What’s Your Niche?: TV Crime Scene Photographer

By David Walker

Michael Kubeisy’s Web site features a section he calls “Forensics” that is probably not suitable for work: There are graphic images of gunshot victims, skeletal remains, autopsies and the like. “The following images, though graphic,” begins a warning to the site’s visitors, “are makeup effects. The actors, unless they are silicon, get up and walk away.”

Kubeisy is a television set (aka unit) photographer, and although he’s called to shoot promotional images for all types of shows, his bread-and-butter work is to shoot crime scene photos that are used as props in TV police procedurals like NCIS, Southland and CSI: NY. The actors who play detectives and investigators on those programs frequently show up at staged crime scenes with cameras and pretend to photograph them for evidence. They fake it with long lenses for the home viewers, who don’t know crime scene photography from red carpet work.

“When the director yells ‘Cut,’ I jump in where the actor was standing for continuity, and [shoot stills] properly,” Kubeisy says. “You’re not trying to create art. You’re trying to create crime scene photos, and you have to imitate the police officer or agent who [supposedly] shot them.”

Kubeisy’s images show up in later scenes, posted on evidence boards, for instance, or pulled out of a detective’s pocket as he or she goes to question witnesses.

“As a set photographer, I’m part of the camera unit. So the crew is accommodating to make sure you get the shot,” he says. “But you don’t take you’re sweet time. You’ve got to be fast, or you wind up holding up the whole crew. I jump in while they’re changing [TV camera] lenses or whatever,” Kubeisy explains.

“You want the viewer to connect with the victim, and the only way to do that is by showing the face,” he continues. “You’re trying to capture the crime scene, but you want to bring out the victim’s personality, whether it’s someone’s mother, or child, or girlfriend, or the bad guy.”

He uses the image display on the back of his camera to get the director’s approval on the spot, then the crew moves on to the next shot.

The equipment is minimal. He doesn’t have to do much lighting beyond an occasional fill flash. “The gaffers light the set beautifully. They create the texture and the mood, and you don’t want to blow it out” with additional flash, he says.

Kubeisy uses two camera bodies—a Canon 7D and a 5D—and relies primarily on a 24-105mm image-stabilizing lens. That enables him to get a wide shot of the body in the context of the crime scene, and then “push in tight on the trauma—bullet wounds, stab wounds, blunt force trauma,” he says.

It’s all far removed from the real thing, so the job is fun, and Kubeisy sleeps just fine at night. “It doesn’t stink, and we joke about it. There’s a lot of camaraderie and humor on the set,” he says. “I’ll be photographing an actor who’s supposed to be dead, and I’ll be like, ‘Dude, you can’t smile. You’re dead.’ Which just makes them laugh even more.”

He got his start as a unit photographer assisting Ron Slenzak in the mid-Eighties. Slenzak was a unit photographer on Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, but eventually quit to pursue commercial work, which was more lucrative. “He let me shoot those shows. I got enough days to get into the union,” Kubeisy says.

In 1996, a friend told him the prop master from the Dick Van Dyke TV series Diagnosis Murder was looking for a new set photographer. “I started doing that show, and the rest is history,” he says. Kubeisy moved from one job to the next on referrals, and his business took off a decade ago, just after CSI became a big hit and spawned other crime investigation dramas.

Because it’s all union work, Kubeisy gets paid by the day, whether the job takes two hours or eight. Beyond eight hours, the rate is time and a half, and anything over 12 hours is double time. “You’re making $500 on a good day,” he says. “As a set photographer, though, you’re considered an employee of the show, so copyrights to your images belong to the producers.”

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