History of Aerial Photography: From the Early 1900s to Today

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Capturing and improving the bird’s-eye view has been a driving ambition for many throughout the history of aerial photography. For artists, the driver has been seeing human endeavour from a new perspective, whilst others have seen commercial or military advantage in securing the unique overview that only aerial photography can provide.

Balloons and Platforms

The earliest recorded instance of aerial photography dates to 1858 when balloonist Gaspar Felix Tournachon, also a keen photographer, developed an interest in mapping and surveying by photographic means. Tournachon managed to produce some photographs of Petit-Becetre, a French village – though no copies of this feat survive.

The process employed a tethered balloon suspended at a height of 80 metres, and also demanded the services of a fully equipped onboard darkroom. Others, like meteorologist E. D. Archibald in 1882, used kites to capture unique photographic images, whilst an intrepid few scaled precarious high platforms or experimented with the deployment of camera-toting rockets and carrier pigeons. 

The Great War

Flight and photography advanced towards each other at the dawn of the twentieth century: The Kodak Brownie box camera appeared in February 1900, followed soon afterwards by the historic flight of the Wright brothers in December 1903. However, the advent of the 1914-18 World War brought a more ominous incentive for the development of aerial reconnaissance.

Aerial photos rapidly displaced the earlier drawings of airborne military observers, and camera designs were soon adapted to meet new military demands. As the Great War drew to a close, Sherman M. Fairchild’s lens fitted with an internal shutter made its first appearance – an innovation destined to influence aerial camera design for half a century.

Aviation’s Photo Pioneers

Like the fast-expanding aviation business, commercial aerial photography got off the ground quickly. Launched in 1919, the UK’s Aerofilms Ltd, based in Edgware, was the first-ever specialist aerial-photography company and secured lucrative contracts around the world. Aerofilms began mapping and surveying in the 1920s, moving on to work with the Ordnance Survey in the 1930s.

In the US, Fairchild began developing aircraft for high-altitude surveying and by 1935 had perfected a method using twin synchronised cameras at 23,000 feet for mapping purposes. Just 12 months later, Fairchild’s survey aircraft were operating at 30,000 feet. 

WWII innovation 

Once again, a military conflict sparked new developments, and in 1938 von Fritsch, Chief of the German General Staff observed: ‘The nation with the best photo-reconnaissance will win the next war.’ Many German-inspired technologies emerged, together with advances in methods of interpreting aerial photographic data.

Photo reconnaissance played a vital role in the Allies’ victory in World War II. Aerial photography was used to map out enemy positions, plan battle strategies, and track the movement of troops and supplies. Photo reconnaissance planes were often equipped with special cameras that could take high-resolution images from great heights.

The photographs taken by these aircraft were studied carefully by military analysts, who looked for patterns and clues that would reveal the enemy’s next move. In many cases, photo-reconnaissance was the key to victory, allowing the Allies to anticipate and respond to the enemy’s attacks.

For example, the 1941 sinking of Germany’s iconic battleship ‘Bismarck’ was assisted by aerial reconnaissance, as was the British bombing raid on Norwegian V2 rocket sites in 1943. In 1944, aerial photography was crucial to the success of the D-Day landings with US pilots deploying the new Trimetrigon camera for detailed mapping of coastal defences. 

Giant Leaps in Aerial Photography 

Post-war, aerial photography continued to develop with a renewed emphasis on commercial, non-military applications. The first space photos were taken in 1946 using cameras attached to V2 rockets, and ‘Cold War’ aerial surveillance advanced with the first reconnaissance missions flown by Lockheed U-2s in 1954.

The Russians took cameras into space aboard Sputnik-1 in 1957, heralding the arrival of satellite imagery. Fairchild also lived to witness his cameras become standard issue on US Apollo spacecraft, and later being employed to map the moon’s surface. By this time, digital camera technologies included sensors and colour-infrared- and multispectral range techniques. 

Robotic Eyes in the Skies

Contemporary aerial photography uses digital resources, GPS navigation, and gyro-stabilised cameras. It is also established as the primary means of capturing high-resolution images for a host of military and commercial purposes. Advances in unmanned flight technologies, together with the falling price of computers and software, have seen drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) become commercially available.

Furthermore, as powerful microsystems and smart technologies rapidly evolve, drones and UAVs are allowing increasing numbers of photographers to fly cameras. Stunning aerial images are becoming commonplace and are redefining the scope and application of aerial photography. 

Where once an aerial view could only be obtained after a great deal of effort and expense, nowadays this feat can be achieved quickly, easily – and remarkably cheaply. In addition, more views of real-life action can be achieved from a greater variety of perspectives, and almost as easy as taking holiday snaps.

Such autonomy now allows individuals to offer professional aerial-photographic services in a range of commercial fields seeking to obtain aerial overviews more cheaply, for example in mapping and surveying applications, alongside industries such as agriculture where falling costs now allow aerial-reconnaissance tools to be employed for an ever-expanding range of tasks.

Aerial Photography with Drones

The increasing popularity of drones has seen them used for a wide range of applications in both the commercial and consumer spheres, the first and dominant use is aerial photography. Thanks to their compact size and relatively low cost, drones offer a unique vantage point for capturing images of everything from landscapes to sporting events. What’s more, even consumer modern drones are equipped with high-definition cameras and advanced stabilization systems, making it easier than ever to capture stunning photos and videos.

Drones offer a revolutionary new way to take photos and videos, and they are only going to become more popular in the years to come.

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