Go-Kits for the Forensic Photographer
Written by Sanford Weiss   

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CONSIDER the following true story: I answered a phone call at home—6 a.m. on a Monday. The caller instructed: “Get dressed and in here, prepared for a trip to the Loop for an accident documentation.”

On arrival at the office, people in the department were scurrying around as if another world war had been declared. A note on my desk said to be ready to leave with an emergency-response team at 6:15. Nothing more. Reaching under my desk, I grabbed my case and pack—confident it was complete and prepared—and was the first person sitting in the van.

At 6:15, we were rolling toward the city with no coffee, and no idea what to expect. I began my personal routine of mental preparation, awaiting word of the specifics. Briefing began a few minutes later. During the night a tall platform crane had ripped from its turntable and crashed through the top level of a building under construction. Pieces of the boom were scattered across a major traffic artery, and the Chicago Police Department wanted the scene documented immediately to allow the street to be re-opened. Wind and the weight of snow were suspected as the cause.

By 7 a.m. we were on site. Some of the smaller pieces had already been moved by passers-by in order to clear sidewalks. Images of those pieces could wait. The pieces remaining in situ would be photographed and measured first. The weather was cold and a layer of snow remained. No further instructions were forthcoming. But everyone knew what to do.

My kit weighed 29 pounds at the time, not counting the tripod and personal protective equipment. The boom’s turntable and its fractured bolts had came to rest atop the building under construction—nine stories up with no elevator. Everything had to be hauled manually to the top. The fracture surfaces came to rest on the underside of the turntable, interlaced with twisted wreckage, covered with a layer of snow, on a floor of uncertain structural integrity.

Each fracture surface needed to be documented in situ in case any further damage occurred when the platform was raised from the wreckage. With the warming of the day, a steady stream of water was running down the steel and dripping below. The wreckage made access to some of the locations impossible, so photography needed to be accomplished using mirrors. Personal protective equipment had to be worn at all times due to the condition of the floor.

Try to imagine the equipment necessary for this kind of assignment and whether it would be accessible from your photography go-kit!

What to Carry?

Everyone would like to go into the field with a kit fitting in the pockets of a vest or uniform. Some people do. In some cases, they may have enough to get by. This does not happen very often, however, in the real world of the accomplished forensic photographer.

Whether it is called a go team, an emergency-response team, a special-response team, a special-operations group, a multidisciplinary-investigation team, or a special-weapons and tactics (SWAT) team, the specific unit represents a focused approach to problem solving and situational response. A forensic photographer may be a dedicated part of such a squad, or may operate independently. In some circumstances, and often dependent upon whether the photographer is a government employee or private-sector practitioner, the photographer’s participation in a team may be dictated by the size and scope of the situation to which the team is responding.

Specialized knowledge and equipment are required of any go team and its go-kit. The composition of the go team and the types of situations the team handles will decide what photographic equipment is selected for any go-kit. In addition to a typical camera bag, a photographer attached to a SWAT team may need personal protective equipment and possibly the same armament worn by other team members. A photographer attached to a medical examiner’s unit may require an entirely different style of personal protective equipment—consisting largely of Nitrile and Tyvek materials. Photography at traffic and industrial accidents and other catastrophic events requires another set of tools. Larger scenes require larger scales or other tools for the measurement of artifacts and their locations. Larger scenes may also require the utilization of aerial photography and all of the equipment necessary for that discipline. The accepted and established protocol for response to a particular situation will dictate the types of images desired for the documentation of that scene.

Preparation means not only considering the objects and scenes you will be photographing, but also anticipating the climatological conditions and terrain that you and your equipment will encounter. A photographer working in snowy conditions requires different equipment than a photographer working in a swamp.

First and foremost, however, the photographer must be prepared mentally to properly undertake the task at hand, whatever it might be.

What to Pack in a Go-Kit

Only the photographer can decide what equipment is necessary based on the situations and locations encountered. Forensic photographers realize their go-kits will change and grow as they enter new situations and as new equipment and technology becomes available. And always be ready. Leave nothing at home, in the car, in yesterday’s pants pockets, or at the office in battery chargers.

Typical Go-Kit List
for Traffic Accidents

Here is an example of the equipment list for a scene commonly encountered by law-enforcement, engineering, fire-suppression, and government personnel at transportation accidents. (Note: If watercraft are commonly encountered in your territory, your go-kit will be drastically different from the following.)

Supplies for visibility

  • Emergency beacons (LED or halogen flashers, strobes)
  • Work-zone lights, tripods, power supplies, extension cords
  • Flares or portable electronic strobes and/or flashers
  • Traffic cones and traffic barriers (compliant with the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (or MUTCD)
  • Portable advance warning signs (MUTCD compliant)

Specialized personal protective
equipment for hazardous duty and
environmental contamination, and
personal health and safety items

  • Traffic-safety vests (ANSI Class 3) and personal conspicuity lighting (portable electronic strobe/flasher)
  • Traffic control flags and traffic baton lights
  • Hard hat
  • Safety Glasses
  • Respirator
  • Gloves
  • Safety-toe shoes
  • Safety harness, etc
  • First-aid kit
  • Ice chest, drink cooler, and/or a portable refrigerator or a personal hydration system
  • Skin-protection items, such as sunscreen and insect repellent
  • Coveralls or other work clothes

Other items as needed

  • Site and component documentation equipment
  • GPS navigation system
  • GPS measuring/surveying system
  • Laser measuring/surveying system
  • Optical measuring equipment
  • Measure wheels and tapes
  • Contour gauges, depth gauges, and calipers
  • Levels and/or inclinometers
  • Macro measuring tapes and scales
  • Optical and radar vehicle-speed measuring guns
  • Photogrammetry equipment
  • Roadway traffic volume counting system
  • Vehicle acceleration and braking force measurement systems
  • Evidence markers and survey flags
  • Aerial photo target equipment

Photography Equipment

  • Cameras
  • Camera memory cards or film
  • Lenses
  • Filters
  • Batteries
  • Power supplies, cables, cases and accessories applicable to the camera brand(s) and model(s) being used
  • Electronic flash units, macro flash units, axial-lighting devices, flash cables, or wireless flash modules/sensors
  • Shades, reflectors, mirrors, gray cards, color-checker cards or other references
  • Tripods, monopods, tabletop mini-pods
  • Copy stands, macro stages, and turntables
  • Clamps and specialized mounting equipment (such as suction-cup mounts for vehicle interior or exterior camera mounting)
  • Portable computer, with photo-management software, cables, batteries, and power supplies
  • Portable canopies and tarps for setting up a shaded, waterproof, outdoor workspace

Tip: Photography with Mirrors

One of the most important categories of gadgets to keep in a go-kit is a selection of mirrors. Mirrors are used to add light to an area otherwise difficult or impossible to illuminate in other ways. Mirrors may be used to reflect the image of an object that is then photographed. Mirrors come in different sizes and are made of different materials.

Front-surfaced reflectors are constructed of glass, plastic, or metal. All reflectors intended for photography are front-surfaced and must be purchased from medical-, dental-, and scientific-supply companies. Many have specialized purposes, such as the stainless-steel reflectors designed to be placed by a dentist (or photographer) in a person’s mouth to view upper and lower teeth without needing to bend over or stand on a ladder.


Whether the project is large or small, accessories besides a camera are always required. Be prepared at all times, both mentally and physically. Keep up with developments in the industry and consider the acquisition of up-to-date gadgets that will make work easier and more accurate.

About the Author

Sanford Weiss is the author of Forensic Photography: The Importance of Accuracy, a book published in 2009 by Pearson, Prentice Hall. He is an EPIC-certified forensic photographer and currently teaches online forensic photography classes for UC Davis Extension. To contact Weiss for more information about this topic, send an e-mail to: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

"Go-Kits for the Forensic Photographer," written by Sanford Weiss
May-June 2010 (Volume 8, Number 3)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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