Every Picture Tells a Story1
Use of photography in forensic and valuation engagements
The purpose of this article is to provide the CPA/expert a brief introduction to the use of photography in a valuation or forensic engagement. It is not intended to be an all-inclusive training manual in forensic photography. Criminal forensic photographic procedures may, due to the differences between civil and criminal law, be materially different.
The wife claims the dirt bag husband is skimming income. Blah, Blah, Blahâ€¦same story, different day. How many times have I heard this one?
The husband is a pleasant fellow who, though not pleased I am here, gives me the walkthrough of his business. As is my habit, I document my visit with my camera. I took overall pictures, midrange, and close-ups of interesting items.
My experience has taught me that sometimes all the income of a cash business may not always show up on the company books. Miraculously, it finds its way directly into the pockets of the owners.
I use two sets of eyes: my baby blues and my favorite Canon. My vision may be 20/20 (with glasses), but the cameraâ€™s 22 megapixels never miss a thing.
While walking with the sweet-talking husband, he attempts to distract me from the racks of unsold samples, which are sold from the backdoor Saturday mornings. He will explain that the used pallets are junk and he must pay to have them hauled away.
â€śThe vending machines?â€ť I ask.
â€śOh, they are owned by someone else and I have them here as an accommodation for my employees,â€ť he says.
I may be distracted, but not my Canon. My second set of eyes opens back at the office. No lies, just the truth; nothing but the truth.
Whose name is on the vending machine license? (How do you spell subpoena?). If it is the subject business, is any income reflected? Does the business reflect purchases for the machine?
While looking at the pictures, you look for other items which may affect your opinion. Is the premises maintained in a professional manner? Do the machines appear to be in good repair and in operating order? Does the inventory have thick dust on it, which would indicate obsolescence?
My junior high shop teacher, Mr. Pentacaust, taught me that a picture is worth a thousand words. I certainly failed to learn how to make a lamp, but I learned something more important.
A colleague tells a story of how he won a case because his photographs showed that the piping system was in poor repair and revealed evidence of little maintenance. The co-expert structural engineers were able to testify from his pictures.
The purpose of this article is to give the CPA/expert a brief introduction into the use of photography in a valuation or forensic engagement. It is not intended to be an all-inclusive training manual in forensic photography. Criminal forensic photographic procedures may, due to the differences between civil and criminal law, be materially different.
Digital or Film?
A couple of hundred bucks and a trip to the big box store is all it takes to get a digital camera. Most smartphones have photographic and/or video capabilities. Many laptops have built-in card readers to facilitate the processing of images. For a few dollars more, a color printer can be purchased.
For the less technical, the â€śone-hour photoâ€ť shop now burns images onto a CD and can print photos in little time.
Why is there any question of whether to use digital or film? The answer is simpleâ€”evidential basis.
Film images may be manipulated by professionals; digital images can be manipulated by anyone with a computer and an inexpensive program. In fact, most inexpensive cameras manipulate the image without the userâ€™s knowledge or control.
Digital cameras use a light sensitive computer chip. The image is transferred to an onboard computer, which converts the raw data into a standard image file like jpeg2 or tiff3. Both methods compress the data captured by the camera; the jpeg, however, permanently removes pixels from the image. As an example, the raw data file of an 8.2 megapixel image from my camera is approximately 10 megabytes, while the jpeg file generated by the camera is approximately 600 kilobytes.
Raw images are available in the more expensive â€śprosumerâ€ť and professional models of the cameras.
Film, which is not as convenient to use, can provide a more detailed image. There is also the benefit of a chemically produced negative or positive image, which can be scanned into a digital file.
The convenience of the digital camera and the technological improvements in image quality outweigh the marginal quality of image benefits of film. Both mediums offer challenges in maintaining the integrity of the evidence.
Maintaining The Integrity of the Evidence
PhotoshopÂ®4 is a great program for the digital photographer, but its ease of use and popularity give rise to questions of authenticity by opposing counsel. Daubert and Frey challenges of photographic evidence are increasing in frequency. Criminal trials appear to challenge photographic evidence with greater frequency than civil trials.
What must the photographer5 do to protect the images from challenge?
- Know the equipment. Know how to use it and be able to explain its functions.
- Know basic photographic theory. For example, the relationship between light and aperture.
- Take plenty of pictures. The cost of a digital image is minimal. Data can be stored on CDs and cards can be reused.
- More angles mean a greater probability the images will capture a true view.
- Use variety, specifically:
a. Vary the depth of field and exposure.
b. Take the picture with and without a flash.
- Maintain the raw data:
a. If the camera only produces a JPEG imageâ€”keep the â€śbeforeâ€ť image and Photoshop a copy.
b. Download raw data from the card to both DVDs and the hard drive. These raw copy files are processed using Adobe BridgeÂ®, which does not alter the data.
- Never use the Clone Tool6. This may be great for cleaning trash from a landscape, but the goal is a factual image.
- Use a minimal amount of sharpening:
a. Sharpening focuses soft edges to increase clarity or focus7.
b. The digital image loses sharpness in its conversion from the raw image.
c. Many cameras are hardwired with automatic sharpening routines.
- Document any changes made so others may replicate the work:
a. If the other side can produce the image, it is less likely to be challenged.
b. This assumes, of course, that no inappropriate manipulation has occurred.
- Burn a CD or DVD of every level of change:
a. If the image is enhanced, burn a CD of the original image and every step in the enhancement process.
b. Clearly label the CD both electronically and manually. Indicate the following:
Â Â Â i. Title (case number, etc.)
Â Â Â ii. Date of burning of the CD
Â Â Â iii. Version number
Â Â Â iv. Name of person performing the manipulation
c. Keep a redundant log of all manipulations. In short, provide a paper trail which will allow replication of the image.
- Maintain security over the images. As these images can be altered, it is imperative that the chain of evidence be maintained. It is suggested that:
a. Files are maintained in a limitedâ€“access, locked file cabinet.
b. Computers be password-protected and a log of usage be electronically maintained.
c. Evidence is sealed in envelopes, including:
Â Â Â i. Use copies to work with or display.
Â Â Â ii. Maintain originals for court testimony.
Â Â Â iii. Perform image processing on a dedicated computer, which is:
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1. Non-networked: that is, data is not shared with others who may manipulate and copy over files.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2. Not connected to the Internet, thereby preventing unauthorized access via viruses or hackers.
Metadataâ€”The hidden scoop on digital images
What is metadata? In short, it is the information about your data.8 In digital photography, it is the information stored by your camera and your image processing software, which is appended to the digital data file.
This data is readily accessible to anyone opening the image in a photo-viewing program such as Photoshop. It can be expected that if the photographic evidence is critical, counsel will question you about the information contained in this file. The ability to explain how the data is recorded by the camera or Photoshop, and the implications of the data are critical.
â€śMr. Expert, the data attached to this photo indicates that it was shot at F5.6 at 1/30 of a second. Would there be a difference if it was shot at F16 at 1/5 of a second?â€ť
The attorney is looking for the photographer to admit that at F16â€”the depth of field9â€”would be deeper, opening for further questioning about techniques employed.
Whether it is the inexpensive one-time-use film camera, your smartphone, the point-and-shoot digital, or an expensive single lens reflex camera with an assortment of lenses and accessories, the images taken will enhance the reports and your testimony. Take the precautions, however, to ensure the integrity of the image and preserve the chain of evidence. The photographer/expert must also be able to explain the methodology used to take and process the images.
Howard J. Schneider is a Certified Public Accountant licensed by the state of Florida. He is also accredited as a Certified Valuation Analyst and a Master Analyst in Financial Forensics. He previously served on the Litigation Forensics Board of NACVA and was its chair for two years. Howard lives and practices in Coral Gables, Florida. When he is not assisting clients, he can be found behind the lens in Everglades National Park, South Beach, or taking pictures of his first granddaughter. He can be reached at Yourcpa@Gate.Net.
1With thanks to Rod Stuart for the music I played in my darkroom in the 70s
2Joint Photographic Experts Group
3Tagged Image File Format
4Photoshop, a product of Adobe, is one of many graphics programs which are used by photographers. The word Photoshop is used to describe this generic group of programs.
5The premise of this article is that the expert who is the taking the photographs is not a professional photographer.
6The Clone tool is a PhotoshopÂ® technique by which a small portion of an image is copied replacing the original pixels.
7Adobe PhotoshopÂ® CS User Guide
9The distance in front of and behind the subject that appears to be in focus.