History of Aerial Photography

The Aerial Perspective

Aerial Photography occupies a special place among the many segments of photography. Not only because of a history dating back to the earliest periods of photographic discovery but also for the images aerial photographers have captured. Images that would have been unattainable from any other viewpoint. Scenes such as the famous image of Earth, floating in the blackness of space, taken by Apollo 17. Images that have had a profound impact both on how we view ourselves and how we view the world around us.

From earliest times mankind has held a fascination with the view from above. The "bird's eye" view of mythology and dreams. Therefore it's not surprising that, not long after the discovery of photography, photographic pioneers began to turn their attention to the aerial view.

However, it was not an easy task for these dedicated souls. At that time most photographers used a Collodion or "wet plate" process where the plate must be developed while still moist. This required all steps, from sensitizing the plate, to exposure and development be accomplished within 20 minutes. When used for aerial photography a darkroom and all gear, including a supply of water, had to be fitted into the basket of a balloon.

The first to successfully accomplish this feat was Gaspar Felix Tournachon or "Nadar" in 1858 when he photographed the houses of the French village of Petit-Becetre from a balloon tethered at a height of 80 meters. That first image has unfortunately been lost, but Nadar went on with his experiments becoming the first to photograph Paris from a balloon in 1868.

In 1860, not long after Nadir's first attempts, James Wallace Black is successful in photographing Boston from a balloon. This is the oldest aerial photograph know to still exist.

Soon the advent of dry plate techniques and camera improvements allowed photographs to be taken with relative ease and the camera moved from balloons to kites and other platforms. In 1903 Julius Neubronne patents a breast-mounted camera for pigeons and in 1906 Albert Maul uses a rocket powered by compressed air to loft a camera which then parachutes back to earth.

Boston 1860

San Francisco in Ruins

Also in 1906 a famous photograph depicting the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake is taken by George Lawrence using a string of kites to lift a handmade panoramic camera aloft.

In 1909 Wilbur Wright photographs the town of Centrocelli, Italy producing the first aerial photograph taken from an airplane.

The military were quick to see the value of airborne cameras for reconnaissance. Although no images are known to exist there are numerous accounts of photographs taken from balloons during the American Civil War. However by the First World War its value had become well established. In 1918 French units were printing as many as 10,000 photographs a night during periods of peak activity. Many of the innovations in aerial photography, and some that have benefited all photography, were originally developed for military uses.

The camera strobe was first developed by Dr Edgerton to aid allied bombers in night photography during WWII. Other uses first conceived by the military have made their way into civilian life as well. Infra red film was developed to "see through" enemy camouflage. Today it is an indispensable tool in the management of crops and healthy forests.

Infrared Satellite Image

The advent of smaller and lighter cameras has freed the aerial photographer of the cumbersome equipment of the past. As film size has fallen, from plates to 35mm and now digital, the number of photographers allowed access to the aerial view has increased.

Today aerial photography has become an indispensable part of our increasingly visual world. A view that is valued both for the wealth of information it provides and the unique beauty it presents us. From the exciting science of remote sensing, to a Madison Avenue car advertisement, to a simple snap shot from a scenic flight, aerial photography has become part of our everyday lives.

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