Being a forensic photographer may not be for everyone. You will a need a stomach of steel, an eye for detail, be willing to work long shifts, and have an inquisitive and critical mind. Although most people will not be happy to see you, the personal rewards for working in this field are immeasurable. Forensic photography plays a vital role in the capture and conviction of criminals and in getting justice.
What Is a Forensic Photographer?
A forensic photographer, or evidence photographer, is a professional photographer with a special skill set for producing exact, detailed, photographic records of a crime scene and the physical evidence within that crime scene. Crime scene photos document the precise location of victims, shell casings, footprints, blood spatter, and other physical evidence, such as weapons, to create a permanent, visual, record of the scene.
Forensic photographers are often asked to make sketches and take notes as well. Forensic photography careers often include being present and capturing images during an autopsy at the coroner’s office.
Ultimately, producing tangible images suitable for a court proceeding is the goal. Honing your skills in lighting, angles, and lenses will assure that the photographs can be analyzed, enlarged, and submitted into court proceedings as evidence. A forensic photographer will need to offer a variety of photos, such as close-up images (for the showing of fine detail), context images, and overall images. A well trained forensic photographer must be able to work in a chaotic, challenging, and often emotionally distressing environment.
Career Outlook & Salary in Forensic Photography
In recent years, due to the current economy situation in the U.S., many forensic photographers have begun to hold a dual role and be titled as SOCO (Scenes of Crime Officers), a Forensic Field Technician, or a working police officer or investigator. You may be required to assist in collecting trace evidence and gathering fingerprints as well as in photography.
Because of this dual role, a true, dedicated forensic photographer, is rare in most police forces today. For strictly forensic photographers–who have no other function–the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a decline in job demand of approximately 8%. The current median wage is $34,000 a year.
Do not be discouraged, however. Becoming a forensic Field Technician, which allows you to work as more than just a forensic photographer, could be the way to go, and this job has a marked growth rate increase expected. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics is expecting a 17% increase through the year 2026, and the job offers a competitive median wage of approximately $56,000 a year.
12 Tips to Help You Get Started
So how do you get started? Here’s our top 12 recommendations to help you achieve your goal of becoming a successful forensic photographer.
Obtain a degree in photography. While there are some law enforcement agencies that do not require you to have a degree, most do. Having a degree in photography shows that you have mastered the art. Many photography degrees and schools even have specialty areas of study, including forensic photography.
Forensic photography workshops teach candidates how to process a crime scene, from collecting evidence, to lighting, to photographing fingerprints and working with chemicals such as luminal. Some even cover law enforcement software used in photography.
Do not limit yourself to the idea of just photography! Making yourself more marketable by becoming qualified to hold a dual role within the law enforcement sector will open more doors than one would think. All forensic photographers must have an understanding of law enforcement methods and conventions. Consider earning a certificate or degree in the forensic sciences field. Many schools offer programs that you can complete in as little as 1 year. The more education and training you acquire, the more you will stand out and be offered more professional opportunities.
In the world of photography, hone your skills! The field of forensic photography is highly competitive. Photographers must have a meticulous approach to their work. It is imperative that photographers be able to select and use the proper equipment under many varying conditions. Crime scene images must be correctly exposed, lit, focused, and possess a maximum depth of field. Professional forensic photographers will know the correct lighting, lenses, and angles to use in every situation. Scale, resolution, and viewpoints are essential in meeting the rigorous, technical standards required in forensic photography.
When choosing a school, do your research! There are virtually thousands of schools that offer programs in either photography or forensics, or both. Establish what your goals are. Are you looking just for a photography program? Maybe you already have a photography degree and are looking only to gain education and training in forensics.
If you are completely new to the forensic photography field, you may want to choose a school that offers an actual Forensic Photography Program, which will cover both sides of your training. Once you’ve decided what route you are taking, know what you wish to achieve from your education. Consider the following:
- Does the school off field trips? (I.e. to a coroner’s office or crime scene investigation lab)
- Does the school coordinate internships?
- What level of education will you receive? (I.e. certificate, diploma, degree)
- Will the school help you to prepare for certification? (International Association for Identification)
- How long is the program?
- Is the school accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Boar
Consider an internship. While internships are rare, many students have been fortunate to find a law enforcement agency that allows them to intern while completing their studies. Job shadowing or interning can give a prospective forensic photographer an immense amount of knowledge. Watching, learning, and asking questions from someone who is already in the field can greatly enhance your own skills, abilities, and understanding.
Don’t limit yourself to thinking the only forensic photography jobs available are with your local police departments. Expand your search when entering into the forensic fields. Many other agencies offer careers within forensic photography, such as:
- 1Federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI
- 2State police departments
- 3Private forensic science labs
- 4Private detectives
- 5Law firms
After working as a forensic photographer, get a professional certification through the International Association for Identification. Candidates must have:
- Have had a minimum of 3 years photography experience
- Completed 40 hours of classroom, photography courses from a college, police academy, FBI academy, IAI training course or related institutions
- Currently hold a job in the forensic science field where forensic photography is one of his/her duties
- Submit 2 letters of endorsement
- Pass a written exam
Pursue continuing education. The more qualified and experienced an applicant is, the more they are afforded attractive, professional opportunities.
Enhancing your educational portfolio will expound your ability to grow within the field. Forensic sciences cover many avenues, all of which will enhance your experience. Related areas of study to consider are:
- Crime Scene Technician/Crime Scene Investigation Certificate
- Associate in Applied Science (A.A.S.) in Criminal Justice
- Bachelor of Art (B.A.) in Photography with a Specialization in Forensics
- Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Forensics or Crime Scene Investigation
Be prepared to supplement your income. Most forensic photographers do not work full time for law enforcement. Much of the time, in smaller, more rural, areas, there is not as great of a need due to less crime. Even in larger, metropolitan regions, your workload depends on the crime load.
Take an honest look at who you are, at your core. Do you possess the key personality traits needed to become a forensic photographer? Forensic photographers cannot be squeamish. You will routinely photograph bloody crime scenes and victims, and sadly, some of these will be children. The gruesome details of these crimes must be recorder, and you will be working in this environment for long, tedious hours. Forensic photographers can work in a wide range of conditions as well including outside in harsh weather conditions, extreme temperatures, rain, and snow.
Work hard, show drive and determination, and be flexible. One of the best ways to excel in this field, when starting out, is to observe and learn. Jump at every chance you get, even if just to assist in a crime scene investigation. A lot of the knowledge needed to be successful as a forensic photographer will be the things you learn hands-on.
Pursue your dreams. If this is the career path for you, don’t give up. Make sure you set your goals for what you need to do and follow through with them. Do not give up when you receive your first “no”. There are a vast number of agencies out there. Keep trying. Keeping applying. If you need to, expand your search area.
A career in forensic photography has been glamorized by Hollywood. While it may be a long, tedious, and stressful job, at times, this career offers an immeasurable amount of gratification. You go home every day knowing you are a part of a team that helps put criminals behind bars and keeps our lives safer.