Behind the lens
March 2016 - Matthew Doebler
Photographs can be key visual aids, but they often don’t reflect the skill and preparation put into the rest of your case. A few simple tips can make all the difference for taking quality photos.
The deposition was nearly finished—plaintiff and defense lawyers had spent hours asking questions and raising objections. The hotly contested issue was whether the tattoo artist was responsible for the plaintiff’s skin infection. The defense attorney asked the plaintiff if she could take a few photos of the tattoo, so she had her assistant bring in the firm’s point-and-shoot digital camera. The plaintiff hiked up his pant leg, and flashes went off.
All the skillfully asked questions and deftly placed objections were relegated to the backseat—photographs of the tattoo were the highlight of the deposition. Unfortunately, they were not skillfully taken. An opportunity to capture strong visual evidence for the case was wasted, and the resulting photographs were useless.
Carefully constructed images are the foundation of all visual evidence projects, and the process starts by gathering images that are clear and suitable for their intended use. Attorneys should know how to do this well, without professional help. The following tips can greatly improve the quality of your photographs.
Smartphones were once digital photography outcasts, but today they have reasonably good cameras. They’re also always on hand. But smartphones come with challenges: They often are slow to autofocus and can easily take a bad picture if you don’t plan before you click.
Point-and-shoot cameras are the workhorses of most digital evidence collection. They offer a good mix of features and are easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and compact in size. But most do not offer enough creative control to take stunning photographs, and the small LCD screen makes seeing your picture difficult.
dSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras are the top choice for any photographer who wants more than a merely passable picture. They give the shooter quick and easy control over every creative element of the image. Interchangeable lenses are part of what makes dSLRs so powerful. If you regularly use photographs in your practice, consider investing in a dSLR and train at least one attorney on proper use. Cost is the biggest hurdle for most firms, but a good quality dSLR kit with lens can be purchased for under $500. Canon and Nikon are the two most popular brands on the market, each with several entry level models.
Landscape v. Portrait
Think about how you want to display the photo and whether it will be better suited to portrait orientation (vertical) or landscape orientation (horizontal). When using a smartphone, landscape orientation is usually best because the picture fills the frame when it is displayed.
Photos taken in portrait orientation do not display well on a television screen, computer monitor, or video projector, which all have an inherent landscape orientation. A portrait-oriented photo will have blank space on either side when displayed on a full-screen monitor.
But portrait orientation may sometimes make sense—if you plan to put two pictures on the screen for side-by-side comparison, those images will share screen space more easily in portrait orientation. The best practice is to take several shots in each orientation.
A dSLR, or even a higher-end point-and-shoot, has more settings than most lawyers know what to do with. Before turning the dial to automatic, consider these manual controls.
Resolution. Shoot at the highest resolution possible. Many of your photographs will be blown up to poster size and mounted on foam core or projected onto a large screen. Higher resolution allows for this type of enlargement without losing image quality. Cameras default to low resolution to save memory card space. Change the setting and invest in at least a 32 GB memory card.
Focus. Autofocus systems are sophisticated enough that it makes little sense to insist on manual focus. But it is still important to make sure your subject is in focus and not blurry.
First, make sure the camera is not too close to the subject. Without a special lens, most cameras cannot focus on anything closer than about three feet. If you are shooting with a smartphone, you might be able to get as close as about six inches. Second, make sure there is enough light; otherwise, the camera will make adjustments, often leading to blur. If you need to, move the subject near a well-lit window or add artificial light.
If you are using a smartphone, hold the camera still for about five seconds before taking the picture—this lets the device autofocus and determine the correct setting. Tapping on the phone screen tells the camera what area of the image to focus on.
Depth of field. It is not enough to get a crisp focus on your subject: You also need to decide how much of the photograph is in focus—the “depth of field,” or the distance between the nearest and farthest objects that are in focus. A low f-stop number (such as f/2.0) means that whatever you focus on will be sharp, but very little else will be—for example, a photo of a person who is in focus with a blurry background. A high f-stop number (such as f/22) will result in a photo with broader sharpness—the subject, foreground, and background will all be in focus.
Manipulating depth of field can be very persuasive. For example, when photographing a defective amusement park ride, narrowing the depth of field to focus on the worn-out brake system—and blurring everything else—will instantly draw the jurors’ attention to the problem.
Flash. This might or might not be useful depending on nearby light levels. Natural light often produces the best, most professional-looking photographs. Flash tends to cause glare in glass and other glossy surfaces. But natural light may also create too many shadows, or there may not be enough light to get a sharp picture.
Take the camera out of automatic mode to override its flash settings, and take some photos with the flash and some without. With a smartphone, toggle the flash settings on and off to take a few shots in both configurations. In the tattoo case, for example, the photos were ruined by the flash. The resulting glare bounced off the plaintiff’s skin, which obscured the image of the infection.
Digital zoom. There are two options for making the subject bigger: optical zoom and digital zoom. Optical zoom manipulates the camera’s lenses to make the subject bigger. Almost all dSLR and point-and-shoot cameras come with lenses that have some amount of optical zoom.
Digital zoom relies on computer algorithms to increase the subject size. It doesn’t involve adjusting the camera’s lenses; instead, it digitally enlarges the photo to make the subject bigger, cropping the image after it has been taken. This often results in decreased image quality.
You can achieve the same effect as digital zoom with photo editing software, but you can’t undo it once you’ve taken the shot with digital zoom—so use the optical zoom on your lens instead. If you do not have optical zoom (such as on a smartphone) or if you have exhausted the optical zoom’s power, physically move closer to the subject if possible.
For example, when shooting a warning sign on a dam from across the river, take a long-zoom lens and zoom in as far as the lens will go. Once fully zoomed in, either get closer to the riverbank or settle for the size of the sign as it is. Avoid the temptation to turn on the digital zoom to make the sign appear closer.
Shoot “clean.” Do not shoot in black and white or use built-in digital effects. Those may be good techniques for displaying a picture, but if the camera adds them when the photograph is taken, they can never be undone. Add effects later.
Often, the best piece of photographic equipment a lawyer can buy is a pair of boots—you may need to walk to a less obvious location to get the best vantage point. For example, if your client is a pedestrian who was hit by a passing car, you may need to search for the best angle to show oncoming traffic. By changing the vantage point and including passing cars in the picture, you can mitigate a contributory negligence defense.
If an object’s size is important, include a ruler or something of known size—such as a coin or even a person—as a frame of reference.
Get on Your Subject’s Level
Children’s photographers know that holding the camera at adult eye level and pointing down skews the perspective and makes the floor behind the child the background of the photo. Instead, they get down on the floor and take the photo straight on, keeping everything on the same plane.
Use this same technique when photographing evidence. If you are shooting a car involved in a collision, don’t just point the camera down at the damage. Get down on your knees and point the camera straight at the dented bumper. This is also true if you are using a smartphone: It is tempting to tilt the device to frame the subject, but keep the phone parallel to your subject and raise or lower it to get everything in the frame.
The best strategy is to be prepared. Think about how you typically use photos in your cases and decide what format is best. Dust off your camera manual and look up the settings so you can quickly make adjustments. And most importantly, shoot! Take your camera out and practice getting good pictures in different settings. That way, when the case is on the line, you’ll be ready.
Matthew Doebler is an attorney at Pribanic & Pribanic in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.