Digital photography is quickly becoming accepted as the most economical and user-friendly means for fire investigators to document the fire scene. In the past, digital photographs were seen as an area prone to attack by opposing parties, using the possibility of digital manipulation or enhancement to discredit the evidentiary value.
While this is a possible attack, most of us have not seen it. We hear that some courts or prosecutors won’t accept the media, but not experienced it first hand. It appears that the challenges and resistance to digital photography are creating some urban myths. That said, this column will discuss the benefits of going digital and some procedural issues to keep in mind.
The first and most significant factor; your employer will save a significant amount of money by transitioning to digital photography. Most likely, a conversion to digital will pay for itself in one to two years, which includes the initial costs of the equipment.
Consider the costs of 35mm photography; there are film costs, and battery expenses for the cameras and flashes. Once the photographs are taken, the film has to be processed. Most times, photographing the average fire scene will take two to three rolls of film. After processing, there are additional costs for printing. These costs add up quickly.
In the digital photography process, there is no film, no processing, and most times, the batteries are rechargeable.
There are a few options for storage media. Some cameras use memory cards such as Compact Flash or Secure Digital. Other cameras use mini-CD’s. There are pro’s and con’s to each. If memory cards are used, they are reusable and will, for the most part, never fail while in use. Depending on the file size and memory capacity, one memory card can hold hundreds of photographs.
The cons are that the photographs must be downloaded to a computer and copied to a CD-R to make an “original” disc. Logistically, it would be more difficult to shoot multiple fire scenes on one memory card and so back-up memory cards will need to be carried in the event that back-to-back fire responses occur.
Mini-CD’s are convenient because they create an original CD inside of the camera, eliminating the need to download the photographs to a computer and burn CD’s. Also, at 185 to 210 MB each, the discs will hold a lot of photographs and almost all fire scenes will fit on one mini-CD (again, depending on the resolution / file size).
The one drawback to the mini-CD is that there is a higher possibility of a disc error and loss of information. The best way to avoid this is to finalize the mini-CD on the fire scene and confirm that the photographs display through the camera. By doing this, the investigator can at least re-shoot the fire scene if there is a disc error.
Whether the final media is mini-CD or CD-R, the filing is quick and easy. Providing copies to interested parties is done in-house and is easy and inexpensive. Printing for interested parties is also done in-house and is east and much less expensive than commercial printing.
For law enforcement packages, it is convenient to print contact sheets to accompany the case file. The contact sheets fit in the file folders better than loose photographs, and instead of one hundred photographs, there might be ten contact sheets. The prosecutors appreciate digital media because they can produce exhibits in-house, saving them money as well.
As with other hardware, digital cameras have become very affordable, to the point where the investigator can over-shoot the fire scene with an average camera. Keep in mind what the photographs will be used for. In most cases, the resolution only needs to be capable of making a photo-quality print in 4X6 format, or less likely, an 8X10. With that consideration, there is no reason to take pictures at high resolution. Five megapixel resolution is available in the inexpensive cameras, but by setting the resolution to 3 megapixel or below, you will get good quality photographs and still fit most fire scenes on 200 MB of storage.
As the saying goes, you get what you pay for, but inexpensive digital cameras are a bargain. Decide what your needs are, and you may find a camera that will suit your needs with a price tag that almost makes it disposable.