How to Make a Facial Reference Catalog


If you’re doing composites, you probably have photo references that you are using. Whether it’s a catalog you purchased, a bootleg Xeroxed copy somebody gave you (that’s a no-no by the way!), or simply a collection of images you gathered together in a file box, most artists use some type of visual reference system.

And not necessarily just photos of faces…many artists carry references of hats, tattoos, sports insignias, jewelry, etc. What if you have photos sitting in a box or a manila folder, but you don’t know how to go about putting them together digitally so they’re organized and easy to find? How do you scan them all, how long will it take, what size should they be, how do you name them all, how do you print them? It’s enough to scare a person off and give up, but it shouldn’t at all.

Believe it or not, organizing a pile of photos into a book is not that tough of a thing to do. In fact, the nuts and bolts of it are shockingly…easy. Whether it’s something that you want to use in place of what you have now, or just an extra set of references, there’s no reason why you can’t do it. All you need is a little bit of time, some directions (which you’ll get here), and Photoshop..

If you immediately said “but I don’t have Photoshop!”  that still shouldn’t stop you. You can do most of the work at home without it, then go to Kinkos, or maybe a public library, and use one of their design stations for the rest. Or, you can save up the money and buy it, because frankly I think it’s become a necessity for the job, and one of the best investments you can make in your forensic art career.

No matter how good an artist you are, there will be some instances in forensic art where the best tool for the job isn’t a pencil; it’s a pixel. Age progressions and post-mortems, where you have good quality photos, come to mind. If you’ve been avoiding learning Photoshop, don’t. It can give you a better end-product, and help you immensely in your career.

Ok, where to start in organizing your book?

You’re going to need pictures…lots and lots of them. Not too many years ago, this would have been a daunting task of collecting, sorting and copying photographs. Page layout and printing would have been their own nightmares. Now, thankfully, it’s a relatively easy task.

As far as photos…If you’re employed by an agency, you will likely be able to gain access to hundreds if not thousands of mugshots, pictures of tattoos, etc. Some will be printed photos, others will already be digital. Of course, you will need to get permission from the appropriate person in your agency, and let them know what you intend to use them for first.

If you don’t work for an agency, will you be allowed to use mugshots that you get online? Are they public domain or not?

Most people think they are… but it’s not a good idea to assume that’s true. And even if they are, that doesn’t mean you can use them any way you want. People still have the right to protect their privacy, and prevent their image from being used in any other means, especially commercially.

I know, I know…you have no intention of selling your catalog, and it’s going to stay safely in your hands forever.

Until you lose it.  Or someone asks for a copy. And then it’s out of your control and somehow, somebody, somewhere makes a buck off of it. All it will take is one person featured in that book to discover it and come after you. You don’t want that headache.

So, in case there is any doubt, the purpose of this tutorial is to walk you through the mechanics of putting together pages of photos, not to tell you which photos to use, where to get them, and how they can be used. For those answers, please contact a lawyer!

One last thing to point out: there is no magic to any particular catalog or set of references. As long as they are good quality photos, organized in a logical way, you’re fine. Nobody is going to look at you funny if you don’t have the same catalog that everyone else has. Instead, they’re probably going to be jealous and ask you where you got yours!

Ok, start gathering photos. Go get a comfortable chair. Ready, set…