Being a forensic or police photographer isn’t exactly a walk in the park: you’ll need a stomach of steel, the ability to work long, anti-social shifts, and an inquisitive and critical mind. The pay isn’t stellar, and most people will hardly be thrilled to see you. That said, the rewards are immense, as you get to play a vital role in the capture and conviction of criminals; and you’ll also get an inkling into the dark and deeply personal world of people’s private lives.
If that sounds like something you’d do, we’ve researched four steps to becoming the person with camera in tow at a crime scene.
1. What’s the job, Guv? It’s in the description.
You’ll need a passion for photography, and an eye for detail. Chances are you’ll have completed a photography course and have a deep understanding of perspective, scale and lighting. These snaps need to develop perfectly: remember, you’re going to present your findings at court and you want them to be as accurate as possible. You’ll be taking sketches and making notes – an aptitude for neatness, and art, will go a long way. This occupation requires an accurate representation of the scene (this may be difficult in poorly lit areas or at road traffic accidents for instance). Expressive types beware: a good forensic photographer will avoid any artistic interpretation of the scene to avoid any misinterpretation. You’ll also need to acquire a National College Of Policing qualification, in addition to any you may already have, and a word of warning for the keen – this is extremely competitive process.
Following qualification, you’ll be in the enviable position of crossing the blue-and-white line at crime scenes. The truth is, dedicated police photographers are increasingly rare entities, so most individuals taking photos on behalf of the police will be SOCOs (Scenes of Crime Officers). Their responsibilities are (in descending priority) forensics, fingerprinting and, finally, photography. In the past, forces have had specialist photographers as well as SOCO. This proved to be too time consuming and repetitive in the present economic climate expensive to keep these roles distinct. The majority of your job, then, will be examining crime scenes for fingerprints, and of course, swabbing for trace evidence. This is not nearly as dire as it sounds — as obtaining these items is fascinating and poses its own unique challenges.
Chances are you’ll be working up to twelve-hour shifts (unless you’re on call) and will be given a list of jobs, in accordance to their urgency, a van, and told to get cracking. From there, you’re on the road, taking photos of crime scenes, dusting, seizing and swabbing. From then, you’re back in the office, doing your paperwork – and a lot of it – to ensure everything you’ve seized is evidentially sound. Whilst his may sound a bit boring, you’ll still be crossing that line and snapping whatever is on the other side – murder victims, serious assaults, and car wrecks.
2. Tools of the trade.
The equipment that is provided to SOCOs is quite simple. This isn’t primarily a matter of funding, it’s more a function of reliability. After all, SOCO need durable equipment that can be dependable in extremely tough conditions. The standard for years has been the Nikon FM2 with a 50mm lens. The move to digital photography equipment is, now, fairly widespread – but digital cameras pose a unique challenge in terms of auditablity (for court purposes it must be shown that the equipment has not been tampered with, and digital photos can be, potentially, easily erased). You’ll also be lugging a van full of equipment with you: tripods, lights, lenses. Mastering your equipment is crucial to becoming a skilled photographer. Familiarise yourself with the innumerable settings on modern cameras, so you can produce as realistic a shot as possible. It’ll be a good idea to build a portfolio of true-to-life shots, and refer to to them in your application.
3. The price for a good snapshot.
In terms of finances, this depends largely on which role you land: some forces have posts of Volume Crime Examiner or Forensic Vehicle Examiner in addition to SOCOs. Practically, working as this type of officer is going to involve far less training, and therefore the rewards are going to be much lower. Much of the work is going to be extremely repetitive – it’s called volume crime for a reason — but it will give you an excellent foundation in the basic skills you’ll need, plus a way to show experience in the relevant field. Volume crime examiners are paid around £14,000, plus a shift allowance. From there, there are four other levels of SOCO and reward is commensurate with training, level and skill — ranging from around £21,000 to around £45,000 for a senior supervisor. Not only are all these roles competitive and extremely difficult to get into, there will only be a few managerial positions in each force. That said, there is the potential for extensive training, and shift allowance also available.
In terms of training, if you’re fortunate enough to get the position, you’ll ascend to the Initial Crime Scene Investigator Course. Not only will this help you to manage and preserve your scenes, it will encourage you to think with a broad-minded perspective, which helps you determine what might have caused the incident – and detect things that the untrained might miss. From then you’re under a two-year probation and will spend a series of weeks shadowing other SOCO officers to learn how they work. During your development, you’ll be sent to a variety of courses, which includes everything from manual handling; health and safety; bomb scene management; and the packing of exhibits. Your work over the two-year period will be building a portfolio of competencies, so you can be signed-off as a qualified forensics practitioner. It’s after all this that you’ll attain the Holy Grail: the qualifying Forensics Diploma.
4. Signing the contract: getting to work.
If it all sounds good to you, you’re not alone. As we’ve said, the path to becoming a SOCO is extremely competitive and, with the popularity of shows like CSI and the sheer number of Universities now offering dedicated forensics courses, there are more applicants year on year.
If you want to get started, your best bet is to contact a local police force to get an idea of any vacancies that may be open. Your background will be essential to you landing the job, particularly if you have an aptitude for photography. They’ll also be looking at your decision making skills, and your ability to accurately evidence your actions. A potential way in is via a Volume Crime Examiner role, but again, nothing is guaranteed. Follow the application instructions to the letter. If you are fortunate enough to be granted an interview, think how to answer questions on why you want the job, and how you would cope with the gorier aspects of the work: these are two standard interview questions which are highly likely.
Your Turn: Are you a SOCO or a forensic photographer with a few tips for aspiring professionals? Are you an amateur photographer looking to ascend to this career? Let us know in the comments with your own personal experiences.