Night Photography For Investigators

By James W. Harbert CLI, FCI



One of the most difficult aspects of legal photography is the obtaining of an accurate representation of what a client saw at night at the time of an accident.


Many times this will come into effect in dusk dark or dawn conditions. That is, the question is whether or not there was adequate visibility and how far the visibility ex­tended at the time of a particular accident. One case comes to mind where our deceased motorcyclist was riding without his headlight at dusk dark. The tortfeasorıs vehicle pulled out to pass a car turning right and collided head-on with our motorcycle. Our goal was to determine if it was light enough for the tortfeasor to actually see the motorcyclist without his head­light. We retained an expert who accompanied us on our annual visits to the scene under optimum similar circumstances to photograph the scene and check the visibility. Our thought was that if the weather conditions were similar, which we checked with the national observatory or national weather center, we could recreate the visibility on the night of the accident. We put out fluorescent stakes (two-by-fours) which were cut so they could be hammered into the ground at intervals of 50 feet. The idea was to photograph the scene at the approximate time of the accident to duplicate what the expert was able to see under that particular lighting con­dition. This would give us a series of fluorescent orange stakes that would come into view. The scene was shot with 1000-speed film at the cameraıs automatic shutter speeds.


We rented a motorcycle to approach the scene of the accident at approximately the same speed as the deceased motorcyclist. This gave us a relatively good starting point to determine where the motorcycle could first be scene.


While we never got an opportunity to check this system in Court, it did aid immensely in settling the case.


A quick note about recreations.  Some experts say dark is dark.  They donıt care when the accident happened: if the moon and weather is similar then it is ok.  To a certain extent I agree with this philosophy.  Where I differ is in dusk dark situations where time, sunset and weather do make a difference.  There are experts who charge enormous fees to recreate and video tape night accidents for defense and plaintiff lawyers.  These videos have been used successfully many times by the opposing party.  It is difficult to show something clearly at night on video tape.  There are also experts who specialize in visual acuity, testifying that you cannot duplicate what the eyes see at night using video tape. 


Digital Night Photography:


Night photography is much simplified with digital photography.  The same test applies.  Is the photograph representative of what the witness saw on the night of the accident?  You can set your camera for the proper film speed and shoot away.  Use a tripod and then show your photographs to the witness right there on the scene with a download to a laptop computer.  Once the witness has identified the photo as being representative, save that shot and print it and show it to him again. 


Digital photography takes a lot of the work out of night photography.  I did not do a lot of night time photography while using film but use it on nearly every night accident case now that I am using digital. 


Thanks to Dr. J. Michael Kerrigan for his assistance in researching and writing the portions of these chapters on anatomical and hospital photography.  Dr. Kerrigan is a consultant for the Law Firm of Kerrigan Estess Rankin and McLeod in Pensacola and specializes in make bone models and illustrations of injuries (See ³The Bone Doctor² in the Model Chapter of this book). 


This material is part of a seminar on CD called