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The History of Forensic Photography

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Forensic science is the path through which investigators collect and interpret evidence. Photography greatly enhanced that process by capturing the scenes of crimes as they appeared. Forensic imaging, also called crime scene photography, has a long history in the criminal justice system, and technological improvements in forensic photography continue to add value for investigators charged with solving crimes.

The Early Days

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The pinhole camera was invented in the 1500s. Additions and advancements in its use were improved over the next century until 1614, when the idea that the camera may be useful in collecting evidence was conceived. It wasn’t until the early 1800s when the camera was used to take a picture at a crime scene. During this same time, the discovery of the infrared spectrum also was discovered; it continues to be used by law enforcement in the 21st century. Motion picture technology also was coming into its own during this time.

The Big Breakthroughs

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The eventual discovery of daguerreotype, an imaging process that engravers used in the news industry, provided police with the first process they could reasonably use in crime scene investigations. One of the first known uses of daguerreotype was in Paris, when police took the first mug shots of suspects that they were able to use in apprehending criminals. The use of color photography came into use shortly afterward, and crime scene photography earned its place in the legal system in 1851 when the Supreme Court ruled that a photograph of a document was as good as the real thing.

Introduction of Videos

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When the videotape recorder was introduced in 1957, a new era of crime scene photography came into play as courtrooms could watch the documentation process as it occurred, providing even more credibility to investigations. By 1967, use of videotapes in courtrooms became common. During this time, forensic science became an acceptable form of evidence. In 1970, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made it official by stating that the identification of facial features through photographs was admissible in court.

Moving to the Digital Age

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While many forensic imaging teams still rely on film for their crime scene photography, more and more departments are moving into digital photography as their sole source of capturing crime scene information, according to a 2010 article in "Forensic Magazine." Digital images do not require the same amount of storage or darkroom facilities, and can be viewed immediately after they’re taken. Crime scene photography in the 21st century is ubiquitous and accepted as a necessary and valuable contribution to criminal investigations. The challenges crime scene investigators face in the 21st century involve data management rather than accuracy, as labs struggle to build and maintain secure records of their work.


Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."

Photo Credits

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