What Does a Forensic Photographer Do?

Forensic photographer taking crime scene photos of physical evidence in car

Are you passionate about criminal justice and looking for a way to make a positive difference in your community? One meaningful career path to consider is that of the forensic photographer. What does a forensic photographer do?

A forensic photographer is a type of forensic science technician who specializes in documenting crime scenes. You can explore a typical forensic photographer job description here and then learn about the pathway toward becoming a professional crime scene photographer.

The Role of a Forensic Photographer

The careful and thorough documentation of a crime scene is one of the most important tasks in the process of identifying and apprehending a suspect. Forensic photographs offer an objective and accurate look at the crime scene, allowing investigators to analyze it later for the purpose of identifying the victim, possible suspects and even the motive.

Meticulous crime scene documentation is also essential for prosecuting defendants. As you can see, forensic photographers play an important role in the criminal justice system.

A Typical Forensic Photographer Job Description

Forensic photographers follow a careful process of documentation and scene preservation. The process begins with making sure the police officers have secured the crime scene. Many forensic photographers like to walk through the scene to get a basic understanding of:

  • What has happened there
  • What types of physical evidence are apparent
  • How best to photograph the scene

During the walk-through, the photographer must be careful not to disturb the scene or any evidence. Then, the photographer begins documentation by taking a series of crime scene photos from multiple angles, including:

  • Wide-angle shots to capture the scene in its entirety (if possible)
  • Mid-range shots to show where various pieces of evidence are in relation to each other and the whole scene 
  • Close-up shots of evidence, including shell casings, skid marks, blood spatter and similar items

When taking photographs, it’s important to place items in proper context. For this reason, crime scene photographers may lay rulers alongside evidentiary items to indicate their size.

As they document the scene, forensic photographers take copious notes. They often write basic descriptions of the pictures as they take them. For example, if you are taking a shot of a pair of shoes, your description might read, “Black loafers found three feet away from the inside of the front door.”

Measurements can be critically important in crime scene documentation. Some forensic photographers or other forensic science technicians still make crime scene sketches by hand, despite the availability of digital technology. After sketching the scene, the photographer can use a laser distance meter to measure the distance between objects, and then record the measurements on the sketch.

How To Become a Forensic Photographer

A forensic photography career is a great option for individuals who prefer to enter the job marketplace sooner, rather than staying in academia for many years.

If you’re still in high school, you can schedule an appointment with your guidance counselor to discuss your career aspirations and your current course load. Your guidance counselor can recommend some courses that can help you prepare to study forensic science and photography in college.

All types of forensic science technicians, including forensic photographers, can benefit from a solid foundation of knowledge in courses such as:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics

Take as many STEM courses as possible, but also look for artistic options, preferably a photography course. If your high school doesn’t offer a photography course, you may be able to join a photography club or find some relevant workshops in your local community.

As you approach your high school graduation date, it’s time to start sorting through your options for college. Look for a school with a comprehensive forensic science degree program. In addition to learning about forensic photography in school, you’ll want to brush up on your skills outside of class as much as possible, such as by joining a photography club.

It’s not necessary to earn a master’s degree before getting to work as a forensic photographer. Upon graduating with your bachelor’s degree in forensic science, you’ll be ready to look for your first professional job. However, after you’ve acquired some work experience, you may want to pursue voluntary certification to enhance your job qualifications and potentially get promoted.

Should You Earn a Photography Degree or a Forensic Science Degree?

When you look at a typical forensic photographer job description, you’ll see that it requires a blend of both photography skills and forensic science knowledge. This raises the question: Which type of degree should you earn?

Although an aspiring forensic photographer does certainly need photography skills, it’s arguably more important to have in-depth knowledge of how to safely navigate a crime scene without potentially jeopardizing crucial evidence.

A forensic photographer needs to know how to correctly photograph an entire scene and should know how to document it while ensuring that its size and location are evident from the photographs.

Because of the need for in-depth crime scene knowledge, it’s generally preferable for an aspiring forensic photographer to earn a forensic science degree from a program that includes a course in forensic photography and crime scene reconstruction. During this type of course, students should be introduced to the accepted approaches to photographing a crime scene under a range of different conditions.

The curriculum for a typical forensic science degree program is also likely to include the following:

  • General science courses in biology, biochemistry and physics
  • Crime scene processing techniques, including photography, rough sketch and refined sketch
  • The recovery of evidence at crime scenes and their analysis in the crime lab
  • Forensic toxicology and analytical methods
  • Forensic DNA analysis, including serology and STR analysis techniques

Because forensic science degrees require laboratory classes in addition to classroom lectures, you won’t be able to complete your degree entirely online. Depending on the school you choose, you may be able to enroll in some non-lab courses via the school’s online program.

Although the classes for your forensic science degree will cover forensic photography techniques, it’s also a good idea to take electives that support your career goals. Look for electives in digital photography at your school.

In addition, you might consider checking resources (e.g., a local arts center) in your area for off-campus photography workshops. During the summer, look for internship and job opportunities that are relevant to either photography or forensic science.

Does an Aspiring Forensic Photographer Need a Master’s Degree?

A master’s degree is not a requirement for forensic photographers. However, at some point during your career, you may decide to go back to school to enhance your qualifications.

It’s possible that earning a master’s degree will enable you to pursue a promotion to a higher-paid position. This is particularly true if you opt to apply to a forensic photography job at a federal agency, such as the FBI. However, earning a master’s degree isn’t a necessity for this career.

Landing Your First Professional Job as a Forensic Photographer

When you’re looking for your first job, you’ll likely check with police departments and sheriff’s offices. You can also explore employment possibilities at state crime laboratories and federal law enforcement agencies. The demand for forensic science technicians is generally higher in larger cities, which typically have higher crime rates than rural areas.

If you’re having trouble getting your foot in the door at a law enforcement agency or a crime lab, you may want to explore employment options at private sector organizations. For instance, attorneys often hire forensic photographers to document evidence. For example, a personal injury lawyer may hire these professionals to do the following:

  • Capture images of the scene of a traffic collision or crime
  • Photograph victims’ injuries and, later document permanent results of surgeries, skin grafts and scar tissue
  • Document defects and other dangerous conditions at the scenes of construction accidents, slip-and-fall incidents and related events

Insurance companies may hire forensic photographers to do much the same thing as attorneys. In fact, some forensic photographers are freelancers who may perform work for a slew of various attorneys, insurance companies and police departments.

Earn a Voluntary Certification in Forensic Photography

Although you can get started in this field with just a bachelor’s degree and fundamental photography skills, you can improve your employability and skills by earning a voluntary certification. The International Association for Identification (IAI) is a well-respected professional organization that offers numerous certification options for forensic science technicians, including a certification in forensic photography.

Do note that you will be ineligible to pursue this certification immediately after graduation. You’ll need to demonstrate that you have some full-time work experience as a forensic photographer. You will also need to successfully pass a forensic photography exam.

If you decide to obtain this certification, you’ll need to renew it every five years. Continuing professional education credits are a requirement for recertification.

Essential Skills and Characteristics of Forensic Photographers

If you take a look at a typical forensic photographer job description, you’re likely to see that these professionals are required to possess knowledge of photographic processes and concepts. For example, photographers must know how to take accurate photographs in difficult conditions such as poor lighting and bad weather.

They must also be familiar with various camera formats and films. In addition, forensic photographers must understand how to preserve the integrity of a crime scene and how to work properly with physical evidence.

Other important skills and characteristics are as follows:

  • Attention to detail
  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning
  • Communication skills
  • Law enforcement knowledge
  • Ability to view crime scenes objectively
  • Flexibility to work irregular hours

You can begin working your way toward pursuing a rewarding career as a forensic photographer or another type of forensic science technician when you apply for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The College of Science, Engineering and Technology is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science degree program. Graduates emerge with foundational competencies in the field, including skills in forensic photography, physical evidence analysis, toxicology and many other essential areas.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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