Photographing Crime Scenes

If you’re writing a murder mystery, you need to know how your investigator will go about solving the crime. Steps one and two are securing the scene and finding witnesses. Today’s discussion is step three, photographing the crime scene. I’m taking this information from the Whodunit book called Murder one: A Writer’s Guide to Homicide by Mauro V. Corvasce and Joseph R. Paglino.

When detectives arrive at a crime scene, their first job is to photograph everything. You’ve seen this on CSI, where the visually appealing crime tech puts the little ruler down by the blood spatter and snap a shot, then move on to the bloody footprint, then snaps their co-working making a silly face after cracking an inappropriate joke. Not only are these photos helpful for jogging the detectives memory later, but they can also be used as evidence if the murderer ever goes to trial.

Unlike CSI, in real-life most towns and cities don’t have crime scene techs. Big cities sometimes have them, though, so make sure you research your city’s procedures thoroughly before writing your story. In smaller places, the detectives are usually the ones who do the photographing, and they’re usually monitored by their supervisor (a detective sergeant or a detective lieutenant), mainly to make sure no mistakes are made. Here are the usual photos taken:

1. Shots from the four corners of the room, for perspective

2. Long-distance shots that encompass the entire scene and beyond, if possible

3. Medium-distance shots, adding further definition to specific areas of the long-distance shots

4. Close-up shots of the body and any evidence found at the scene

5. Shots of any relevant details, selected by the detectives

Many times, if there are spectators, detectives will photograph the crowd. Sometimes a murderer will re-visit the scene of the crime to gloat, or remember the pleasure of the kill, or taunt the police, or even insert themselves into the investigation. Sometimes the crowd contains eyewitnesses that disappear before being interviewed, and having their photo in the file might lead detectives to the missing witness. Sometimes members of the media hide in the crowd. Knowing who’s in the crowd can sometimes lead to a new clue, so it’s important to not skip this step in your novel.

We’ve all seen this on CSI, where the crime tech sees something on the floor, they pick it up with the tweezers (so the camera can get a great close-up of the tech’s pretty face slightly blurred out just behind the useful but minuscule bit of whatever), then they seal it in a baggie, stare at it some more to make sure the reader knows it’s a significant clue, then the scene jumps to the lab where they are running a complicated test on it with expensive machines that have beeps and lights and cool whirring noises. What did they forget? To photograph the bit of stuff before they picked it up. Every piece of evidence must be photographed in its original position before being moved, or there could be problems later. Of course, small town detectives won’t be doing their own evidence analysis, either. That’ll be sent to a State Crime Lab, where it’ll take anywhere from five days to three weeks for results. But that’s a topic best left for a different post.

Photographing the scene sounds like such a simple step, but if your detective skips it, that could lead to some major problems later. Which might not be a bad thing, in fiction. Good stuff can come from major problems. Play around with the idea and see what you come up with.

-Sonja
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