How to buy cameras

By Tim Dees

Digital cameras are now so good and inexpensive that every officer in the field should have one immediately available. It's always better to gather more evidence and documentation than you think you need, because you won't be able to go back and get it later. If your cops don't have cameras handy, they'll forgo getting pictures because they won't want to wait for one or go and get one. Here are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing a camera for law enforcement:

1. Camera Size
Cigarette pack-size "point and shoot" cameras are for vacation and birthday party photos only. They seldom focus close enough to get details of tool marks or tattoos, and their electronic flashes won't sufficiently illuminate an accident scene. A more sophisticated camera is necessary to get the detail needed to document injuries and crime scenes.

Single lens reflex (SLR) cameras are best. These use the same lens to frame, focus, and capture the image. Some have viewfinders that show an LCD display, but true SLRs let you see the image directly, and are best for evidence work. Most of these come with zoom lenses with focal lengths from 18-55 mm. An 18 mm lens is considered "wide angle." This setting will be used far more often than a telephoto (120-800 mm) lens, as most of your photography will be inside rooms and other small spaces.

2. Features
Police cameras don't need a lot of fancy features, but one to look for is the ability to shoot "bracketed" exposures. On this setting, each push of the shutter release will take three pictures—one at the shutter speed and f-stop recommended by the camera's light meter, and one at each f-stop immediately above and below. Bracketed exposures will capture detail that might be lost from a midrange photo. Since film and processing costs aren't a factor, there is no reason not to take lots of pictures.

Give strong consideration to buying an external flash for each camera. These provide more light than a built-in flash, and can be adjusted to provide indirect light to eliminate shadows and not wash out detail.

3. Power Source
Cameras powered by standard AA or AAA batteries are preferable to those with internal or proprietary batteries. You can buy a supply of rechargeable batteries to save money, but if a camera goes dead at a critical moment, replacement batteries are at every convenience store.

4. Memory
Most cameras store their photos on a removable memory card. One format is as good as another, but standardize on a particular type, such as SD cards or Memory Sticks. You don't need cards with huge capacities. It's better to have a bunch of 512 MB or 1 GB cards than a few 4 GB items.

5. Cases
Camera cases do you no good when the cameras aren't in them. Consider purchasing a product such as Camera Armor (, silicone "skins" made for specific models. These stay on the camera even when in use, protect it from "dings," and offer limited protection from moisture.

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at

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