Autopsies provide insight into the cause of death and clues that help law enforcement solve crimes. Photographs of the body taken before and during an autopsy become evidence that supports an investigation. They also document disease that researchers and physicians use to develop treatment regimens and pharmaceuticals. Forensic photographers work beside medical examiners and pathologists in the morgue as well as with police at crime scenes. Biomedical or medical photographers typically specialize in taking photos of live patients for education and research purposes, but may be called upon to assist in the morgue.
Forensic Photographer Responsibilities
You put your knowledge of camera setup, lighting, exposure and angles to work in the morgue. Cases may require as many as 200 shots, depending on their complexity and departmental standards. In some medical examiner offices, the forensic photographer oversees film development, print enlargements and inventory of related chemicals and supplies. You create the custody chain for the photo evidence you shoot that is critical to an investigation's integrity and identify your photos using case numbers. Becoming a forensic photographer requires at least an associate degree and one year of photography experience. Some employers prefer candidates with certification from the International Association for Identification and a background in law enforcement or military service. The annual salary for forensic photographers employed by the Houston (Texas) Airport System ranged from $24,960 to $50,310 in 2012, while those working for the city of San Francisco (California) earned $50,830 to $61,802.
The Dade County Morgue Bureau in Miami, Florida represents the type of morgue operation that assigns autopsy photography to its forensic technicians. As a forensic autopsy or forensic science technician, you assist the pathologist performing an autopsy by opening the body, removing tissues, fluids and organs, taking fingerprints and drawing blood samples. You may be asked to take X-rays as well as photographing the cadaver and its organs. This career requires an associate degree in physiology, chemistry or a related science and some laboratory experience. In states such as Colorado, you also need to be licensed to perform radiology tests. The median salary in 2012 for forensic science technicians was $52,840, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Becoming a biomedical photographer offers a broader selection of projects and gives you the opportunity to combine creativity and science. In addition to photographing autopsies, medical photographers provide visuals for medical publications, textbooks and research projects. Their photos also document patient progress and medical procedures. More than their forensic photography counterparts, medical photographers use graphic design software and photomicrography for detailed work for pharmaceutical companies, medical schools, research institutions and hospitals. You need at least an associate degree and photography experience and should consider earning the registered biological photographer designation from the Biocommunications Association. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that medical photographers in hospitals earned a mean annual salary of $49,050 in 2012.
Regardless of your title and the personal protective equipment you wear, working in a morgue can expose you to unpleasant smells, chemicals and bodies in disturbing conditions. You must maintain a professional, respectful attitude toward your subject and adhere to confidentiality protocols. Due to varying and unpredictable caseloads, you may work long hours, holidays and weekends and under pressure to complete the job with speed and accuracy.
- Health Careers Center: Medical Photographer
- Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences; Medical Examiner Service; Forensic Imaging
- General Dynamics Information Technology: Forensic Photographer
- Houston Airport System: Forensic Photographer
- City and County of San Francisco: 1770 Photographer, Police Forensic Photographer/Photo Lab Asst.
- Miami-Dade County: The Morgue Bureau
- City of Denver: Career Service Authority; Forensic Autopsy Technician
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012; Forensic Science Technician
- Wisconsin Health Careers Information Center: Medical Photographer
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Wages for Health Care and Social Assistance
- Darrin Klimek/Digital Vision/Getty Images