Aviation and Aerial Photography

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A Brief History of
Aerial Photography

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From the beginning of time; in myth, story and dreams, man has been drawn to the "view from above". The aerial perspective helps to orient us within our world. The "view from above"  provides a context for our place in our neighborhood, community, region and the world at large. Dreams of flying have been our companion from the first dawning of consciousness. The longing to defy gravity, to rise above the minutia of life and escape the temporal limits of our earth-bound bodies transcends all geographical, cultural and ethnic boundries. As man first began his climb to the stars, one of his first acts was to strive to share the transcendent experience through photography. Consequently the history of flying and aerial photography are deeply linked.  As man climes higher into the stars the one certainty is that his one enduring companion will be the camera.

Daedalus built wings for himself and his son Icarus. They were  fashioned with feathers held together with wax and Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun because it would melt his wings, and not too close to the sea, as it would dampen the feathers and make it hard to fly.

Daedalus and Icarus successfully flew from Crete, but Icarus grew exhilarated by the thrill of flying and began getting careless. Flying too close to the sun god Helios, the wax melted and he fell to his death, drowning in the sea. Daedalus mourned his son and then continued on to Sicily, where he joined the court of Cocalus.

"Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives".

— Socrates

From photography's first days, photographers have been drawn to the "view from above" first using the elevated vantage point of windows, then balloons followed by kites and finally airplanes, rockets and satellites.

The first representations of the aerial view used the principles of perspective. An excellent example of this technique is Vista de Venecia (c. 1500) by Jacopo de Barbari. By the 19th Century the techniques for developing constructed aerial views was well developed as shown in the San Francisco view below.

In 1827 Joseph Nicephore Niepce took the first known photograph using a camera obscura and an emulsion composed of bitumen of Judea, a resinous substance, and oil of lavender. Niepce's first image is a view from his studio window. With the exposure lasting eight hours, the sun moved from east to west, appearing to shine on both sides of the building.

In 1829 Niepce and Louis M. Daguerre signed a partnership agreement to work on Heliography, or sun drawing, and on Daguerre's dioramas which were constructed with the aid of a camera obscura.

In 1839 Daguerre announced the invention of the Daguerrotype which consisted of a polished silver plate, mercury vapors and sodium thiosulfate ("hypo") that was used to fix the image and make it permanent.

In 1839 William Henry Fox Talbot invented a system of imaging on silver nitrate of silver chromate treated paper and using a fixative solution of sodium chloride.  Talbot later found that the latent image could be developed in a solution of gallic acid. Fox was the first person to employ a negative positive process "Calotype" laying the groundwork for modern photography.

The first aerial photographs were created in 1858 by Gaspar Felix Tournachon who was also known as "Nadar" when he photographed the houses of the French village of Petit-Becetre. The images were captured from a balloon tethered at a height of 80 meters. None of these images have survived, however Nadar went on with his work, becoming the first to photograph Paris from a balloon in 1868.

During the 1860's Aerial observations, and possibly photography from ballons were used for military purposes for the first time during the Civil War.  

In 1873 Herman Vogel found that by soaking silver halide emulsions in various dyes he could extend their sensitivity to longer wavelengths. His work led to the development of near infrared sensitive films

In 1887 the German military began to experiment with aerial photographs and photogrammetric techniques for measuring features and areas in forests.

In 1889 Arthur Batut, The Father of Kite Photography, made the first aerial photograph using a kite flying above Labruguiere France. His simple idea of attaching a camera to a kite sparked a sensation that continues to this day. In 1889 he took a oblique picture of his house from 420 feet that was published in a French magazine, his technique provided stunning aerial views that people were not accustomed to seeing. The camera was held close to the kite and an altimeter would record the altitude of the kite when the picture was taken which would make it possible to scale the image. Timing was controlled by a slow burning fuse that was lit when when kite was launched, after the picture was taken a white flag was dropped and the kite was reeled in.

Labruguier France by Arthur Batut 1896


In 1899 George Eastman invents a nitro-cellulose based film that retained the clarity of the glass plates. This led to the introduction of the first Kodak camera.

In 1903 the Bavarian Pigeon Corps used pigeons to transmit messages and take aerial photos. Julius Neubronne patented the "breast mounted pigeon camera". The camera weighed 70 grams and  took automatic exposures every 30 seconds. Though the pigeons were faster than balloons they were not always reliable in following their flight paths. The birds were introduced at the 1909 Dresden International Photographic Exhibition. Picture postcards of aerial photographs taken over the exhibition were very popular. They were used at other fairs and for military surveillance.


In 1906 Albert Maul, used a rocket propelled by compressed air to make an aerial photograph from a height of 2,600 feet, the camera was ejected from the rocket and parachuted back to earth.

In 1906 George. R. Lawrence (1869-1938) showed the world the compelling beauty of the aerial view. Lawrence used a train of nine large kites to lift a moving slit panoramic camera that weighed 49 pounds and rose to a height of 2000 feet.  Some of his most memorable photographs were of San Francisco before and after the great fire and earthquake of 1906. Eventually some of Lawrence's cameras would weigh more that 1000 pounds. Lawrence designed his cameras so that the film plate curved in back and the lens fitted low on the front, creating wide panoramic views. The camera was lifted to a height of 2,000 feet and an electric wire was used to control the shutter. Lawrence first used ladders and high towers to photograph from above. In 1901 he made his first aerial photographs from a basket attached to a hot air balloon. On one flight, at more than 200 feet above Chicago, the basket separated from the balloon and Lawrence and his camera fell to the ground. Fortunately telephone and telegraph wires broke his fall; he landed unharmed. Lawrence continued to use balloons until he developed a method of taking aerial views with cameras suspended from unmanned kites. He developed a means of flying Conyne kites in trains and keeping the camera steady under varying wind conditions. This system was named the 'Captive Airship'. 2.

San Francisco by George R. Lawrence


One of the most daring applications of aerial photography was the manned kite undertaken by Samuel Franklin Cody in the early 1900s. Cody, an American who emigrated to England, made a fortune with his "wild west" show. Cody and his sons began flying kites in the late 1800s. They quickly progressed to larger kites and multiple-kite trains designed to lift a human. Cody experimented with kites and eventually developed a "bat" design, which is a double-celled Hargrave box kite with extended wings. He patented the "Cody kite" in 1901, and it was the basis of his ingenious man-lifting system. He eventually succeeded in interesting the British military in the man-lifting kites, and a demonstration was conducted at Whale Island, Portsmouth, England in 1903. First one son ascended 200 feet and took photographs. Then Cody went up to 400 feet, and finally another son rode up to 800 feet and photographed naval ships in the harbor. Further trials were undertaken in 1904-05, and Cody achieved a record height of 2600 feet for manned kite flight. However, few others followed Cody into manned kite flying, because of the cost and risk involved. 4.

In 1907 Auguste and Louis Lumiere developed a simple color photography system that would establish the 35 mm film standard.

In 1909 Wilbur Wright produced aerial images from an airplane flying above Centocelli, Italy, using a motion picture camera. 

During the period 1910 to 1939, René Desclee became the pre-eminent aerial kite photographer. His main subjects were the city of Tournai France and its cathedral. Over a period of three decades he produced more than 100 outstanding aerial images which constituted one of the best aerial photography portfolio prior to World War II. Desclee's work marked the end of kite aerial photography's golden age. From then on rapid progress in military and commercial aerial photography reduced kites to a minor role in subsequent aerial photography. 5.

The U.S. military was slow to respond to the new machine, but the military organizations in Europe wasted no time. The first recorded use of an’. airplane in a combat environment took place on October 23d, 1911, when Italian Captain Carlo Piazza took off to reconnoitre Turkish gun emplacements. Significantly, Captain Piazza had difficulty recording all that he could see and fly the airplane too, so on November 11th he forwarded a request for a camera to mount on his airplane. The camera was mounted on the belly of his Bleriot aircraft with the lens pointing toward the ground. The Italian-Turkish War was a limited beginning, but it established that aerial photography had great potential. Technical developments tended to lag, in the area of cameras and photographic processing, leaving much of the work to the eyes of the pilot observer, however this would change overnight with the WWI hostilities beginning in 1914. 9.

From the first days of World War I, the airplane demonstrated its ability to serve as the "eyes of the army." As the British Expeditionary Force retreated from German invaders in France, two-dozen reconnaissance airplanes of the Royal Air Force watched from over head. On August 22, 1914, British Captain L.E.O. Charlton and Lieutenant V.H.N. Wadham reported that German General Alexander von Kluck’s army was starting to prepare to surround the British Expeditionary Force, contradicting all other available intelligence. The British High Command listened to the pilots’ report and started a retreat toward Mons saving the lives of 100,000 soldiers. 8.

A week later, French aerial reconnaissance units began reporting that the Germans were moving toward the east of Paris. Although the intelligence officer refused to listen, General Joseph-Simon Gallieni, the military commander of Paris and a supporter of aviation, did. He issued orders sending French troops to the exposed German flank. The resulting First Battle of the Marne was a victory for the French because it forced the Germans away from Paris. Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front in Poland, aerial reconnaissance reports on the movements of the Russian Army helped the Germans and Austrians stop an advance at the Battle of Tannenburg. But the result of these two battles was to push the armies fighting on both fronts into defensive positions in the trenches--a stalemate that would last almost until the end of the war. 8.

 In 1915 Lt. Col. J.T.C. More Brabazon designed and produced the first practical aerial camera in collaboration with Thornton Pickard Ltd.

By 1918 French aerial units were developing and printing as many as 10,000 photographs each night, during periods of intense activity.  During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, 56,000 aerial prints were made and delivered to American Expeditionary Forces over four days.

WWI Aerial Photography showing trench fortifications

At the beginning of World War I the military on both sides of the conflict saw the value of using the airplane for reconnaissance work but did not fully appreciate the potential of aerial photography. Initially, aerial reconnaissance was accomplished by sketching maps and verbally conveying conditions on the ground. In some cases, their observations were incorrect and or exaggerated. It was difficult to accurately identify one soldier from another. 2.

Some English observers started using cameras to record enemy positions and found aerial photography more accurate than sketching and observing. The aerial observer became the aerial photographer and soon all of the nations involved in the conflict were using aerial photography. The maps used by both sides in the Battle of Neuve-Chappelle in 1915 were produced from aerial photographs. By the end of the war the Germans and the British were recording the entire front at least twice a day. Both countries possessed up-to-date records of their enemy's trench construction. England estimated that its reconnaissance planes took one-half million photographs during the war, and Germany calculated that if all of its aerial photographs were arranged side by side, they would cover the country six times. The war brought major improvements in the quality of cameras. Photographs taken at 15,000 feet could be blown up to show footprints in the mud. 2.

With the end of the war the U.S. Military was quickly reduced, including the fledgling Air Service. Strange as it may seem, most people at that time had never seen an airplane, muchless photographs taken from one. It is no surprise then that few people understood that the security of nations could now depend on aerial reconnaissance. George W. Goddard, then a Second Lieutenant, appreciated the importance of continued development of aerial reconnaissance and, more than any other man, molded U.S. aerial reconnaissance programs from 1920 to 1950. With his assignment to MoCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, he became responsible for Aerial Photographic Research, and during this early period began forming the nucleus of the Wright Avionics Laboratory. He sponsored research in infrared and long focal length camera systems that, in World War II, proved extremely vital to the allied campaigns. It should also be noted that aircraft designs designated Project A,B,C, and D were started as aircraft for long range aerial reconnaissance, and althought the designs went through a multitude of changes, these projects became the B-17, B-24, B-19, and B-29, most of which gained fame in the war as bombers. Had these planes not been on the drawing boards early, they would not have been ready for WWII. 9.

The first books on aerial photo interpretation are published in 1922.

In 1924 Mannes and Godousky patented the first multi-layer film which led to Kodachrome film in 1935.

In 1926 Dr. Robert H. Goddard constructed the first rocket using liquid fuel. The rocket was launched on March 16,1926, at Auburn, Massachusetts. His second rocket, also launched at Auburn in 1929, carried a scientific payload of a barometer and a camera. The first aerial image from a rocket was made during this flight. Goddard’s work was as important as that of the the Wright brothers but Goddard was viewed as being “weird” and people complained about his rockets. Goddard was told by the State Fire Marshall to discontinue his work or leave Massachusetts. He moved to Roswell, New Mexico. 2.

Dr. Robert Goddard, Auburn Massachusetts

Aerial View of Auburn Massachusetts from Goddard's rocket

In 1931 Stevens developed an infra red sensitive black and white film.

In 1934 the American Society of Photogrammetry was founded.  

Beginning in the 1920s, the Fairchild Aerial Survey company “lobbied Connecticut Governor John Trumbull to contract for an aerial survey of the state. At that time, no one state agency could pay for an aerial survey. The project waited till the State Planning Board coordinated the effort.

Four airplanes were used for the Connecticut survey conducted in March and April 1934. Fairchild owned three of the airplanes, probably Fairchild manufactured FC-2 cabin airplanes. It had a heated, enclosed cabin so that pilot and photographer could endure long hours in the air. It was a monoplane with the wing extending from the top of the airplane to have an unobstructed downward view. The wings also folded for transport by railroad to survey locations. The fourth airplane belonged to the Connecticut National Guard, 43rd Air Division, 118th Observation Squadron. This was a Douglas O-38E two-seat, open cockpit observation biplane that was standard with the Air Corps at the time. 1.



In 1936 Captain Albert W. Stevens made the first photograph that captures the curvature of the earth. It was taken from a balloon at an altitude of 72,000 feet, Launched from the Stratobowl near Rapid City, South Dakota. The balloon, Explorer II, carried Captains Albert Stevens and Orvil Anderson to a world record altitude of 72,395 feet. Sponsored by the National Geographic Society, one of the flight’s most dramatic successes related to aerial photography. The first photographs showing the division between the troposphere and the stratosphere and the actual curvature of the Earth were recorded. Also, stunning photographs of South Dakota and surrounding states were taken. 2.

In 1938 the Chief of the German General Staff, General Werner von Fritsch, made a prophetic statement when he said: "The nation with the best photo reconnaissance will win the next war."

During WW II more sophisticated techniques in air photo interpretation were developed. Germany pioneered many of the applications of photo reconnaissance. 

In 1946 the first aerial photographs from space are made using V-2 rockets. In late 1942 the British Secret Intelligence Service was informed about a new rocket being developed at Peenemunde. An aerial photoreconnaissance plane was sent on June 23, 1943 and obtained the first photo of the V-2 rocket. This aerial photo shows Test Stand VII at the German Testing Center with a V2 rocket on its trailer inside of the test firing area. It also shows possible anti-aircraft gun positions on top of an adjacent building. On August 17 and 18, 1943 the British sent their bombers to Peenemunde and rather than bombing the facility in general, precise targets were selected based on the excellent aerial photography previously obtained. After the bombing a second aerial photoreconnaissance plane was sent to assess the amount of damage. 2.


Omaha Beach - D Day

The vast and complex job of planning for the Allies' D-Day landings depended heavily on aerial photography. Years before the final choice of beaches was made, photo interpreters had been watching the whole shoreline of northern France. They knew every gun emplacement, every pillbox, every wire entanglement and every trench system of the whole Atlantic Wall. 7.

Their work paid off when, in June 1944, through a night of high winds and driving rain, a vast armada of over 6,000 ships, 50 miles wide and carrying 185,000 men and 20,000 vehicles, headed towards the beaches of northern France. It was the largest sea borne invasion in world history, and aerial photography played an absolutely crucial role in its success. The photograph shows American troops landing on Omaha beach - scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the invasion. 7.


P-38 Lightning Photo Reconnaissance

The P-38 Lightning was widely used by US reconnaissance pilots during World War II. The Trimetrigon camera setup in the P-38 made it ideal for mapping, and was best illustrated on D-Day when several sweeps of P-38s covered the entire Normandy beach-head landings. The 'dicing' camera, installed in the aircraft's nose, was effectively used during the battle against V-weapons, when pilots flew as low as 50ft to photograph the launch sites. 7.


Bismarck battleship

On 18 May 1941 Germany's Bismarck battleship, accompanied by the Prinz Eugen, sailed with over 2,000 men on board from Gdynia on the Baltic coast. British intelligence had been monitoring the progress of the battleship and had noted increased reconnaissance by the Luftwaffe in the North Atlantic, which suggested that the German fleet would soon break out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The first indication came two days later from the British naval attaché in Stockholm, who had received a report that the Bismarck was sailing through the Kattegat and towards the North Sea. The following day, members of the Norwegian resistance sighted the ships off the south coast of Norway.

In response, two reconnaissance Spitfires from Wick, Scotland were sent to search the Norwegian coast, and at 1:15pm on 21 May pilot officer Suckling found the ships at anchor and made the above photograph from 25,000ft.

During the 1950's there are many advances in sensor technology to include multi-spectral range and color-infrared photography.

In 1954 the first U-2 begins aerial reconnaissance.

In 1957 Russia launches Sputnik-1.

In 1960 TIROS-1 the first meteorological satellite was launched.

During the 1960's, the United States begins collecting intelligence from Earth orbiting satellites, CORONA.

Upon arriving on the Moon the Astronauts look back to their origins and record this view from above.








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1. http://www.cslib.org/aerials/aerialshist.htm#1885


3. http://www.geospectra.net/kite/history/history.htm

4. Robinson, M. 2003. The flying cowboy. Kiting 25(3), p. 27, 34-35.

5. Hart, C. 1982. Kites: An historical survey. Appel Publ., Mt. Vernon, New York. 2nd edition, 210 p.

6. http://www.carnetdevol.org/desclee/rene.htm

7. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/aerial_recon_gallery_01.shtml

8. http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Air_Power/WWI-reconnaissance/AP2.htm

9. http://www.tech-writer.net/historicaloverviewaerial.html


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