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Digital Cameras for Cops

Just five years ago my department purchased a 6-megapixel digital SLR camera that cost more than $5,000, as well as several 3.3-megapixel point-and-shoot digital cameras that cost more than $1,000 each. Today, similar products would cost a fraction of what we spent.

Just five years ago my department purchased a 6-megapixel digital SLR camera that cost more than $5,000, as well as several 3.3-megapixel point-and-shoot digital cameras that cost more than $1,000 each. Today, similar products would cost a fraction of what we spent.

Because of the technological advances and lower prices, now may be a great time for your agency to “go digital” or upgrade your existing cameras. For many agencies, the benefits of digital photography are clear: high-quality images, instant feedback and access to photos, the ability to keep imaging services in-house, and lower ongoing costs.

I’ve helped more than 100 law enforcement agencies nationwide transition to digital photography, and the feedback is almost always positive. Many agencies have noticed a significant increase in the quality of photographs since transitioning to digital. I believe this is because the officer or detective taking the photos can immediately see the image on the LCD review screen, so there really is no excuse for out-of-focus or poorly exposed photographs anymore.

If your agency hasn’t made the switch to digital, it soon may have to. Many camera companies no longer produce film cameras, and film manufacturers have stopped making certain emulsions.

So digital is here to stay. And with more than 25 different camera manufacturers vying for your dollar, you have a lot of digital cameras to choose from. There are literally hundreds of digital camera models for sale, ranging from less than $100 to more than $7,000.

Digital cameras suitable for police operations basically fall into one of two categories: point-and-shoot cameras and single lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Point-and-shoot cameras have a fixed lens while SLR cameras have interchangeable lenses. Both types of cameras have their strengths and weaknesses.


Most digital cameras sold today are point-and-shoots. These cameras offer high levels of automation, including exposure, white balance, ISO, shutter speed, and aperture control. Often all you have to do to take a photo with one of these cameras is turn it on and press the shutter button. However, many of the more sophisticated models allow the photographer to manually set these parameters.

Point-and-shoot digital cameras are really well suited for patrol officers responding to burglaries, auto trespasses, simple assaults, and other crimes that don’t require more advanced photography techniques. However, their capabilities should not be overestimated.

The ease of use and low cost of these cameras make them really appealing, but they are not suitable for all types of law enforcement photography. Point-and-shoot digital cameras should not be used for more critical forensic work such as photographing footwear and tire impressions and fingerprints.

Many point-and-shoot digital cameras use proprietary lithium-ion batteries that provide substantially higher capacities than conventional batteries. This means officers can take hundreds of photographs during their shift without fear of dead batteries.

But there is a drawback to lithium-ion batteries. Once they have discharged, you have to recharge them—and without them the camera is useless. This is why a lot of agencies prefer to use point-and-shoot digital cameras that are powered by standard batteries. AA batteries are widely available and can easily be swapped out when the batteries are drained. That said, standard alkaline AAs are almost useless in power hungry digital cameras. I recommend purchasing high-capacity re-chargeable Nickel Metal-Hydride (NiMH) batteries. A set of rechargeable batteries should easily last an entire shift. And if you think you need them, you can buy a second set that can be recharged while the others are on duty.

Other considerations in choosing a point-and-shoot camera include the resolution, the zoom range of the lens, macro capabilities, choice of file format, and type of storage memory.

Resolution is expressed in megapixels. For most consumers, resolution is the most important digital camera attribute. But I want to make this very clear: More megapixels doesn’t automatically mean better picture quality. A pixel (short for “picture element”) is a microscopic device that converts light energy into electrical energy. The heart of any digital camera is its sensor, which contains an array of millions of pixels packed on its surface. For example, the sensor of an 8-megapixel camera contains about eight million pixels.

But all pixels are not created equally. Point-and-shoot digital cameras have very small image sensors. In order to squeeze more pixels onto the sensor, each pixel must be made smaller. Smaller pixels generally degrade image quality. The real-life result of these small pixels is that point-and-shoot digital cameras don’t perform well at higher ISOs.
So many people ask: How many pixels is enough? There is no one right answer.

However, for patrol level point-and-shoots, I personally believe that 4 to 7 megapixels is a comfortable range.

The camera lens is one of the most important factors in determining image quality. Look for cameras that have glass elements and an optical zoom. Many digital point-and-shoots have a 3X optical zoom plus a digital zoom. Don’t use the digital zoom. It’s just an artificial zoom that simply crops the image in-camera.

Optical image stabilization is a feature that’s now available in modestly priced cameras. Image-stabilized cameras have an active element that senses camera shake and applies correction to minimize this movement. Cameras with image stabilization allow for a greater range of shutter speeds while handholding the camera. This is very useful in low-light situations.

Another great feature that you will find on most digital point-and-shoots is a macro setting. This allows the user to photograph items close-up, and it is particularly useful in photographing injuries or other small details at a crime scene.

All digital point-and-shoot cameras capture images in the JPEG file format. JPEG is a lossy compression format because some data is thrown away during the compression process. So depending on your agency’s standard operating procedures, JPEG may or may not be an acceptable format. To ensure maximum image quality, always use the highest quality JPEG camera setting (lowest image compression). This means fewer images will fit on the memory card, but the higher quality is well worth the trade off. And flash memory is really cheap these days.

Which brings me to a final note about point-and-shoots. The quality of the flash memory used in a point-and-shoot is not a big issue. You will find five types of memory cards in these devices: CompactFlash, SmartMedia, SD, xD, and Memory Stick. The advantage to the SD and xD cards is that they are physically smaller and allow manufacturers to reduce the size of the camera, so these days most point-and-shoot digital cameras use SD and xD cards. The primary exception is Sony, which uses its own proprietary Memory Stick media, which is usually more expensive than other formats.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the latest point-and-shoot digital cameras that are suitable for low-end law enforcement photography.

PowerShot SD800 IS
A 7.1-megapixel point-and-shoot, the PowerShot SD800 IS features Canon’s brand new DIGIC III processing engine for low noise and high dynamic range. It has a maximum ISO of 1600, which is very useful in low-light situations. The Canon lens is image stabilized and has a 3.8X optical zoom range from 28mm to 105mm. The 28mm wide angle is useful for photographing small areas and the interiors of vehicles. The PowerShot SD800 IS also has a rugged all-metal body and lithium-ion battery. Street price is around $400.
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The Fujifilm F20 features a 6.1-megapixel SuperCCD and 3X optical zoom lens that has a 5cm minimum focus distance. It has a wide range of high ISO settings and is powered by a lithium-ion battery. Best of all, it’s small enough to fit into a pocket. Fujifilm is very law enforcement friendly and offers good support and service after the sale. Street price is about $200.
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There’s a reason why Nikon is considered the Cadillac of cameras, and the Nikon L5 lives up to the company’s reputation. With a 7.1.-megapixel sensor mated to a fine Nikkor 5X zoom lens that features a 190mm telephoto focal length, the L5 is a superb camera for police work. This long telephoto lens is even more useful because it includes Nikon’s Vibration Reduction technology, which allows the photographer to use slower shutter speeds. The L5 is powered by two AA batteries and Nikon even includes rechargeable batteries and charger; nice touch. Street price on the Nikon L5 is about $275.
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Optio E10
The Optio E10 features a 6-megapixel sensor and a 3X optical zoom lens. It uses two AA batteries and records on SD memory cards. Macro capabilities are very good, featuring a 6cm minimum focusing distance. What’s truly amazing is this camera has a street price of about $150. The E10 may not be the best choice for low-light photography, however, due to maximum ISO of 200.
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Sony is a major player in the digital camera market, and its cameras offer a lot of features for the money. The 7.1-megapixel Sony DSC-W70 features a high-quality Carl Zeiss 3X optical zoom lens with a 38mm to 114mm range. It’s also well suited for low-light photography because it can capture images at 1000 ISO. The DSC-W70 uses a proprietary lithium ion battery and, like all Sony digital cameras, it utilizes Memory Stick storage devices. Street price is around $275.
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Digital SLR Cameras

Let me say that I am a big advocate of using digital SLRs in police work. D-SLRs offer numerous advantages over point-and-shoot cameras.

D-SLRs use much larger imaging sensors, which generally equates to higher dynamic range (the ability of the camera to capture the range of light to dark in a scene) and lower noise. Most digital point-and-shoot cameras show a lot of noise at ISO 400 and above, while D-SLRs can offer clean images to 1600 ISO and above. This is critical for nighttime and low-light photography.

The image quality from an 8-megapixel point-and-shoot just can’t compare to the image quality from an 8-megapixel SLR. Pixel for pixel, D-SLRs offer significantly higher image quality than point-and-shoots.

The ability to change lenses is probably the single greatest advantage of an SLR camera. With an SLR, the user can switch from a wide-angle lens for photographing the inside of a vehicle, to a specialized macro lens for fingerprint work, and then switch to a long telephoto for surveillance work.

Digital SLRs also allow photographs to be captured in various file formats. As we discussed, all point-and-shoot digital cameras store their images as compressed files, either JPEG or TIFF. Compressed file formats are acceptable for less critical law enforcement applications, but I personally capture critical crime scenes and evidence in RAW format.

RAW format offers the highest quality, and it is only attainable with an SLR. The drawback to this format is that it requires additional post-processing with imaging software to create a useful image. This is why most D-SLRs allow the photographer to simultaneously capture images in JPEG and RAW. That’s a great feature to have because the JPEG images are instantly accessible, while the RAW images are available if necessary.

Digital SLRs also offer advanced flash systems that can’t be matched by point-and-shoots. All D-SLRs offer a flash hot-shoe. The hot-shoe allows a powerful flash unit to be mounted directly on the camera body, or it can be attached via a cable that allows the photographer to fire the flash remotely. This is a must for using the oblique lighting technique when photographing tire impressions and footwear impressions.

Additionally, many D-SLR manufacturers offer dedicated macro flash systems, sometimes referred to as a ring flash. These macro flash systems are great for photographing injuries or other small pieces of evidence.

Just a few years ago, D-SLRs were cost prohibitive for most police departments. Not anymore. Many fine D-SLRs can now be purchased for less than $1,000. Of course, you have to factor in the cost of high-quality lenses and other accessories such as flash units when buying one of these cameras, but the increase in image quality and system flexibility is well worth the initial monetary investment. And this is a specialty item that will probably end up being used primarily by detectives, crime scene investigators, and criminalists who need high-quality images.

Entry-level D-SLR cameras cost less than $1,000. Professional high-end cameras can cost more than $8,000, but you probably can get what you need for much less.

Generally, the most expensive models are built to withstand the rigors of photojournalists. They have magnesium alloy bodies with rubber environmental seals to protect the camera from dust and moisture. These expensive models also offer the highest resolution and the most features.

Lower cost D-SLRs are built with plastic instead of metal and don’t offer as much protection from the elements. Entry-level D-SLRs all feature a built-in flash, while the high-end models forgo the built-in flash all together, requiring the photographer to use more powerful off-board flash units.

Finally, digital SLRs are a joy to use. They offer the traditional feel of film based SLRs, coupled with all the advanced features and manual settings any forensic photographer could need.

Let’s take a look at some of the latest professional-quality D-SLRs.

Professional D-SLRs

EOS 1Ds Mark II
Canon’s EOS 1Ds Mark II is the current state of the art in digital single-lens-reflex cameras. It’s expensive at a street price of around $7,500, but it offers a full-frame 16.7-megapixel sensor and a body that’s built like a tank. The full-frame digital sensor is the exact same size as 35mm film, so there is no crop or focal length multiplier as with most other D-SLRs (including every other D-SLR in this article). I recently had the opportunity to evaluate the EOS 1Ds Mark II for a number of weeks and found that it is capable of producing images of stunning clarity and resolution. The Canon flash system is top-notch, and Canon offers one of the most complete lens selections of any manufacturer. If ultimate resolution and image quality is your goal then this is the camera for you.
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The Nikon D2 line has long been the tool of choice for many professional photographers. And the latest model, the D2Xs, is likely to be just as popular with the pros. The D2Xs is a mild update to the D2x. I’ve had the pleasure of using the D2x as my primary forensic camera for almost two years. The D2x features a 12.4-megapixel DX-sized sensor mated to a professional camera body. The DX-sized sensor has a crop factor of 1.5. This means a 20mm lens is effectively a 30mm lens on the D2X. The Nikon flash system can’t be beat, and Nikon lenses are some of the best in the business. The D2Xs has a street price of around $4,500.
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Economy D-SLRs

Now that you are reeling from sticker shock, let’s take a look at some fine D-SLRs that don’t cost an arm and a leg and are suitable for most forensic and law enforcement applications.

Digital Rebel xTi
Called the EOS-400D overseas, the Canon Digital Rebel xTi is the newest D-SLR offering from Canon. It offers a 10.1-megapixel sensor and retails for around $899. A particularly useful feature of this camera is the integrated sensor-cleaning system. Unlike point-and-shoot cameras, D-SLRs are prone to dust adhering to the sensor. This dust manifests itself as a small, out-of-focus dark spot that is visible in the final photograph. The Digital Rebel xTi automatically cleans the sensor with the push of a button; there is no need for wet swabs or anything else to touch the delicate surface of the sensor. It also features an advanced nine-point auto focus that focuses well in low light. With its 10.1-megapixel sensor and high image quality, the Digital Rebel xTi is capable of the most demanding forensic work.
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The Fujifilm S3 Pro UVIR is a specialized D-SLR squarely marketed to the law enforcement community. What makes the S3 Pro UVIR unique is its ability to capture photographs outside of the visible spectrum of light, both into the ultra-violet region and into the infra-red region. UV and IR imaging is generally conducted under controlled conditions in the laboratory. UV and IR imaging allow technicians to photograph obliterated writing, injury that isn’t visible to the naked eye, and other types of trace evidence that can’t be photographed with conventional digital cameras. The S3 Pro UVIR features Fujifilm’s unique high-dynamic-range sensor design with an effective resolution of 6 megapixels. While not for everyone, agencies looking to upgrade their photographic capabilities should check out the S3 Pro UVIR. Street price is around $1,799.
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Although it is priced at less than $1,000, the D80 features a 10.0-megapixel sensor and a high-quality focus system. It has many of the useful features of the higher-end digital cameras for a fraction of the price. The D80 continues Nikon’s tradition of offering user-friendly menus and camera settings. You should be able to pick one up for $999.
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The K10D is an impressive new offering from Pentax. It features a 10.2-megapixel sensor with anti-shake technology and active dust control—very nice. The K10D camera body incorporates significant environmental seals not found in other competitors’ models at this price point. Also, the K10D has an advanced 11-point auto focus system and offers a lot of image parameter control. The K10D has a list price of $899.
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Alpha DSLR-A100
The Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 is the first Sony branded D-SLR, but it is based on the Konica-Minolta lens mount. Sony has introduced 19 new lenses for this camera system. The Alpha DSLR-A100 features a 10.2-megapixel sensor with both anti-shake technology and active sensor-cleaning technology. This is the only Sony digital camera that accepts both CompactFlash and Sony Memory Stick storage devices. List price is $899.
Reader Service No. 346

David Spraggs is an investigator and firearms instructor with the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department. He teaches forensic photography and crime scene investigation and serves on the Police Advisory Board.

Digital Film
There are five basic formats of flash memory that you will find in digital cameras.
• CompactFlash
• SmartMedia
• xD Picture Card
• Secure Digital (SD)
• Memory Stick

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