The Right Way to Shoot Crime Scene Video

~ BY JAMES CARELESS ~  The good news: Crime scene video has become an essential aspect of the U.S. judicial system, opening up lots of employment opportunities for videographers nationwide. The bad news: The onus is on the videographer to shoot the evidence properly, using methods that do not distort, omit or sensationalize what happened at the crime scene.
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~ BY JAMES CARELESS ~

The good news: Crime scene video has become an essential aspect of the U.S. judicial system, opening up lots of employment opportunities for videographers nationwide. The bad news: The onus is on the videographer to shoot the evidence properly, using methods that do not distort, omit or sensationalize what happened at the crime scene.

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Henderson enters the Branch Davidian compound near Waco in 1993.

In particular, the kind of attention-grabbing blood-and-guts shots that are sought after by news crews are shunned by crime scene videographers. The latter know that shooting footage that is too graphic for the jury to stomach, can result in the judge throwing out the video entirely.

Gene Henderson is a veteran crime scene shooter, documenting crime scenes, incidents, and reenactments with photographs and video for the Texas Department of Public Safety since 1982. He’s taught crime scene and critical incident videography classes for the Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association International (LEVA) throughout the United States and Canada for about 15 years.

BE PREPARED

Shooting crime scene video properly starts with preparation. This means first assembling all the equipment you are likely to require for the job; not just your camcorder, batteries and fluid head tripod, but brand-name recording media, batterypowered lights (including a camera light), microphones, external monitor, lens filters, an AC adaptor to power the camcorder and recharge batteries, and cables for transferring your recordings to other storage devices.

Next, “You need to know your camera inside-out before you start shooting a crime scene,” said Henderson. “You need to be comfortable using manual focusing-because you don’t want the autofocus to ruin a shot—and you need to be able to shoot stable handheld video, because judges do not appreciate wobbly footage.”

Today, Henderson works as a forensic video specialist with the DPS’s Crime Lab.

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Outside the “Embassy of Texas”

He also recommends disabling or covering the camcorder’s tally light to avoid distracting people working the scene.

And, he recommends having a dummy plug to put into your microphone jack, because it is vital not to record audio at a crime scene unless specifically directed to. “The problem is human nature,” he said. “When people working the scene aren’t talking about the job, chances are that they will be making casual comments or even jokes.”

Crime scene shooters should always follow whatever chain of evidence procedure their client department is using. It is vital to provide properly documented video of unquestioned origin. So Henderson recommends using “in-camera editing”— you start and pause the tape as you move around the crime scene and then provide an unedited dub of the footage to the authorities.

SCOUT THE SCENE

Time is of the essence when shooting a crime scene, to minimize the deterioration of the evidence. But time is no excuse for flicking on the camera as soon as you arrive, or charging into the scene without first knowing what you need to shoot. Henderson goes over the scene first with an investigator, if possible, to understand what needs to be shot.

Typically, Henderson prepares an opening ID screen to identify the footage, which he writes on a piece and paper and then shoots. It includes the name of the police department, his name and any other crew members.

Henderson begins his crime scene shoots with exterior wide-angle footage, to put the locale into context. He then works towards the scene itself, using only gentle pans and a minimum of zooms and pullbacks. “I only use a tripod for closeups/ macros of evidence such as serial numbers on weapons, latent prints, or blood spatter—and sometimes 360 pans of the area,” he said. Otherwise, this shooter goes handheld.

DIFFERENT CRIMES

Henderson uses different shooting strategies to document different crimes.

“If I am covering a homicide, I take care to work my way up to the victim, to give the jury a chance to desensitize themselves,” he said. “Outside, I do a slow 360-degree pan. Inside, I stand in a corner and do a wide shoot sweep from left to right. I do any tilts after the pan ends; I don’t want the viewer to get seasick. I then go to the opposite corner, and repeat the sweep.”

Henderson’s goal in shooting a homicide scene is to document the truth in as neutral a manner as possible. Doing this requires taking a wide shot of the body, then closeup shots of weapons, wound, and any nearby evidence.

For arson, after taking a 360-degree exterior pan, Henderson shoots hot spots to show flame height and the speed of spreading. “I also take shoots of the crowd, since some arsonists stick around to enjoy their work,” he said. Once the fire is out, he takes interior shots of the damage, with an eye towards burn patterns to help investigators figure where the fire was started and how it grew. Outside, he takes shots of the scene to capture the overall devastation. Again, he only shoots what is necessary to document position and state of victims, wherever they may be found.

Bomb sites are different again. After taking a wide shot of the site, Gene Henderson zooms into the assumed detonation spot. He then stands at this spot, and takes a slow 360-degree pan to capture what happened from this perspective. “I also look for debris and bomb damage on buildings as such.”

Finally, accident recreations are shot in a narrative fashion, beginning at the point when the accident began and walking through to where it culminated. “Don’t forget the opening 360-degree pan, and be sure to capture any skid marks, damaged road and property that may have been caused,” Henderson said. “Ideally, your footage should help the jury recreate what happened.”

A COOL HEAD

The last element every crime scene videographer needs to bring to the job is a calm, cool head. This can be difficult when the scene is particularly gruesome, and involves children.

“Stay focused on the video,” Henderson said. “Use the camera to look closely; sometimes seeing the eyepiece can be less disturbing than face-toface. And remember that the better you do your work, the more likely the person who caused this pain is to be brought to justice.”

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