Photography and the PI

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Photography and the PI

A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s a saying I’ve heard all of my life, and related to for almost as long. As we now find ourselves clearly entrenched in the digital image age, I wonder if the traditional, dedicated camera is on it’s last legs. So exactly what does this mean for photography and the PI?

I was a photography buff as a teenager. My first “save up my allowance and odd job money” purchase was a Canon AE-1 SLR. Before that, I used a Kodak Instamatic camera. I had an eye for framing a picture. I saw art in places that others just passed by without seeing anything worth noticing. The camera was an extension of myself. I loved taking pictures. I spent way too many hours of my high school years in a darkroom, developing black and white film. I had subscriptions to American Photographer, Popular Photography, and Modern Photography. I expected to spend my life taking pictures.

Today, as a private investigator, the idea that a picture is worth a 1000 words is just as true as ever. Clients want, often need, to “see” the proof. My professional, eye-witness account can sometimes means little to them. However, add a photograph or a video, and often nothing else is required. A jury can be unswayed by expert testimony. But show them projected photographs, or a 30 second video clip, and guilt or innocence can be decided in that moment.

We use all types of cameras and video capturing devices: digital SLR’s, hand held HD video cameras, car/dash mounted cameras, pen cameras, button hole cameras, infrared cameras. Yet there is one device that is becoming more and more important in my line of work: the camera phone/smartphone.

Craig Mod recently wrote an article in The New Yorker magazine about the traditional camera becoming less important. The idea was that the connected, app capable smartphone was becoming his preferred choice of cameras because of what he could do with the photos after they are taken.

smartphonesIn my professional work as a private investigator, I can also see the value of what I can do with photos taken this way. Pictures I take with my smartphone immediately sync with the desktop computer in my office, and on my tablet. They can be cropped or zoomed in on to see needed details immediately. They can be shared with my team while I am still in the field, or I can see the work of my investigators while they are still on site. We don’t have to wait until we can get to a computer, download the pictures, copy them to a drive, and email or print them. The pictures are taken, then the pictures are there on multiple devices. A speedy internet connection makes it a nearly instant process.

Smartphones are ubiquitous in daily life these days. The presence of one doesn’t raise a red flag in most situations (except those that are security conscious). They can often be stealthy even when used in plain sight. Carrying and using a dedicated camera becomes less appealing to many, even professionals, every day.

As a photographer, I still like having control over things like f-stops, shutter speeds, exposure, focus, and depth of field that a digital SLR provides. As a professional investigator, however, it boils down to one thing more than any other: lenses. The camera/picture taking technology we have today is incredible. What Apple, Samsung and other smartphone makers are doing with both hardware and software is amazing compared to what we had 20, or even 10, years ago. The hardware has gotten smaller, and smartphone based cameras are great for pictures of daily life, but the inability to zoom in optically on a scene and photograph or capture video is still a key part for investigators in the field. The problem with zoom lenses is they need physical space for focal length and distances between glass lenses to accomplish their task. As cell phones get small and thinner, they are lacking the size needed for optical zoom capability.

If I was in the prediction making business (which I am not), my prediction would be that we will see the market for small, dedicated pocket cameras completely dry up during the next several years. I expect that there will be only a few, if any, dedicated pocket cameras available in 5 years. A smartphone will be something almost everyone has, and those will be what people use to take pictures of their daily life events.

dallas private investigator dSLRHowever, I expect digital SLR cameras to continue to be around for higher end professionals for many years. Smartphone makers want to create a camera that anyone can use and take nice looking pictures. They want to automate as much of the process as possible, so the person taking the picture gets good results even if they know nothing about photography. Photographers, and others using cameras in professional settings, often need equipment that they have control over, that has multiple settings, and that has interchangeable lenses. Smartphones are headed in the opposite direction.

There has also been a lot of talk about drones, or UAV’s, recently, and this may be one of the private investigator’s solutions to some of the challenges we encounter today, but that is still in the future for most of us in the private sector. 

So my toolbox will continue to have dSLR cameras and equipment, video cameras, and a slew of specialty cameras. But the smartphone is certainly in the mix more than ever before!

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Keith Owens is the owner and founder of Owens Investigations.

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photo credit: Khánh Hmoong via photopin cc

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