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Instant Imaging

New technologies and features have improved the performance of digital cameras as law enforcement tools.

December 01, 2003  |  by Dave Douglas


The Nikon Coolpix 5400 was announced at the end of May. It is the successor to the Coolpix 5000, which is the camera I own and used to take most of the photos in this article. I love the 5000, and I'm happy to say the 5400 is even better.

With a similar design, the Coolpix 5400 continues to offer many of the features available on the Coolpix 5000, including the wide-angle zoom lens. But the 5400 definitely is an upgraded camera. Its optical zoom offers another level of magnification, giving the system the same 28mm equivalent wide angle, but adding a little more telephoto capability. Accordingly, the Coolpix 5400 is a fairly powerful 5-megapixel prosumer digital camera with a 28mm to 116mm zoom range.

The Coolpix 5400 also offers a rich selection of features, including almost everything that a seasoned photographer would want on his or her camera. Still, in Auto Mode, the Coolpix 5400 is simple enough for any novice to pick up and start using on day one.

Nikon’s Coolpix 5400 is a 5-megapixel camera.

This camera really shines in the macro mode. It can focus down to half an inch. That means if you took a picture of a Quarter, you would not be able to fit the entire coin in the frame. It's great for detailed shots of evidence.
The Coolpix 5400 is a very solid camera. It has a stout metal case that's really tough, and its ergonomics are excellent.


Like other traditional photography powerhouses such as Nikon and Canon, Olympus makes a wide variety of digital cameras for consumers, prosumers, and professionals. Starting at as little as $199 for the D-380 point-and-shoot system, the Olympus digital line tops out at just under $1,900 for the E-20N professional-quality SLR.

Although just about any Olympus digital camera can take a quality photo, the best model for budget-conscious law enforcement agencies is probably the C-5050 Zoom. This camera offers a great feature set, a powerful 35mm to 105mm equivalency lens, and 5-megapixel resolution, all for less than $800.

Take the C-5050 Zoom in your hands and look through the viewfinder, and you'll gain an understanding of another selling point of this system. It has a compact camera feel and excellent ergonomics that make it a pleasure to use.


Sony's MVC-CD500 Digital Still Camera features 5.0-megapixel resolution with a Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar 3X optical lens. But what's really important about this camera is it's the only production digital camera that has the ability to write to inexpensive optical media.

With the MVC-CD500, photos and even MPEG video clips can be saved directly to small 156MB CD-R/RW discs. These discs can be read on most CD-ROM equipped PCs. That means you don't have to bother with media cards, downloading from the camera, or using special readers.

Sony’s MVC-CD500 is a 5-megapixel camera that writes its images to miniature CD-R/RW discs.

The MVC-CD500 offers a broad range of advanced features such as Multi-Point Auto-Focus (AF), Hologram AF, a Continuous AF Mode, Multi-Pattern Metering, Pre-Flash Metering, and an advanced shoe for a professional-quality flash attachment.

Another really nice thing about the MVC-CD500 is it has a huge viewing screen. I mean huge. It's at least twice the size of the screens on most digital still cameras. When you are dealing with older eyes like mine, the increased size of the viewer is a real plus.

And the view screen is critical with this camera. It doesn't have an optical viewfinder.

Whether you're OK with this configuration or not is a matter of personal preference. Some digital camera shooters swear by taking pictures with the view screen. Others hate it. Here's my take. With some cameras, I have found it better to use the optical viewfinder in direct sunlight because the small image on a smaller screen was difficult to see. Not so with the MVC-CD500. Even in harsh outdoor direct sunlight, the view screen is bright and easy to see.

For law enforcement applications, one of the best features of the MVC-CD500 is its storage of images on CD-R and CD-RW. With this system, once the image is taken, the image is "burned" on the CD. It cannot be manipulated. So if the court wants proof that the image being presented for evidence is not altered, you just need to bring in the original disc and present it to the judge. Let the defense try to fight that one.

Crimes on Film

Photo documentation is critical to successfully investigating domestic violence cases. It allows us to create a record of the crime scene; visually illustrate the severity of injuries to the victim; establish the chain of evidence needed to prosecute; aid in prosecution without a victim's testimony; and help to break the cycle of violence. Across the country, more than 50,000 cops, sheriffs, and district attorneys have come to rely on Polaroid instant photographs as a means to document domestic violence injuries and, ultimately, prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. In fact, Polaroid instant cameras are standard equipment for one out of three law enforcement officers in the United States. The two Polaroid systems most useful for law enforcement applications are the Macro 5 SLR and the Spectra Law Enforcement Kit.

Macro 5 SLR

Originally designed for dental use, the Macro 5 SLR is an ideal camera for close-ups. It's also portable and easy to use. The camera captures minute details such as fingerprints and serial numbers, making it useful in many types of investigations, including homicides and drug lab busts.

Macro 5 SLR cameras boast five built-in magnification settings-20 percent of life-size, 40 percent, full size, and two times and three times full size. This precise degree of magnification allows you to document the exact size of injuries, such as grab marks and slap imprints, as well as capture close-up images of bruises and cuts, all of which can be crucial when prosecuting an assault claim.

The Macro 5 SLR is a great camera for capturing detail.

A date stamp function embeds the month, day, and year on each photograph. Other features include an electronic flash and a focusing system which uses a dual light beam that intersects at the point of interest to indicate optimum focus.

Spectra LE Kit

The Polaroid Spectra LE Kit is a compact, lightweight professional-quality camera system ideal for first responders at the crime scene. It's designed as an easy-to-carry, all-in-one system that can be used on the go. Not simply a camera, this collection of high-quality tools allows you to accurately document evidence on the scene.

The kit includes a heavy-duty carrying case; a Polaroid Spectra 1200si camera with built-in auto-focusing and auto-lighting; a 1:1 copy stand for capturing photos of small objects or mug shots; and a light-lock, non-contacting close-up lens for shooting evidence 10 inches away. The additional lens can be used to document significant body marks and forensic findings.









Sgt. Dave Douglas of the San Diego Police Department is a Police magazine contributing editor and photographer.

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