One of the most important aspects of a crime scene is proper recording of all of the evidence, and photography can play an important role in that. Training as a professional crime scene photographer will require understanding many different aspects of crime scene investigation and learning about the types of photos that need to be taken to document clues and details. These photographs can later be used in investigation and prosecution efforts, which means they are essential to the criminal justice process. Photographers will often be at the crime scene while it is still active and so they will need to know what to do so that they do not damage or destroy evidence, and they also need to know how to properly collect, store, and authenticate their crime scene photos.
Those who want to pursue a forensic photography career should be interested in photography, naturally. They should also want to learn more about the specifics of crime scene investigation, as they will need to know how their photos can be used to document evidence. Together, the career provides a blend of science, law, and photography. While forensic photography can and often is learned on the job, having a strong academic background in criminal justice and crime scene investigation techniques is by far the best way to begin the pursuit of this interesting and unique career. Pursuing a well-rounded crime investigation education that incorporates forensic photography courses can help prepare aspiring professionals not only to photograph the scene properly, but also to handle those photos such that they may be submitted into evidence and interpret those photos in the context of the larger investigation to help solve the crime.
While a career in forensic photography does not require a degree in the practice itself, the right education can go a long way towards helping those who aspire to the career. Online options can be particularly useful for those who want to become forensic photographers but do not have the time or ability to attend on-campus classes.
Online courses and certificates in forensic photography do not culminate in an official degree but can still offer professional advancement. Courses and certificate programs tend to focus on basic training in photography as a form of documentation, rather than an art form, as well as details of crime scene investigation and criminal procedure.
Who should enroll in an online course or certificate program in forensic photography?
An online certificate in forensic photography can help working professionals who already have employment in the law enforcement or criminal justice field to further specialize in crime scene photography. They are ideal for those with a background in photography who want to better understand how to use photography as a means of crime scene documentation.
Featured Online Forensic Photography Programs
The National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) offers an online course in digital crime scene photography. Students who purchase the course have access to the full set of online videos for 60 days and are offered a certificate of completion if they pass a final test with at least 75%. Some working forensic professionals will be able to count this particular course towards continuing education credits.
National University offers an online course in forensic photography as part of its College of Letters and Sciences. The course teaches students the basic principles of photography such as lighting and composition and specifically how to apply those principles to a crime scene. Students can expect to learn how to use single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras and skills specific to presenting photographs as legal evidence.
Neither undergraduate nor graduate degrees are available in forensic photography, per se. More typical forensic photography courses are incorporated into online degrees in related subjects, such as crime scene investigation. This type of degree can help graduates earn a place in law enforcement or a crime scene investigation unit.
Who should enroll in an online degree program in forensic photography?
Earning a degree online is a great choice for those students who are self-starting and need the flexibility that online education allows. However, an online degree in the forensic sciences does require a commitment to regular homework as well as consistent interaction with faculty. Students who want to further their education online should look for programs that focus on crime scene investigation.
Florida State University Panama City offers a bachelor of science (BS) degree in crime scene investigation. Though not exclusively on forensic photography, the degree requires one course in crime & accident scene imaging & reconstruction, which includes a hands-on lab that takes students through the steps of collecting and analyzing images of crime scenes. Applicants to this program must already have an AA from an accredited community college.
Purdue University offers an online 41-credit crime scene technician certificate. While not specific to forensic photography, it includes training in all aspects of crime scene assessment and evidence collection, including photography. Credits earned in this program can be applied towards a Purdue Global associate’s or bachelor’s degree program.
There are two ways to be eligible for admission to this program. Applicants must either hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or be able to provide proof of work experience in law enforcement, the military, or other areas of criminal justice within the past 18 months. Students can expect to spend 15 to 18 hours a week on this ten-week course.
Online learning is not for everyone. Some students simply learn better with personal interaction and the structure of a campus program. For those students, both certificates and degrees in crime scene investigation and criminal justice may be the best option for pursuing a career in forensic photography.
Here are some of the options available for offline learning that will help with the fundamentals of forensic photography:
West Virginia University in Morgantown has one of the preeminent forensic science programs in the U.S. While they do not offer an official certification in forensic photography, they do offer two onsite forensic photography courses as part of their forensic examiner curriculum. These teach best practices for forensic photography.
The first course in forensic photography (FIS 315) is a three-credit course focusing on photography fundamentals and the basics of how to photograph fingerprints and crime and disaster scenes. This course is a prerequisite for the second course titled “advanced forensic photography” (FIS 435). This three-credit course is designed specifically for those who wish to pursue forensic photography as a profession and teaches more in-depth skills.
University of California (UC) Riverside Extension offers a crime scene photography course that can be completed as a standalone course or as a fulfillment of a crime scene investigation (CSI) certificate. The professional certificate in crime scene investigation program is a 23-unit course that teaches the basics of crime scene management including evidence collection techniques with an emphasis on photographing evidence. This certificate program is open to high school graduates and is designed for students who want to pursue careers in crime scenes or are already employed in law enforcement. The time to completion for this program is eight to 12 months. An intensive version of the same certificate program can be completed in six weeks. Students must provide their own photography equipment.
Forensic Pieces has in-person training for working professionals and organizations who want to expand their forensic photography repertoire. The company will teach a 40-hour course over five days for law enforcement and crime scene investigation personnel. At the end of the course, a certification exam is offered. It should be noted that this program is not accredited in a traditional sense, it is approved by the International Association for Identification (IAI).
Columbia College offers an 18-credit crime scene investigation certificate that can be a good choice for students who already live close to one of their locations, which are spread throughout the country. For students who do not live near a Columbia campus, the certificate program is also offered online. The certificate includes a course on crime scene photography and requires nine core hours and six elective hours. Students who complete the CSI certificate will have this designation on their academic transcript, which is available to students with an associate or bachelor’s degree from another regionally-accredited school.
The George Washington University (GW), as part of the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, offers a hybrid master of science (MS) degree in crime scene investigation. The degree includes one upper-level course focused solely on forensic photography. Overall, this program emphasizes practical skills of crime scene investigation techniques including forensic photography and includes coursework in photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. Designed for working professionals, both online and offline courses are required to complete the program.
Earning an education from an accredited institution can be very important for the future career prospects of graduates. Further, those wishing to pursue graduate or doctoral level coursework in forensics or criminology will be much better off earning an undergraduate degree from an accredited institution. Both online and on-campus programs should advertise their accreditation status, which indicates that the program was evaluated by a third-party organization for its curriculum, faculty, and facilities. Programs can be accredited either by forensic-specific organizations such as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) or a more general accreditation for higher education such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) or the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).
Professional certification should also be a consideration for those seeking a career as a forensic photographer. Professional certification in field is available from a few different sources, including the IAI. These certifications may help forensic photographers advance their careers but are not required by any government agency in order to gain employment. Details of the requirements for these certifications are available from the organizations’ websites.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).