On-Scene Photography for a Traffic Accident
Editor's note: This article was written by Michael Miranda of Mj Traffic Accident Reconstruction. The opinions expressed here belong to Michael Miranda.
A picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true in a traffic accident investigation. Photographing the scene of a traffic accident is probably the second most requested task that a private investigator will receive from a client. An important part of accident investigation is recording information so that it can be used later. Photography is an indispensable means of achieving this.
Photographs are useful in two ways: to create a permanent, accurate, and unbiased record of something specifically observed by an investigator and to capture the detailed appearance of something such as a mark on the road or damage to a vehicle. Photographs may later reveal significant details that were not observed at the time the picture was taken.
Tell a Story
Once you obtain the police photographs, if any, the question is what should I photograph? Remember, your photographs need to tell a story. We are a highly visual society and people have a difficult time comprehending complex actions and ideas without something visual to help them understand. This is especially true with juries. Think of what the story is and how you would explain it to a jury using only the picture you took.
Set the Scene
If you know, either by measurements or police photographs, the final position of the vehicles or bodies, photograph their positions at final rest. On scene, take photographs of the approach path of each vehicle to include sightlines and any obstructions, temporary or permanent. Include recognizable landmarks that help identify the location of the accident. Include wide shots that help orient close-up shots. Use a ruler or other object of known size to orient the evidence by size. Attempt to locate the point-of-impact (POI) and photograph its location and the views to and from that point. Utilizing an overhead view or map can assist with locating important positions.
Talk to Witnesses
Try to establish the driver and witness points-of-view and what they saw or could have seen based on visibility allowed by the surrounding area. Take photographs from the vantage points of witnesses. Having the witness mark their location on a map will assist with establishing their point-of-view.
Focus on the Vehicle
If you are photographing the vehicles at a tow yard, use a minimum of the four-corner approach in which you capture all sides of the vehicle for a complete exterior view. If you can gain access to all sides of the vehicle and the interior, take additional shots. Work systematically, moving circularly around the vehicle. Photograph the front, the back, and especially the license plate. Don’t overlook the VIN plate or NADAR sticker to identify the vehicle. Take interior shots if you can especially if you are trying to show the damage and how it relates to the occupants. Watch for sharp edges when completing interior shots.
What kind of camera should you use? This depends on how you plan to use it. The more technical the work, the more high-end your camera should be. Digital cameras of at least ten megapixels are best. A quality digital camera can be purchased for as little as $50, and you can take as many pictures as you need without worrying about printing costs. Digital cameras also provide instant viewing either through the screen or by downloading photographs to a laptop. There is nothing worse than taking a huge number of photographs and then finding out you have no film in the camera or the pictures are out of focus. You can also take hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs on a single eight gigabyte SD card.
Your camera should have an autofocus function as well as a manual focus. Auto-focus is good for that quick shot you need to quickly take before a truck runs you over. Manual focus helps you get the close-up shot without the auto-focus locking in on something in the background. Most digital cameras have a zoom feature. Zoom is good for focusing on small items such as tears, hair, blood spatter, and so on. A macro feature is also good for focusing on these small items.
Automatic focusing is not ideal when taking nighttime photographs. A good flash, either external or part of the camera, is also useful to have but watch for washout caused by the flash hitting a reflective surface. Flash is also good for highlighting detail in a shot. Nighttime photography is difficult, at best. A high-quality camera with a high-quality external flash is best for nighttime shots. With an external flash and a sturdy tripod, an investigator can “paint the scene” with the flash. Watch for reflective surfaces or bright lights and objects in the background. Autofocus will try to focus on these and your main object will be blurry.
Point-and-shoot cameras with autofocus are good for most photographs you take on a scene. But learn the basics of manual operation of your camera. Knowing how to manually access the settings on your camera will provide quality photographs of the scene that can be used in your case. Learn the “exposure triangle” and how the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed affect one another.
I highly recommend taking a photography class. There are a number of classes, both in-person or online, that are readily available and most are very inexpensive or free. Professional instruction will help with the proper methods for taking quality evidentiary shots. A quality camera and tripod are a necessity so know how to use your camera before you go to the scene. Many investigators arrive on a scene and try to learn how to use their camera while there. Make sure your camera battery is charged and have a spare battery. Choose a camera without internal memory. Instead, use quality SD cards and have a backup to your backup when the pictures are downloaded. Caution should be exercised if you use a cell phone as it can be taken as evidence, and that includes everything on it.
If you are using a video camera as part of the scene photography, be aware of the audio portion. Watch what is said by either you or your assistants. Make sure people are not in the shot unless it is necessary and avoid horseplay as it may be seen by a jury.
If you have any doubt if something should be photographed, take the picture. As with measurements, it is better to have too many and not need them than to have too few and regret not having them. Practice, practice, and practice. Try taking pictures of different objects at different angles or distances. Use the manual settings to discover how they will improve your picture taking. Use different light sources and from different angles. Imagine what you will need to photograph at a traffic accident scene and practice taking those kinds of pictures before you need to do so for a client.
About the Author
Michael Miranda is a retired Trooper serving over 28 years in the Colorado State Patrol and attained ACTAR accreditation in 2000. After retirement, he was a Criminal Investigator for the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office and was assigned as the Lead Investigator for the Vehicular Homicide Response Team. Michael is a Colorado Licensed Private Investigator.