Thanks to Matt Wasowski of SAE for putting together such an excellent digital accident reconstruction conference, and thanks, Matt, for allowing me to present. Thanks to all those who attended, too. Sorry about my abrupt exit; it was a technical glitch on my end.
As promised, here are the slides from my talk: Tom Vadnais Photography SAE Presentation_2022-03-30. Bonus: You’ll see there are some additional slides that I had to remove from the talk to get it to fit the alloted time. No additional charge for those extras! Ha, ha.
Please don’t hesitate to call or e-mail if you have any questions about what we covered or about my upcoming SAE class. I hope I get to meet you personally at my class July 12-14, 2022, at Mecanica Scientific Services in Oxnard, CA.
With live classes now returning to SAE, I’m excited to announce that my next Photography for Accident Reconstruction, Product Liability, and Testing class will be July 12-14, 2022 at Mecanica Scientific Services’s fantastic classroom facilities in Oxnard, CA. Special thanks to Mecanica’s John Steiner for hosting this class for the third time!
The class has ten major subject modules that build upon each other. We’ll explore in-depth about gear, light, camera fundamentals, settings, post-processing, and much, much more. You’ll come away not just knowing about, but actually understanding how to make better, more consistent, and more useful photographs during all your inspections and analyses, regardless of lighting conditions.
Please call or e-mail me directly if you have any questions or need more information.
SAE International is hosting a FREE Accident Reconstruction Digital Summit on March 29 and 30, 2022. There will be presentations on a wide variety of current issues and areas of interest to anyone working in or with accident reconstructionists, including law enforcement, engineers, attorneys, and insurance adjusters.
From 1:45 to 2:15 pm EDT on Wednesday, March 30, I’ll be presenting on the importance of using a tripod, a polarizer, and a flash during inspections in the field, in storage facilities, and in the lab. The use of those tools can result in superior images—in the camera—with detail and data you can’t extract or replicate later in post-production. Best of all, you can put those three tools to work immediately, which will make your photographs consistently better and more useful.
By the way, my presentation will be just a snippet of what we’ll cover in my three-day SAE Forensic Photography class. Now that SAE will be resuming in-person classes this summer, I’ll post the next class dates as soon as they are finalized.
While this is hardly news, on sunny or lightly overcast days, the positions and sizes of the shadows of trees, buildings, signs, poles, fences, guardrails, etc., change throughout the day. At certain times, these shadows can make it difficult to clearly show tire marks, paint marks, or gouges in your photographs. The worst is when there is a pattern of light and shadow across your scene.
This first image was made at 10:21 am on a mostly sunny morning. (Click on image to enlarge. Then click back arrow to return to this post.)
This view was made looking south, so the morning sun would have been to left, or east. The dense line of trees on the eastern edge of the road cast a shadow across the entire road with bright spots through the openings in the branches. These bright spots can interfere with details or evidence you might want to show.
Returning to that same scene at 2:45 pm that afternoon, the overcast had burned off. Even though the sun was quite bright, it was at an angle that evenly illuminated a lot more of the road, with only some shadows at the left. (Click on image to enlarge. Then click back arrow to return to this post.)
By late afternoon that day, it had become too overcast for deep shadows, so I went back a couple afternoons later to capture what that scene would look like later on a sunny day. The image below was made at 6:52 pm. (Click on image to enlarge. Then click back arrow to return to this post.)
Those seemingly innocuous trees to the west (right of the photo) were now casting long, separated shadows across the road. These shadows would obviously make it more difficult to show gouges, tire marks, or even paint marks on the pavement.
Time permitting (i.e., it’s not a rapid response), it’s worth checking out where the sun and any shadows would be before you set out to inspect a scene.
For many years, I’ve been using The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) https://photoephemeris.com/en to determine where the sun is going to be in relation to any accident site. (It’s now a subscription service, and well worth the small cost.) It’s extremely valuable if you need to show whether the sun could have been in the eyes of any drivers or witnesses.
And as in this case, it’s also useful for determining when you have the best chance of getting clean site images with minimal shadows. Below are the three TPE screen captures that show what information you get.
The first shows where the sun was when the 10:21 am photo (top one above) was made. (Click on image to enlarge. Then click back arrow to return to this post.)
The line of the sun is shown as the narrow gold line coming in from the lower right toward the pin marking where my tripod had been set up. Note that while the photographs were made looking south, the TPE diagrams have north at the top. So the morning sun in the east will be from the left side in the photos and from the right side in the TPE diagrams. (Just FYI, the wider yellow line at the upper right was the sunrise angle while the wider orange line at the left was the sunset angle.)
This diagram showed that at 10:21 am on 09/04/21, the sun would have been coming in from the eastern side of the road through a thick area of trees, which is exactly what was shown in the top photograph.
At 2:45 pm on the same day, the sun was beyond the thick trees to the east, yet below the tree line to the west. This should result in a photograph with minimal shadows on the road, as the second photo above shows. (Click on image to enlarge. Then click back arrow to return to this post.)
When I went back a couple days later at 6:52 pm, the TPE diagram showed that the sun would now be far enough west that it would come through the line of single trees to the west once the sun got low enough in the sky. Once again, that is precisely what the third photo above illustrates. (Click on image to enlarge. Then click back arrow to return to this post.)
TPE gives both the azimuth and altitude of the sun. In this post, I’m only using the azimuth for direction, and applying a general knowledge of how high the sun will be from experience. For a question about whether the sun was in a driver’s eye, you’ll have to use both azimuth and altitude. That’s a future post.
TPE has many more sophisticated applications, including using AI to show where the sun or moon will be in a scene. It’s well worth getting and exploring all of its features. (I have no ties to TPE nor receive any compensation from them. It’s just a great tool I highly recommend.)
-1- Before you photograph your wreck site, it’s often worth determining when the sun will cause the fewest or shortest shadows on your road.
-2- The Photographer’s Ephemeris is well worth using when you need to know where the sun will be at specific times on specific dates.
Photographs of collision sites in most intersections, or in residential or commercial areas, will have recognizable elements that orient a viewer to that area. Conversely, many stretches of rural roads, interstates, or other limited-access highways have few, if any, distinctive features. While it will be assumed that your photos show the road where the wreck occurred, without visible landmarks, it may be difficult for viewers to relate to the area. Signs, bridges, guardrails, and other roadside objects can be helpful—but only if you include them in your photographs.
As an example, the top of a fireworks store is partially visible at the top of the image below, but it isn’t visible enough for a viewer to determine where this photograph was made. [Click on photograph to enlarge, then click on Back arrow to return to this post.]
By the way, this photograph was made for two purposes. First, it showed the roadway in the direction the accident vehicles were coming from. Second, it showed an oncoming vehicle as it crested the hill (vertical curve) on the approach to the area of impact to give a sense of the sight distances involved.
While the fireworks store is a partial clue, the timing of the tractor trailer in the above photo obsured an exit sign, visible below, that would definitively place where the photo was made to someone generally familiar with the area. [Click on photograph to enlarge, then click on Back arrow to return to this post.]
Unless you intend to depict the effect of obscuring an element at a site, which sometimes you may wish to do, it is worth making a habit of reviewing your images while you’re still in the field to ensure you haven’t accidentally masked an important feature you meant to show.
-1- You should make photographs of the approach to a wreck scene to establish where the vehicle or vehicles came from.
-2- If a hill, curve, tree line, building, etc., obscures the view of an approaching vehicle, in any direction, you may want to capture the view both without any vehicles and then with a vehicle just coming into view to assist in visualizing the visibility distance.
-3- Especially on a rural road or on a limited-access highway, photographs including signs or other roadside features can help a viewer relate to where the photo was made.
-4- You can time your photographs so that passing vehicles will or will not obstruct certain roadside features at an accident site, depending on what you are trying to illustrate in each photo.
-5- You should include unobstructed permanent roadside objects in at least one photograph so you won’t be embarrassed by failing to fully document a wreck site.
Fill Flash helps bring out details in the shadowed area of high-contrast subjects. This first photo of the left front of a truck tractor without flash doesn’t have much detail under the fender. [Click on image to enlarge, then click on back arrow to return.]
To bring out some detail, a flash was added at a reduced power output for this second image. (It’s more noticeable in an enlarged image.) Fill flash isn’t intended to light the entire image frame, but only to lighten very dark areas. [Click on image to enlarge, then click on back arrow to return.]
While there was a little more detail in the suspension and frame, raising the flash power added even more light under the fender. Again, it’s best to enlarge the image to see the effect. [Click on image to enlarge, then click on back arrow to return.]
Note that all three photographs were made at the same exposure of f/10, 1/50 second, and ISO 64. The images differ because the amount of fill flash was different. This showed the flash was supplemental or “fill” meaning flash filled in the shadows without altering the overall exposure.
Before you make any photograph, look for areas that are too dark to show details you may want. By varying the power of the flash, you can bring out as much detail as you choose, without affecting the overall exposure.
-1- Fill flash adds light in the shadows without affecting the overall exposure, which stays the same.
-2- You can control the amount of shadow detail you want to show by changing the output of your flash, or its flash power.
Note: This is an updated and enhanced version of a post originally made in July 2018.
After having four of the five classes canceled last year, I’m really happy to announce the return of my SAE automotive and product photography class: https://www.sae.org/learn/content/c1729/. I’m glad to be returning to the site of my first class in 2018 at the great facilities of Mecanica Scientific Services in Oxnard, CA: https://www.mecanicacorp.com/. Many thanks to John Steiner, CEO and Principal Scientist of Mecanica, for hosting this upcoming class from August 30 through September 1, 2021.
Whether your primary job is accident reconstruction, product analysis, vehicle or component testing, or other technical area, you will need consistent, quality photographs to both document and analyze your subjects. These photos need to be made regardless of ambient lighting or conditions. Your camera on Auto isn’t going to do that. [Click on image to enlarge in new window, then click back arrow to return to post.]
Not only are good photos essential for documentation and useful for analysis, they can be critical for use in lawsuits, insurance claims, recalls, and design and testing evaluations. Both in-house analysts and independent consultants will be counted on to routinely produce accurate and reliable photographs as part of their professional work. Did I mention that your camera on Auto isn’t going to do that? [Click on image to enlarge in new window, then click back arrow to return to post.]
This class is designed to give you the tools and knowledge you’ll need to consistently create professional photographs by proper use of focus, depth of field, composition, lighting, polarizers, tripods, and close-up/macro tools. You’ll see how flash is essential for capturing all the data, and how it’s not as intimidating as many believe. We’ll also cover the two types of night photography as well. [Click on image to enlarge in new window, then click back arrow to return to post.]
There will be more hands-on sessions than in previous classes, so make sure to bring your camera, lenses, polarizer, tripod, and flash. Course information and registration are available through the link in the first paragraph, but if you have any questions or need more information, please feel free to e-mail or call me directly.
Where you place your camera determines the relative positions of objects in your frame. It’s important to be aware of any unintended impressions by the juxtaposition of the objects you are showing. This is best avoided by making photographs from enough different angles to give a complete and accurate representation of the positions of all the elements.
The subject of these photographs was a disused flatbed semi-trailer. It was in a rural field with a number of other discarded vehicles . None could be moved.
All of these photographs were made with the same 50 mm lens on the same full frame sensor camera so there was no variation in the field of view between the images. As mentioned, neither the trailer nor the car were moved. My camera was on a tripod (as always) so all the photos were made from the same camera height.
In the first photo, how far under the trailer do you think the rear of the gold car was? Was its rear bumper against the left landing leg of the trailer? (Click on the image to enlarge, then click on the back arrow to return to the post.)
Moving the camera to the right showed the car’s rear bumper was not against the landing leg, but can you estimate how far the trunk lid was under the side of the trailer? (Click on the image to enlarge, then click on the back arrow to return to the post.)
Further right, looking directly at the front of the trailer, the car’s rear bumper was actually quite far from the trailer’s landing leg, and its trunk lid doesn’t look nearly as far under the trailer as in the two previous photos. (Click on the image to enlarge, then click on the back arrow to return to the post.)
Moving even farther to the right, you can now see that none of the rear of the car was under the side of the trailer. Again, neither vehicle was moved during this sequence. (Click on the image to enlarge, then click on the back arrow to return to the post.)
-1- Be aware of possible deception from a single photograph, both when making the photos yourself, and when evaluating photos provided to you. If the first image had been from a wreck scene, you certainly don’t want to opine that the rear of the car ended up under the trailer!
-2- Take multiple images from different camera positions to give a complete and accurate depiction of your subjects and their relationships to other objects in the frame.
-3- As mentioned in previous posts, using a tripod for every image not only insures a sharp image, but allows careful framing and a consistent look between images all made at the same height.
For almost an hour, we talked about a wide range of topics related to tire, vehicle, and accident reconstruction photography. Among the subjects we discussed were the importance and use of a tripod, a polarizer, and flash. We also touched on both kinds of night photography and on post-processing.
I hope you will find the information we discussed useful. The interview also gives an idea of a couple of the topics which we demonstrate and discuss in depth in my SAE class which, by the way, will be resuming as in-person classes this year.
Here’s a link to that class: SAE C1729. I’ll post the dates of the new classes as soon as we finalize them.
Most accident reconstructionists and product liability engineers have had to photograph a vehicle, vehicle component, or other product in a dark area such as a warehouse, storage facility, lab, or even an office. Conditions can be even worse for building or fire investigators, especially if the power is out. By definition, what is missing in any of these situations is light!
But despite the lack of light, you might only get this one chance to inspect the evidence. You’ve got to come back with well-exposed, well-lit professional photographs—photos that accurately portray what you saw, represent you well to your clients, and reflect the quality standards of your work, especially during depositions and trials.
Unless you are trying to capture a low light scene as it is (which is a completely different discussion), you have several options to make a photo in low light.
One is light painting by moving a flashlight over your subject during a long exposure. This is tedious and time-consuming, especially if you have to make more than one or two images. It is also hit-and-miss, even if you are experienced with it. Of course you need a sturdy tripod for every shot, since the exposures are long. These long exposures also risk generating noise. So light painting might be good in an emergency, and it’s sometimes necessary for illuminating vehicles at nighttime accident scenes.
It can work, as shown below, but it’s not recommended for making inspection photographs. This photograph of a rental car was made at dusk with no lights on in the garage. The only light came from when I walked around the vehicle constantly moving a flashlight, painting both the car and the garage bay. Note how the long (74 second) exposure made the outdoors look brighter than it was. (Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to this post.)
Another option is use high ISO sensitivities. On all digital cameras, the higher the ISO, the more noise and less dynamic range there is. With newer cameras, neither the increased noise nor the dynamic range loss are obtrusive until the middle or higher ISO values (say ISO 800 or even 1600). Here’s an example made at ISO 200,000 and cropped from the full frame. (Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to this post.)
As a third option, continuous light sources are better than nothing, but none are bright enough to avoid having to use a long shutter speed and/or to raise your ISO. Most fluorescent lights flicker and have an undesirable color cast. Halogen shop lights get hot and have a very warm color cast. Quality LED lights have good color control, but still aren’t bright enough. Even the larger LED panels made for photo studios don’t put out enough light, plus the brighter ones are big and unwieldy to transport and setup. Again, none of them put out enough light to allow a low ISO and a shorter shutter speed.
Flash is your best option, by far. But the tiny built-in flash on a point-and-shoot, the popup flash on a DSLR or mirrorless, or even a professional flash in your camera’s hot shoe won’t always be sufficient. You’ll need additional light.
There is a learning curve to using flash, since you can’t see the effect of the light until after you’ve made the photograph. But as long as you think about where and about how much light you need, it’s something you’ll pick up with a little practice.
Since I shoot Nikon, I always carry three Nikon Speedlights (flashes) with me. (You don’t need flashes made by your camera manufacturer, but those will always work with your camera, and are usually quite robust.) One flash goes in the camera’s hot shoe, and I put the other two where needed. I usually carry two small, lightweight, travel light stands with me so I can place the lights where they will do the most good, but I will often just prop them up on something nearby. (Within the next couple days, I will write a post about the gear I mention in this post.)
Since I do a lot of tire analysis, I often need even more light than the Speedlights can put out. Besides, Speedlights can take a long time to recharge their capacitors between shots.
Especially for tires, I use Profoto B10 battery-powered studio flashes on the road and battery-powered Profoto B1x studio flashes in my Studio Lab. Again, more on these in a post later this week.
Recently, I had to inspect tires and wheels inside a semi-trailer. Even though my inspection was close to noon on a sunny day, and the trailer had a couple side doors I could open, I knew it would be pretty dark inside the trailer for photography. I set up my two Profoto B10 flashes on my travel light stands. They were fired by a Nikon SB-910 flash in my camera hot shoe. Exposure and flash powers were all set manually. (Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to this post.)
Here is a resulting image from that setup. (Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to this post.)
A single flash on the camera—even Nikon’s most powerful Speedlight—could never have provided enough light to evenly illuminate this tire and wheel. The Speedlight and battery-powered strobes not only provided nice even lighting, but allowed me to shoot at ISO 64, which is the lowest on a Nikon D850. This minimized the noise and maximized the dynamic range to show the most detail possible.