As soon as dispatchers report a crime, law enforcement heads to the scene to control it and start investigating. Crime scene investigation involves a variety of personnel, such as forensic investigators who collect physical evidence, police officers or FBI agents who do the questioning and start building reports, and crime scene photographers.
These photographers play a crucial role in preserving the physical evidence of a crime scene before weather or people may tamper with it. In this article, we discuss what a crime scene photographer does and what skills they have, what kind of salary they make and steps you can take to become a crime scene photographer.
What does a crime scene photographer do?
A crime scene photographer, also known as a forensic photographer, takes skilled photos of crime scenes to capture evidence and physical settings. Their photographic documentation of a crime scene provides investigators with detailed information and possible clues on what happened. This information may help investigators determine important details like the cause of death and how many people participated. The details about the setting and victim's location also provide information to attorneys and prosecutors who may use these photos during a trial. Crime scene photos usually show:
- The physical appearance of victims
- The victim's location relative to the rest of the setting
- Evidence such as shell casings, footprints and bloodstain patterns
- Objects possibly involved in the crime
- Any other physical evidence
Crime scene photographers possess exceptional technical skills to capture crime scene images that are easy to analyze, enlarge and submit to court hearings, proceedings or trials. Photos include contextual imagery to show evidence in context, close-up imagery to show very fine details like fibers, hair and specks of blood, and wide-shot imagery to accurately depict the entire area of the crime scene.
Crime scene photographers are strong critical thinkers, and also possess great communication skills, allowing them to work well with others in often busy and chaotic environments.
Average crime scene photographer salary
There is no specific data available for a crime scene photographer salary, but the following salaries should give you an idea of what range to expect:
In addition to advanced photography skills, crime scene photographers must know forensic procedures and crime scene investigation, which will likely increase their yearly salary. Years of experience and certifications can also affect salary, as well as the specific department you apply to.
Qualifications needed to be a crime scene photographer
Crime scene photographers must have very specific knowledge, skills and qualities to do their job, not only in photography, but also in forensic science and crime scene investigation. These qualifications include:
- Basic and advanced photographic principles and processes
- Proper procedures for crime scene and evidence recovery
- Court requirements for photo evidence
- Law enforcement procedures
- Comfortable working in chaotic, emotionally distressing environments
- Crime scene safety procedures
- Ability to take direction from officers
- Eye for detail
- Availability for long or irregular on-call hours
- Minimum of a high school diploma or GED
Steps to become a crime scene photographer
- Take general photography and forensic photography classes.
- Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice.
- Earn a professional certification.
- Complete an internship.
- Find a job.
1. Take general photography and forensic photography classes
Skilled and experienced photographers, without investigative or law enforcement backgrounds, still have the opportunity to become a crime scene photographer. General photography classes teach you the basics, and forensic photography classes teach special investigative skills such as: how to identify evidence at a crime scene, how to take photos that clearly and accurately show evidence, and how to properly photograph footprints and tire tracks.
2. Earn a bachelor's degree in criminal justice
At least a high school diploma or GED is required to become a forensic photographer, but most employers prefer an associate or bachelor's degree in photography, forensics or criminal justice. Applicants with higher education receive more opportunities for employment at higher pay rates.
3. Earn a professional certification
Professional forensic photographer certifications are voluntary but help solidify you as an experienced and educated professional. The International Association for Identification (IAI) offers crime scene photographer certifications. Candidates must meet specific education and field experience requirements, then pass both written and practical exams to get certified.
The IAI's Forensic Photography Certification requires the following:
- Current employment in the field of forensic photography
- At least 3 years of experience in the photography and digital imaging field
- Proof of at least 40 hours of classroom photography courses, or college coursework
- Two letters of professional endorsement and an application for certification
The IAI examination, developed by the IAI Forensic Photography and Digital Image Certification Board, gives individuals three hours to answer 100 questions. These questions cover the following topics:
- Photography history
- Cameras and lenses
- Film and exposure
- Depth of field
- Light and color theory
- Lighting and filters
- Close-up photography
- Digital imaging
Related: What Are Certificate Programs?
4. Complete an internship
Crime scene photography internships are rare, but possible to find and will help you increase your photography skills and learn more about crime scene investigation. Try contacting police departments, fire departments or forensic labs to inquire about the possibility of working alongside them. Some departments may allow you to simply volunteer your skills, but some may offer legitimate internships.
Also consider internships as a regular photographer for a media outlet, where you can gain experience as a photographer and network to make career connections.
Related: 10 Benefits of Doing an Internship
5. Find a job
Several paths exist to enter the crime scene photography field. Here are the most common ways:
Become law enforcement first
To work as a crime scene photographer, you may need to become a police officer or crime scene investigator first, depending on where you are applying for a job. Departments select officers from within and train them in photography since they already possess the required forensic and investigative skills.
Find a position with on-the-job training
If you are an experienced photographer without forensic or investigative skills, some agencies will provide you with on-the-job training in crime scene photography.
Apply directly to an open position
If you are an experienced photographer with a degree in the criminal justice field, you can apply directly to an open forensic photographer position, provided you meet the job's minimum requirements.