Author Q&A: Christopher D. Duncan

A brief Q&A with Christopher D. Duncan, author of Advanced Crime Scene Photography (2nd Edition).


As anyone who has spent much time wielding a camera understands, photographing something that is a “fair and accurate representation” of reality is much more complex than clicking the shutter button. In the second edition of his book, Advanced Crime Scene Photography, Christopher D. Duncan applies his experience in the field to help crime scene investigators find creative, realistic ways to document evidence.

We asked Duncan a few questions about the impetus for the book, about photography in general, and crime scene photography specifically.
To read an excerpt from the book, go to this issue’s Digital Edition:
For more information on the book, click the thumbnail below:

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What prompted you to write Advanced Crime Scene Photography?
CHRISTOPHER D. DUNCAN: I was approached by Becky McEldowney Masterman (CRC Press) after I had won the International Association for Identification’s Forensic Photography Contest and asked if I might be interested in writing a book on crime scene photography. I was in the middle of graduate school and informed her that I couldn’t think about such a big project until after I graduated. Becky kept my name and number and called me just as I graduated and encouraged me to begin the process of writing the book. The rest is history. Although I have written routinely for forensic journals over the years, I doubt I would have attempted writing an entire book without the encouragement of Becky.
ETM: What new material will readers find in the Second Edition of Advanced Crime Scene Photography?
Duncan: There are a couple of big changes found in the second edition. I do quite a bit of teaching and have recently had the opportunity to teach a number of fire and arson investigators about scene photography. They informed me that there was a significant lack of information about photographing fire scenes and the challenges faced by fire investigators. As a result, I have added an entire chapter on photographing fire scenes and how to deal with common photographic challenges found at those types of scenes. A second major addition is the inclusion of end-of-chapter review questions and photography assignments or practical exercises. The first edition has been utilized by some college forensic course instructors and the review questions and practical exercises were added to make the book more useful or beneficial to those course instructors and their students.
ETM: What are three of the biggest mistakes made by crime scene photographers?
Duncan: This is a good question—I think every forensic photographer should have knowledge of their own individual strengths and weaknesses. From my experience working actual crime scenes and teaching in the classroom, I think the major mistake made by photographers is allowing the camera to make too many decisions. Utilizing all the automatic features available on the camera truly prevents the photographer from taking advantage of choosing the best ISO, aperture, and shutter-speed values and selecting the best focal point for any particular image—any of which could create much better photographic images.
The second mistake is not taking enough photographs. Recording a comprehensive and informative collection of scene photographs is a meticulous chore and, for whatever reason, I find that too many photographers come up a little short in recording a full true and accurate portrayal of the crime scene and of the investigation.
The third mistake I see far too often is the unfortunately high occurrence of not recording a clear, sharp-focused image. The two most common causes of out of focus images are having too slow of a shutter speed and lacking understanding on how an auto-focus camera chooses a focus point.
ETM: How does creativity factor into crime scene photography?
Duncan: Crime scene photographers must have a creative streak in them. Crime scenes are not always the best-illuminated and easily photographable environments; being able to think outside the box and solve a challenging photographic composition is vital. Painting with light, photographing scenes with a great deal of contrast, and photographing individual pieces of evidence on a macro scale are all opportunities for a photographer to utilize all their knowledge and skills in recording truly creative and informative pictures.
ETM: Has the proliferation of point-and-shoot cameras/features helped or hindered the process of crime scene photography?
Duncan: “Point and Shoot” cameras have been around since the “Brownie” camera was introduced in 1900 and advertised with the slogan, “You Push the Button, We do the Rest.” Consequently, I don’t think the proliferation of automatic cameras today really has any more impact on crime scene photographers than any other time in the past. I do think too many photographers tend to take the “automatic” or easy way out of photography on occasion, but I am not sure that is a result of today’s camera equipment, but instead is a result of not understanding how the camera and light work together to create an image. However, the immediate gratification that comes with digital imaging has shown photographers where their photographs come up a little short in their compositions. As a result, I believe digital imaging has improved the overall compositions of investigators. And as photographic experience is gained, the photographer will hopefully also gain the knowledge and creativity to fix any shortcomings.
ETM: Full frame or crop sensor?
Duncan: Full-frame sensors are hands-down a better option for any photographer. The ability that full-frame sensors have in their range of ISO values and their ability to record extraordinarily long exposures without developing “noise” in the images make them the clear winner between the two (full frame or crop sensor). However, crop-sensor cameras are typically far less expensive and although their processed images are not as good as full-frame sensor cameras, the cost of the camera is typically the primary factor in their selection by fiscal minded public entities.
ETM: Can you give an example or two of the more challenging photographic situations you have encountered in your career?
Duncan: I worked the night shift for ten years and loved photographing shooting incidents because I liked to use my lasers in order to photograph the approximate flight paths of bullets. However, when I transferred to the day shift, I was told I wouldn’t be able to reconstruct shooting scenes with lasers any longer. I kept thinking about how I could photograph lasers in the daytime and I eventually found the right combination of neutral density filters and high quality lasers in order to record daytime laser compositions. This is another example of creativity and knowledge combining to record a valuable piece of photographic evidence.
Photographing the unseen continues to be a challenge in my work. Whether it is bruising that has healed or gunshot residue hidden in the fabric of a black sweatshirt, I am always striving to record a meaningful and telling photograph from something you cannot see with the naked eye. An added benefit of photographing these unseen pieces of evidence is that the photographic process is non-invasive and does not interfere with any other testing that may occur.

ETM: Where is a good place to start when specifying photography equipment for your CSI unit?
Duncan: Of course, a quality SLR digital camera is of paramount importance. However, excluding the camera, I believe a quality tripod is the number-one piece of equipment a photographer should possess. The tripod is all too often overlooked by photographers as being important in a scene’s documentation.
My personal camera case has a full-frame digital camera, a 24-105mm lens, a macro lens, a cable release, a quality external flash and sync chord, as well as an assortment of scales, filters, and spare storage-media cards. Every photographer will collect an assortment of tools and toys during their career and the most valuable tools will be those that are routinely used to create the most impressive and valuable photographs.
ETM: Where should people get started with training / learning more?
Duncan: Practice, Practice, Practice. All the books, training, and education won’t help someone improve their photography skills unless they practice what they learn—and then evaluate their work by taking a critical look at their body of work in order to identify the deficiencies found in the images and developing a strategy to record a better image in the next composition.

About Christopher D. Duncan
Christopher (Chris) D. Duncan is a senior police officer with the Houston (Tex.) Police Department and has been assigned to the Identification Division, Crime Scene Unit, since 1997. Prior to transferring to the Identification Division, he was assigned to patrol duties, including spending two years as a Gang Task Force Officer. He began his career with the Alexandria Sheriff’s Department just after graduating from George Mason University with a BA in history. In 2007, he earned his MA in criminology from the University of Houston–Clear Lake. In regards to crime scene investigation, he has more than 2,100 hours of training specific to the documentation, collection, and processing of physical evidence. As part of his professional education, he attended and graduated from the National Forensic Academy (Knoxville, Tenn.) in 2003. Duncan is a member of the International Association for Identification (IAI), which is the premier organization of crime scene investigation specialists. He is board-certified by the IAI as a Senior Crime Scene Analyst, a Bloodstain Pattern Analyst, and a Forensic Photographer. He is currently a member of the IAI’s Editorial Review Committee for the Journal of Forensic Identification and serves on the Science and Practices Committee for Bloodstain Pattern Analysis. Duncan previously served the IAI as a member of the board of directors and the Science and Practices Committee for Forensic Photography. He is recognized as a distinguished member of the IAI and has won the yearly Forensic Photography contest five times. He is also a member of the Chesapeake Bay Division and the Texas Division of the IAI. Chris is a member of the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts (IABPA). He has written a number of articles, mostly on photography, for the IAI, IABPA, and several of the state IAI organizations. He has also taught at numerous educational conferences hosted by these organizations, at numerous police and sheriff academies, and currently instructs for the Texas Engineering Extension Service, a member of the Texas A&M University System.
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