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Digital Media

Given the rapid expansion of electronic technologies in today’s society, digital material is produced and distributed in ever increasing numbers.  In forensics, the content is both captured and analyzed by scientists, photographers, analysts and other experts.  By utilizing an assortment of tools and applications, digital audio, video and still images are often retrieved, examined, and enhanced in order to assist the Medical Examiner’s staff and local law enforcement in their investigations.  Digital content not created internally can be retrieved from surveillance cameras, cell phones, computers, or flash memory cards.  In 2008, recognizing the ongoing evolution of digital media and its associated technologies, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner formed the Digital Media Section which currently consists of the Photography Unit and the Audio/Video Analysis Unit.

Photography Unit

Tools and techniques have changed dramatically in the fifty six-year history of forensicphotography at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office, but its primary purpose remains unchanged:  to provide a credible, accurate, objective visual record of medical/legal evidence.  Scenes of death or bodily injury, associated evidence, wounds, organ specimens and recognizable features of identification on a body are available for examination for only a short time. Therefore, all these subjects (a facial I.D. photo, autopsies, gross specimens, clothing, trace evidence, drugs or paraphernalia submitted to toxicology) are routinely documented by the photography staff. Afterwards, any image processing or printing is done in house. This is discreet, maintains the uninterrupted chain of possession of evidence, and facilitates the availability of image files, negatives, and prints. The photography unit also processes and archives images from the Receiving Department’s overhead cameras, and the Investigation Unit’s death scene visits, as well as copying and adding to the case file other pertinent images such as hospital or in-house X-rays or police department photos.  

Photography, as part of a case report, provides visual support to the written notes and observations of the pathologist during viewing or autopsy, the forensic scientist’s examination of clothing or evidence, and the findings of other staff members.  It is a teaching aid in lectures and a visual aid in court presentations and published research. It can also stand alone, conveying information that words cannot, and be an investigative tool in itself. Besides recording what can be seen with the human eye, photography surpasses that through a variety of special techniques, making the small large, the invisible visible, or otherwise enhancing all or some aspect of the subject.  Infrared light can be isolated and photo-documented to reveal gun shot residue, while ultraviolet light assists in identifying marks on a decedent’s skin where it has come in contact with a gun or other relevant metallic objects. Transparent overlays of impressions reproduced in a 1:1 fashion illustrate patterns that can be matched to fabric, a tool, or a tire tread, and photomicrography shows pathology of disease or the presence of foreign matter on the finest scale.

Since 1989, the Photography Unit has made use of computer hardware, software, and digital imaging technology to improve its investigative potential, resolve spatial relation questions encountered in crime and accident scenes, and complete graphic assignments more quickly and efficiently.  However, in August of 1998, the Coroner directed the Photography Unit to begin research and preparation for transition from film-based (analog) to digital photography for most of its routine tasks.  Between 1998 and 2000, the Photography Department evaluated hardware and software, resolved workflow issues, tested various file management and retrieval systems, developed and verified standard operating procedures, and trained staff.  On August 7, 2000, after 3 months of parallel testing, the Photography Unit successfully made the transition from film to digital technology.  Presently all services previously performed with film can be accomplished using digital equipment, with the highest priorities placed upon image security, image quality (resolution and color), and image file authentication and archiving.  Simultaneously, the unit is actively digitizing its fifty years’ worth of black and white and color film negatives, while maintaining the capability and expertise to produce silver-based (traditional) prints in its two darkrooms.  
Digital imaging technology has several advantages.  Images can be quickly made available to pathologists and forensic scientists so that they may complete their work more efficiently.  Proprietary image viewing software, written by the Medical Examiner’s Information Services staff, allows members of the Medical Examiner’s team to review (and order as necessary) all the image, video, and audio files associated with a case.  Additionally, photographers can review images prior to leaving remote locations such as accident or crime scenes.  Digital imaging technology is also environmentally friendly, using no silver or photographic chemistry.  Finally, and most importantly, digital imaging advances the investigative process.  Powerful image editing applications such as Adobe Photoshop and image processing and analysis software like Image-Pro Plus can be used to improve and manipulate photographs in order to quickly enhance the most subtle of details.  Adjustments in color and brightness through an assortment of software tools and filters can be applied alone or in concert to boost the visibility of a lone fingerprint or other minutiae. 

Digital Media PhotoProgress in digital imaging technologies and their application by the Medical Examiner’s Photography Unit are not limited to the enhancement of the details contained in a single photograph.  Advancements in image capture devices and unique software applications also allow for the construction of virtual reality (VR) scenes and objects.  Since 1995, VR panoramas have been created by stitching multiple images together to form a scene that surrounds the viewer.  These panoramas (often referred to as QTVRs) are typically viewed with Apple’s QuickTime software.  Since the 1990’s several companies have conceived other hardware and software solutions for the production of VRs.  One such resultant hardware and software package was developed by Spheron VR Visual Technologies and purchased by the Medical Examiner’s Office in 2007.  Other applications and products facilitate the creation of VR objects by combining a series of digital images captured while the subject is rotated.  By utilizing these technologies, staff photographers are able to present objects such as guns and shell casings and panoramas like crime and accident scenes that can be rotated and explored by pathologists, scientists, attorneys, and jurors. 
Historically, the Photography Unit at this office has also had the responsibility and the resources to produce graphics and three-dimensional constructs.  Charts, graphs, illustrations, crime scene reconstructions or other scale models are utilized in court, classrooms or publications as succinct, effective ways to make investigative, scientific, or technical points more accessible to jurors, students, or law enforcement personnel in a way that verbal description cannot. 

Going Forward

As the demand for products and services offered by the Digital Media Section increases, the dedicated staff continues to improve themselves with targeted training and instruction.  Through sustained learning, the forensic photographers and audio/video specialist are exposed to new skills, techniques, and emerging technologies.  This emphasis on education will allow the Digital Media Section to better serve the office’s forensic pathologists and scientists, Northeast Ohio’s law enforcement community, and the citizens of Cuyahoga County.


Over the years, several articles, white papers, books, organizations and other resources have been instrumental to the staff of the Digital Media Section for a variety of reasons.  The following list is not meant to be comprehensive and inclusion is not intended to be an endorsement by Cuyahoga County or the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner.  


Legal Ramifications of Digital Imaging in Law Enforcement  by Eric C. Berg.  Mr. Berg’s paper is a succinct summary of the major issues involved with introducing digital imaging technologies into a forensic or law enforcement agency.  Mr. Berg’s article is required reading in the Digital Media Section.  

Admissibility of Digital Photographic Evidence:  Should it be Any Different Than Traditional Photography? by Christina Shaw, J.D.1.  This well-written article is from the perspective of a prosecutor.  

The Admissibility of Digital Photographs in Criminal Cases by David P. Nagosky.  This is another good paper discussing digital imaging issues faced by law enforcement agencies.  

   The Color Guide and Glossary by X-Rite, Incorporated.  Written in 1998, this booklet is an outstanding guide to understanding color, color measurement, and color management.  The glossary is also quite detailed. 
The Origin of Legal Photography by Andre A. Moenssens.  First published in 1962, this article is still a great read.  

Understanding Digital Raw Capture by Bruce Fraser.  The late Mr. Fraser was widely recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on digital imaging and color reproduction.  This white paper is recommended for any agency using cameras that are digital raw capable.    


   Crime Scene Photography by Edward M. Robinson.  2007, Elsevier, Inc.  A fantastic book.  This book is well-suited for use as a training guide with exercises and additional reading included in each section.  The section covering legal issues is both informative and fascinating.  Required reading by the IAI Crime Scene Certification Board for all levels of certification.
  Digital Imaging for Photographers  by Adrian Davies and Phil Fennessey.  2001, Elsevier, Inc.  Nicely written and illustrated, this book covers most digital issues ranging from image capture to color management.
  The Image Processing Handbook by John C. Russ.  2002, CRC Press.  As a single-source handbook on image processing, this book needs to be in every digital imaging lab’s library.  Now in its fifth edition, Mr. Russ’ book remains current and relevant.
  Photography by Phil Davis. 1995, McGraw Hill.  A comprehensive photography textbook.  Digital imaging is only briefly mentioned.
  Photography by Barbara London Upton with John Upton.  1989, Harper Collins Publishers.  This is another fantastic photography textbook.  This book has superior illustrations and continues to be among the top selling photography reference books.  Now in its ninth edition and authored by Barbara London, Jim Stone, and John Upton, this textbook continues to be significant.
Photoshop CS3 for Forensic Professionals by George Reis. 2007, Wiley Publishing.  Finally a book that enumerates Photoshop tools as they specifically apply to forensic applications.  Mr. Reis has been utilizing digital imaging technology for quite a while and this book shares his wealth of experience.
Pixel Photography by Robert McMahan.  1993, The Olive Press.  This book was an excellent illustrated resource when digital imaging was arguably still in its infancy.  The book seemed to target the beginner but the drawings are still germane.

Police Photography by Sam J. Sansone. 1977, Anderson Publishing Co.  The original can still be found occasionally on eBay and is a great addition to any forensic photography library.  Mr. Sid Pancner, the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office’s first staff photographer, is credited with contributing several images.  Larry Miller has done a very nice job of keeping this book current.
The Practical Methodology of Forensic Photography by David Redsicker. 1994, CRC Press.  A practical, how-to, guide to various forensic photography scenarios.  A book that should be in every forensic photography library.
Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS  by Bruce Fraser.  2005, Peachpit Press.  A must-have reference if your agency is currently shooting camera raw.  This clearly written guide allows one to get the most out of the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in.  The most current edition, released in December 2008, is crafted for CS4 and is co-authored by Jeff Schewe.
  Real World Color Management by Bruce Fraser, Chris Murphy, and Fred Bunting.  2005, Peachpit Press.  One of the better guides to color management.  This book discusses all aspects of theoretical and practical color management and does a superior job of discussing input and output profiles.

Other Resources

Evidence Photographers International Council (EPIC) EPIC is an educational and scientific organization dedicated to the advancement of forensic photography and videography in civil evidence & law enforcement.  Epic offers a well-respected Evidence Photographer Certification program and recommends numerous photographic resources for members.  

International Association for Identification (IAI) An international organization formed to further the aims of the identification profession.  IAI sponsors training, guidelines, certifications, and a peer-reviewed journal.  

Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association International (LEVA) LEVA is committed to improving the quality of video training and promoting the use of state-of-the-art, effective equipment in the law enforcement and emergency services community.  

Scientific Working Group on Digital Evidence (SWGDE) SWGDE brings together organizations actively engaged in the field of digital and multimedia evidence to foster communication and cooperation as well as ensuring quality and consistency within the forensic community.  

Scientific Working Group on Imaging Technologies (SWGIT) SWGIT was created to develop guidelines for good practices for use of imaging technologies within the criminal justice system.