Labeling Evidence for Product Photography

When your subject has multiple similar features, you’ll need to mark each of them to distinguish among them in your photographs. These markings must be repeated on the other side of your subject, too, if applicable.

Since you are dealing with evidence, you should never make permanent marks unless agreed to by all parties involved beforehand. Instead, it’s best to use removable stickers or labels.

Before applying any labels, photograph the subject as you received it. This will ensure no part of the evidence is masked. As an example, here is a photograph of the mounting surface of an eight-bolt wheel with sixteen holes so it can be used with more than one bolt circle. (Click on image to enlarge, then click on the back arrow to return to this post.)

Nikon D850 with ZEISS Milvus 50 mm macro lens and Nikon R1C1 macro flashes. f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 64.

Using a Brother P-touch labeler, I made one long label with two strings of numbers from 1 through 8, then cut between each number to create small labels of each individual number. The goal was to make the labels as small—yet as legible—as possible so they would mask the least amount of the evidence.

Choose a font with legible numbers, and set the font style to bold. Depending on the color of evidence, I usually use either white on black or black on white labels. On rare occasions, I have used black on clear labels. It’s advantageous to have all three label tapes available.

A label maker creates labels that are more legible and more professional looking than writing numbers by hand on torn pieces of tape.

For this wheel, I numbered the holes in pairs. Note that the numbers are counterclockwise on the inside so they will correspond with the same numbers on the outside of the wheel, which were clockwise. (Click on image to enlarge, then click on the back arrow to return to this post.)

Nikon D850 with ZEISS Milvus 50 mm macro lens and Nikon R1C1 macro flashes. f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 64.

Here is the outside of the wheel showing the clockwise bolt hole pair labels. (Click on image to enlarge, then click on the back arrow to return to this post.)

Nikon D850 with ZEISS Milvus 50 mm macro lens with two Profoto B1x in diffused silver umbrellas. f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 64.

Now close-ups of every hole will be easily identified whether on the inside…

Nikon D850 with ZEISS Milvus 100 mm macro lens and Nikon R1C1 macro flashes. f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 64.

…or the outside of the wheel. Note that the labels are a good size in the close-ups without overwhelming the subject. Also note that the label is still effective even if it is out of the depth of field of the subject and is slightly out of focus.

Nikon D850 with Laowa 24mm f/14 2X Macro Probe. f/unrecorded, 0.5 sec, ISO 64.

Takeaways:

-1- After photographing evidence as found or received, mark repetitive features on any sides that will be photographed.

-2- Do not make permanent marks on evidence.

-3- Mark evidence with small, legible, and removable labels instead of handwritten numbers on torn pieces of tape.

-4- While labels should be included in close-ups, they do not have to be within the depth of field of the subject as long as they are still discernible.

-5- After making each close-up image with its label, you may want to remove the label and take another photograph without it. Having your camera on a tripod will allow you to made identical shots both with and without the label.

Perspective: The Effect of Focal Length on both Subject and Background

Perspective is the relationship between the elements in your photograph. The only way to change perspective is to move the camera. In fact, any time you move the camera, your perspective automatically changes. Conversely, staying in one place and zooming in or out doesn’t change perspective; it only crops the image differently.

This series of photographs demonstrates perspective change by using a 24-70 mm zoom lens and changing the camera position while using four increasingly long focal lengths: 24, 35, 50, and 70 mm . All were made from my standing eye height. The goal was to keep the subject car the same size in each image by moving the camera further away at each longer focal length.

When the resulting images are viewed at the same distance, you’ll note two effects from increasing camera distances while using longer focal lengths: -1- the car appears to change shape and compress, and -2- the background and other vehicles seem to be getting closer to the subject car.

This spectacular 1937 Cord Model 812 Beverly Sedan was photographed at the Savoy Automobile Museum in Cartersville, GA. Like most car museums, neither tripods nor flash are allowed. This requires using high ISO and slow shutter speeds to obtain your images. Fortunately, almost all full frame  and some cropped sensor mirrorless cameras have amazingly effective in-body stabilization, which allows handholding the camera at low (slow) shutter speeds that were almost impossible before.

While these examples were made at a car museum, the principles apply exactly the same for any vehicle—or any subject—anywhere.

For this first image—made with a 24 mm focal length—I was quite close to the car. Note how long the hood looks and how far away the DeLorean and the background appear. [Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to post.]

Made at Savoy Automobile Museum, Cartersville, GA, using handheld Nikon Z 7II with 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens at 24 mm. Exposure: f/9, 1/30 sec, ISO 1600.

Stepping backward with a 35 mm focal length, the Cord looks less distorted, and the background vehicles seem closer. Of course, no vehicles were moved between any of these images. [Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to post.]

Made at Savoy Automobile Museum, Cartersville, GA, using handheld Nikon Z 7II with 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens at 35 mm. Exposure: f/9, 1/30 sec, ISO 1600.

Moving further away using a 50 mm focal length appears to once again shorten the hood and wheelbase of the Cord, while bringing the background even closer. [Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to post.]

Made at Savoy Automobile Museum, Cartersville, GA, using handheld Nikon Z 7II with 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens at 50 mm. Exposure: f/9, 1/30 sec, ISO 1600.

Back even further with a 70 mm focal length apparently compresses the Cord even more and brings the DeLorean and background closest yet. [Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to post.]

Made at Savoy Automobile Museum, Cartersville, GA, using handheld Nikon Z 7II with 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens at 70 mm. Exposure: f/9, 1/30 sec, ISO 1600.

Takeaways:

-1- When you move your camera, the perspective of your resulting image changes.

-2- When viewing images from the same distance, moving your camera closer to your subject with a wider focal length makes your subject appear distorted and your background objects farther apart.

-3- Again, when viewing images from the same distance, moving your camera farther away from your subject with a longer focal length makes both your subject and background elements to appear more compressed.

Camera Position May Result in Unintentionally Deceptive Image

Although the effect is usually unintentional, a single image may be deceptive!

In the photograph below, both the height and the angle of the camera seem to indicate that the subject SUV was a two-door model. But actually, there was no such vehicle as a two-door 2004 Chevrolet Trailblazer. In fact, the subject shown here was even the extended EXT version of the standard four-door. (Note the top of the chopped off B-pillar visible above the window frame, which is the clear giveaway that it is actually a four-door SUV.) [Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to post.]

2004 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT LT 4WD 3/4 side view. (Nikon D850 with ZEISS Milvus 50 mm f/2 macro lens with polarizer, fill flash, and tripod. f/13, 1/40 sec, ISO 125.)

It is standard practice to make multiple photographs around every subject vehicle. It’s also often necessary to make images at different heights and angles. No one who sees all of our photographs will be deceived. The problem is when you get only one or maybe a couple photos of a subject you either haven’t or can’t inspect yourself.

Using the same prime ZEISS 50 mm lens at the same tripod height, the photo below clearly shows the vehicle was a four-door. [Click on image to enlarge, then click back arrow to return to post.

2004 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT LT 4WD side view. (Nikon D850 with ZEISS Milvus 50 mm f/2 macro lens with polarizer, fill flash, and tripod. f/13, 1/30 sec, ISO 125.)

This unintended deception isn’t an issue when you’re making your own photographs, but it can be a problem if you’re trying draw conclusions based on a limited number of photographs provided to you. This frequently happens when the vehicle has been destroyed or is otherwise unavailable, and only one or a couple photographs—often made with a cell phone—are all the evidence that remains.

Takeaways:

-1- Be careful making conclusions based on a single photograph.

-2- Make a series of images around the entire circumference of any vehicle or subject you are documenting.

SAE Accident Reconstruction Digital Summit Presentation Slides

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.

SAE Photography Class — July 12-14, 2022

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!

Here’s a link for more information and to register: SAE Photography Class July 2022.

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.

I hope to see you there!

SAE Accident Reconstruction Digital Summit

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.

Here’s a link to the Summit: SAE Accident Reconstruction Digital Summit. Again, registration is free and available here: SAE Accident Reconstruction Digital Summit Registration. I hope to virtually see you there!

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.

Best Time to Photograph a Wreck Site

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.)

Tree shadows at 10:21 am on 09/04/21. (Made with ZEISS 50 mm f/2 macro lens on Nikon D850 on RRS TFC-24L tripod with BH-40 ball head. f/11, 1/8 sec, ISO 64.)

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.)

Tree shadows at 2:44 pm on 09/04/21. (Made with ZEISS 50 mm f/2 macro lens on Nikon D850 on RRS TFC-24L tripod with BH-40 ball head. f/11, 1/60 sec, ISO 64.)

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.)

Tree shadows at 6:52 pm on 09/09/21. (Made with ZEISS 50 mm f/2 macro lens on Nikon D850 on RRS TFC-24L tripod with BH-40 ball head. f/11, 1/15 sec, ISO 64.)

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.)

TPE 10:21 am on 09/04/21.

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.)

TPE 2:45 pm on 09/04/21.

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 6:52 pm on 09/09/21.

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.)

Takeaways:

-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.

Including References in Accident Site Photographs

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.]

Accident site with truck blocking sign. (Nikon D810 with ZEISS Milvus 50 mm f/2 macro lens.)

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.]

Accident site with sign as reference. (Nikon D810 with ZEISS Milvus 50 mm f/2 macro lens.)

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.

Five takeaways:

-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.

More on Fill Flash

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.]

Left Front of Truck with No Flash (ZEISS Milvus 50 mm macro lens on Nikon D850 at f/10, 1/50 sec, ISO 64.)

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.]

Left Front of Truck with Medium Fill Flash (ZEISS Milvus 50 mm macro lens on Nikon D850 with Nikon SB-910 flash at f/10, 1/50 sec, ISO 64.)

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.]

Left Front of Truck with More Fill Flash (ZEISS Milvus 50 mm macro lens on Nikon D850 with Nikon SB-910 flash at f/10, 1/50 sec, ISO 64.)

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.

Two takeaways:

-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.

New SAE Photography for Accident Reconstruction, Product Liability, and Testing Class Scheduled!

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.

Important note: This class is an elective choice for the SAE Accident Reconstruction Certification (https://www.sae.org/learn/professional-development/certifications/accident-reconstruction-certificate/courses). It also qualifies for PE continuting educational requirements and ACTAR credits. Best of all, what you learn in this class can be applied immediately, and every single time you’re doing an inspection afterward.

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.]

Photo made by panning with vehicle moving at 55 mph during tire testing. (Made with Nikon 300 mm f/2.8 lens on Nikon D800E at f/6.3, 1/640 sec, ISO 400.)

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.]

BMW in sun at tow yard. Fill flash and polarizer. (Nikon 24-70 mm f/2.8G lens on Nikon D810. Exposure: f/10, 1/60 sec, ISO 160.)

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.]

Night photo of intersection with traffic light. (Made with ZEISS Milvus 50 mm f/2 macro lens on Nikon D850, at f/6.3, 1/60 second, ISO 1600.)

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.