GSB Vol. 10, No. 4 - #2. Understanding and Challenging Photographic Evidence: What the Camera Never Saw.

AuthorBy Timothy W. Wolfe

Georgia Bar Journal

Volume 10.

GSB Vol. 10, No. 4 - #2.

Understanding and Challenging Photographic Evidence: What the Camera Never Saw

Georgia State Bar JournalVol. 10, No. 4, December 2005"Understanding and Challenging Photographic Evidence: What the Camera Never Saw"By Timothy W. WolfePlaintiff's Counsel: "Your honor, I hereby tender plaintiff's exhibits 1-5, photographs of the accident scene."

Court: "Any objections, counselor?"

Defense Counsel (who saw the original photographs for the first time at the calendar call): "No objection."

Court: "Plaintiff's Exhibits 1-5 are admitted without objection."

This scene plays out repeatedly in trials, as photographic evidence is rarely challenged, and often the original photographs, negatives or computer files are not inspected or questioned during the discovery period. This article describes the potential distortions inherent in photographic evidence, clarifies the standards for admission of photographic evidence at trial, and provides some pointers for discovering and countering photographic distortions.


Until about 10 years ago, photography was predicated upon the use of film and the chemical development of the latent image created by exposing film to light. Digital photography has revolutionized the field by utilizing electronic sensors and computer chips in lieu of film, allowing limitless and facile alterations of images, and conferring the ability to edit and print photographs on a personal computer. There is also a hybrid utilization of traditional film and digital in which a negative, slide or print can be scanned and then converted to a digital image. Even in traditional photography, the image that the lens and camera render is not the same as what the human eye sees. Many distortions can occur; digital photography has made distortion (intentional and unintentional) just that much easier. The use of video cameras and elaborate computer reenactments have also created new issues. The type of lens a photographer uses can greatly alter the appearance of the scene depicted in the photograph. Perhaps you have heard photographers mention the use of a 200 millimeter (mm) telephoto lens, a 28 mm wide angle lens, or a normal lens. The millimeter designation of a lens (or focal length) refers to the distance between the film inside the camera and the end of the lens. A socalled "normal" lens is approximately 50 mm and is denoted normal because it duplicates human vision - i.e., it renders objects in the field of vision the same as the human eye. The focal length of a wide angle lens is in the neighborhood of 28 to 35 mm, and the focal length for a telephoto lens is considered to be 100 mm and above. A wide angle lens can distort a scene by making objects appear to be farther away from the photographer and increasing the peripheral vision of the scene. On the other hand, a telephoto lens will compress the space in the scene, make objects appear closer to the photographer and closer together, and eliminate much of the peripheral view. These principles all apply to both traditional film cameras and digital cameras. By example, all three of the images were taken of the same scene, approximately a quarter mile from an intersection with a traffic light near a convenience store. They were taken with the camera in the same position, with the same composition, and under similar lighting conditions. The only variable was the focal length of the lens. Image A was taken with a normal 50 mm lens; this is virtually how the human eye would view that intersection. Image B was taken with a 28 mm wide-angle lens and appears to show a longer distance between the camera and the intersection. Image C was taken with a 200 mm telephoto lens and has compressed the scene. The practical significance of these different images in a personal injury case would be, for example, the jury's perception of how much time the driver headed toward the traffic light had to stop. Image B seems to show that the traffic light is relatively far away, aiding the notion that the driver had a longer time to stop, while Image C seems to show the light as much closer, and therefore that the driver had less time to stop. The focal length of lenses could also distort how a human body would look, which would be relevant in documenting injuries such as facial scars...

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