields, and don’t point the lens at a strong light source for extended periods. Also, before removing the memory card, be sure to turn off the power supply.

Tips for shooting a crime scene
There are many suggestions for how to take photographs that may be used in court, but there are some basics that everyone agrees with.
    Take your time and shoot as many photographs as you can, from many different viewpoints. Remember, you are shooting digital, so there is no cost for film or processing. You are limited only by the capacity of your memory card. I don’t suggest buying the high-capacity memory cards, either, unless you plan on shooting video. A 16-gigabyte card is more than sufficient to capture a scene. They are cheap and readily available.
    Before you begin taking photographs, make sure the area is secure and that your presence will not contaminate the scene. If we are assisting a local agency, I normally will locate the lead detective and coordinate my activities with him. If the crime lab shows up, I do the same with the lead CSI.
    Sometimes you may not think a subject or object is important to the scene, only to learn later that it was. A picture not taken is an opportunity lost, and you have only one chance to document a scene as it was when you were present. If possible, shoot around all points of the compass: north, south, east, and west. Don’t forget to look up and down when appropriate. I once almost missed photographing significant blood spatter in a dimly lit room, because it was above my line of sight and the lower portion of the wall had been washed by the perp. The perp did not have time to get a chair or stepstool to clean the higher blood spatter, and he figured we’d never see the spatter higher up. Had I not turned prior to leaving the room and swept my flashlight toward the ceiling, the perp would have been right.
    If you are called to a full-blown crime scene, always begin with the first exposure being an identifying number written on a sheet of note paper. That may be the agency case number or your own internal tracking number. You do this job long enough, and scenes start looking similar.
    Begin your documentation with “establishing shots.” I begin with a photograph of a street sign or other object that identifies the location, and then I photograph the area leading up to the scene. Before I switch to a medium point of view (POV), I’ll try to photograph the address on the mailbox or side of the house, then the front entrance. At an auto fatality, frame the entire area of the collision, which could include one car, two, or more.
    After you have established where you are and what objects are generally involved, you can now switch to a tighter POV to document what you are seeing as you move through the scene. Shooting a scene this way allows someone not present to see the scene as you see it. If you are in a house, photograph the interior beginning at the front door’s threshold and again from each corner of the room facing inward. Establish the layout of the room before you begin to document close-ups of evidence.
    Once you have finished with all photographs, download them to a storage medium, such as a thumb drive. Do not delete photographs either in camera or after your download, even if a photograph did not turn out. It is important that there is no gap in the numbers that the camera assigned to each photograph. If all of the exposures are accounted for, the defense can’t say that a missing photograph was the one that exonerates their client.
    Also, scene photographs are not the place for Photoshop. Keep the originals on disk, a thumb drive, or other permanent storage. If the prosecutors ask that you “enhance” a photograph, always have the original ready to show the before and after.

A few words on discovery
Be sure, with these photos, that you are in compliance with your office’s discovery policies. I normally shoot photographs or video to support our internal reports or at the request of a prosecutor for additional scene detail. However, since the Michael Morton Act, how we retain media is important to the discovery process. Gone are the days when the State could decide what is important and what is not. Basically, any evidence that is generated during the investigation of a case is considered discoverable.
    I don’t pretend to speak for your office, your bosses, or their policies; I only provide you an example of how my workplace handles media. We take the position that any photographs or video related to an open case that is obtained by one of our investigators is considered evidence and subject to discovery. Therefore, media must be retained in a manner that is conducive to the discovery process. When I create media (photographs or video), I download the original media onto a disk, which I label with tracking information. All of our media is stored in a designated location and managed by our media clerks. The tracking info and information about the disks’ contents are entered into the part of our database that is available to the defense, and therefore it is available for discovery.

And lastly, practice!
If you want to become a better photographer, practice, practice, practice. The best way to learn the capabilities and limitations of a P&S camera is to use it. Because it is digital, there is no cost for buying or developing film, so the only limitation is how long the battery lasts. And because most P&S cameras have rechargeable batteries, the cost of battery use is negligible.
    Check with your office for any policy, but I encourage people to take the camera home and photograph everything you can think of: family, pets, flowers, cars, houses—you name it. Shoot it all! With frequent use, operating your camera will become second-nature, and that can only result in higher-quality photos in the pursuit of justice.