Snapshots of Justice: The Evolution and Impact of Crime Scene Photography

Standing to document the worst parts of human nature cannot be easy. But that’s precisely what crime scene photographers do each day in order to bring justice to victims. 

Their lenses capture the silent and stark details that become critical to so many investigations. We often see their images in true crime documentaries or news reports and they offer us a glimpse into the depth of their important work. But what’s behind these powerful photos? The truth is crime scene photography has a rich history and continues to experience exciting advancements that improve investigators’ ability to find the truth. 

Early Beginnings of Crime Scene Photography 

Snapshots of Justice: The Evolution and Impact of Crime Scene Photography

The roots of forensic photography can be traced back to Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer and biometrics researcher in the late 19th century. Bertillon is widely recognized for introducing systematic forensic photography, not to mention credited as the likely inventor of the mug shot. He innovated a method known as “Bertillonage,” using standardized photography alongside measurements for identifying criminals. This pioneering work laid the groundwork for modern forensic photography, establishing the importance of visual documentation in capturing crucial details and preserving the integrity of crime scenes.

➡️For a fascinating and in-depth look at the history of crime scene photography, you’ve got to read this article from Talk Death

The Case of Mary Phagan

One historical case that underscores the importance of forensic photography is the murder of Mary Phagan in 1913. Thirteen-year-old Phagan was found strangled in a pencil factory basement amidst a scene layered with crucial evidence. Forensic photographers meticulously documented every detail, from the cord used to strangle her to a note left near her lifeless body. These enduring images offered a detailed, unalterable view into the grim scene, guiding systematic investigation and aiding courtroom presentations. Despite controversies surrounding the trial and conviction of Leo Frank, the accused, forensic photographs provided a reliable and objective narrative, establishing an unshakable foundation for case analysis and underlining the emerging importance of this specialty in criminal investigations.

Forensic Photography in the Digital Age

In today’s era, crime scene photography has evolved exponentially, harnessing state-of-the-art technologies to enhance the precision and depth of investigative documentation.  The resolution levels of our cameras today allow investigators to capture crime scenes in immense detail. Even Most twelve megapixels or greater cameras can produce photographs capable of enlargement to 16″ x 20″ for court exhibits, and many photographers have cameras with an even higher resolution. This allows for capturing even the tiniest of details, such as fibers, fingerprints, or trace evidence that might be missed by the human eye.

Even more recently, there have been exciting developments in this area allowing us to see, and even experience, crime scenes in greater detail: 

3D Imaging: Offers an immersive, detailed view, allowing for a more thorough analysis, and capturing details beyond conventional 2D photography’s capabilities.

Drones: Ensures comprehensive and unobstructed documentation of crime scenes, providing a fuller picture and aiding in a more exhaustive investigation.

Infrared Photography:Reveals concealed evidence such as gunpowder residue or bloodstains, bolstering the investigative process.

Integration with Virtual Reality: Facilitates immersive exploration of crime scene photos and: delivers a unique, detailed perspective for investigators, enhancing insight, and collaboration.

These advancements and more collectively revolutionize the gathering and analysis of forensic evidence. 

Notable Cases in Forensic Photography 

The Boston Marathon Bombing

Forensic photography played an indispensable role in the investigation of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. Post-explosion, investigators faced the arduous task of sifting through an immense volume of photographic evidence from various sources, including surveillance cameras, media personnel, and bystanders’ cell phones. This collection of images, both moving and still, formed a comprehensive visual record of the event and its aftermath. Analyzing the plethora of images, investigators meticulously pieced together the timeline of the event, identified the suspects, and reconstructed the bomb placement and detonation sequence. The crowd-sourced images provided additional vantage points, capturing crucial moments and details that might have been missed otherwise. 

Denise Sharon Kulb

The cold-case murder of Denise Sharon Kulb in 1991 stands as a testament to forensic photography’s pivotal role in crime resolution. When Trooper Andrew Martin revisited the case in 2015, he engaged the expertise of Byron Wolfe, a professor from Temple University. Wolfe deftly enhanced two-decade-old photographs, unveiling key details. Among these details was a sock matching another from Theodore Dill Donahue’s apartment. This evidence breathed new life into the case, leading to Donahue’s arrest after nearly 28 years. The entire sry tohighlights just how essential forensic photography is in uncovering hidden evidence and finally shedding light on unresolved mysteries.

The Arrest of Stephen Keating

Child predator Stephen Keating was brought to justice through a tiny clue in a photo he posted online. The photograph of one of his victims in his bathroom held the key to his identification. Experts from the Homeland Security Investigations Cyber Crimes Center, under the leadership of Jim Cole, utilized sophisticated technology to read an obscured prescription bottle label from the image. These cutting-edge techniques led to Keating’s sentencing of 110 years in prison, resulting in 14 victims getting justice. 

How Forensic Photography Works

Before Arrival On Scene

Prior to reaching the crime scene, forensic photographers undergo significant preparation to ensure thorough and accurate documentation of the scene. This stage encompasses a rigorous equipment check to ensure the operability of cameras, lenses, tripods, lighting setups, and additional necessary gear. Proper calibration and cleaning are imperative to ensure the clarity and detail of the images captured, enabling a seamless and efficient photography process upon arrival at the crime scene.

At the Crime Scene

Upon arrival, a structured, systematic process is followed to capture every detail meticulously. Different types of photography are utilized:

Overview Shots: Offer a holistic view, highlighting the relationships between various elements within and around the crime scene.

Mid-Range Shots: Concentrate on specific sections or objects within the crime scene, giving more detail while still providing contextual information.

Close-Up Shots: Document intricate details, such as fingerprints, blood patterns, or tiny pieces of evidence, ensuring every minute element is recorded.

This multi-level approach ensures comprehensive visual documentation for further analysis, investigation, and legal use.

Evidence Photography

An additional essential facet is evidence photography, capturing detailed images of specific pieces of evidence within the crime scene and in controlled settings. Photographing items like weapons, clothing, and other pertinent objects from multiple perspectives offers a well-rounded visual record. This detailed imagery is vital for extensive forensic examination and plays an instrumental role in court proceedings, offering a clear visual representation of the physical evidence.


Post-processing is a delicate phase where images may be enhanced for improved visibility and detail. Adjustments can include modifications to brightness, contrast, and sharpness while maintaining the integrity of the original image. This careful balance ensures the continued reliability and legality of the photographic evidence in court, underscoring the indispensable role of forensic photography in the judicial process.

➡️For a glimpse into the world and mind of well-known forensic photographer Nick Marsh, watch this video

Final Thoughts

Crime scene photography allows us to shine a light on crime while also revealing gruesome truths in great detail. As part art and part science, crime scene photography’s rich history continues to shape criminal justice and as technology evolves, so will this important facet of investigation work

Lou Nightingale
Author: Lou Nightingale

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