Everything You Wanted to Know About Aerial Photography

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Aerial photography, just as its name says, represents the process of taking pictures while in air, well above the ground. Such pictures have plenty of applications and uses in many fields of research as well as in touristic and artistic photography. Bound to specific techniques and important in discovering, mapping and interpreting the world as we know it, aerial photography is important and appraised for its usefulness and beauty. Today we will take a closer look at what aerial photography really means, offering you information and tips on how to introduce it into your everyday life depending on your interests and photography skills.

Aerial Photography History


The history of aerial photography is intimately linked to the name of Gaspar Felix Tournachon, a French photographer who patented the concept in the late 19th century France. He photographed a small French village as he found it easier to map an area than the usual ground survey they were taking back then. The interesting history of aerial photography also mentions the use of balloons, pigeons, kites and even rockets as a means of aerial transportation for capturing the pictures.  Of course, nowadays we use helicopters, planes, and drone cameras to achieve the same results.

In 1906, the post-earthquake Chicago aerial photos made people understand that they were on to something. Aerial photography helped them capture easy-to-miss details, understand landscapes, survey an area and map it correctly. It opened up a new path in landscape studies, archaeology, documentation, map compilations, environmental changes and so on. It’s no wonder that aerial photography was developed as a separate science which soon started to gain shape and become more and more popular among the researchers trying to better understand the world they were living in. Archeology was the first sciences to embrace this new type of photography and many modern discoveries owe Tournachon their newfound life.

World War I, however, turned aerial photography into a controversial subject which still lingers today: the risk of capturing on film sensitive details of a site, building, or a location. The military implications of aerial photography used for reconnaissance purposes were soon embraced as well and developed during World War II. The conflicting sides would often use aerial photography to keep under surveillance the enemy lines, to make sense of massive agglomerations of buildings, cargo, and troops.

After the second war, the world was taken by storm by this new art of seeing from above and at a safe distance, and we probably have satellite imaging today because one man was smart enough to understand that some places and locations are unsafe or inaccessible for classic ground surveillance.

While satellite imaging and infra-red imaging took over aerial photography, it is still used in military and strategic operations. However, the process moved to much friendlier and equally important fields of interest, such as archeology and environmentalism.

Modern Applications of Aerial Photography


As we said, aerial photography left the military and joined the civilians in their unquenched thirst for discovery and adventure. There are plenty of contemporary uses of aerial photography, and these are some of the most important ones:

1. Archeology

Taking pictures from high above the ground has helped archeologists to locate lost monuments and hidden sites, track sites’ features which are not visible from the ground level, discover treasures buried under the soil, sand or water, observe certain sites’ features which are only visible under certain conditions, map the surroundings of a certain site and often record remote, hidden, unsafe or impossible to reach areas in the world. If you heard about crop marks, soil marks or parch marks, then you know how aerial photography has been used throughout the years to document human history, culture, and development.

2. Urban Studies and Real Estate

Aerial photography is an all-time partner of landscape studies, sociology, urbanism, geography, mapping and architecture. Low-level aerial photography is used to study the impact of new structures being introduced in an existent urban landscape, research the current infrastructure, and explore the architectural, social and economical changes which naturally occur once new urban projects are being developed. In real estate, the ones playing the aerial photography game have leverage on their competitors, as they can simply and clearly demonstrate the value or the beauty of a building or a construction site with pictures speaking for themselves.

3. Environmentalism and Climate Change

The shift in climate and the powerful environmental changes that affect each and every one on this planet are being thoroughly documented with the help of aerial photography. Researchers use to examine the impact of climacteric changes over certain ecosystems, the drying of lakes, the expansion of waters, and the reducing size of the rain forest and so on. Aerial photography helps researchers conduct environmental forensic investigations, keep track of all the changes we are going through, from documenting invasive species, the decimation of others, soil, water and landscape modifications.

4. Tourism

If you ever look at famous pictures of famous places around the globe, you will see many aerial photographs inserted in between the ground level ones. This is easily explained by the fact that aerial photography allows people to see broader areas and make more sense of the context. While we all love a panoramic picture of an exotic island blessed by a surreal sunset, we may also remain breathless at the sight of a blue lagoon, a never-ending green pasture, or a famous touristic landmark taken at the right angle.

5. Art

Finding a gorgeous location and capturing it from a good angle at the right time of the day can turn into a work of art which doesn’t necessarily have to fit a promotional, commercial, or scientific purpose. Artistic photographers are known for experimenting and trying creative ways to immortalize the beauty of our world, and aerial photography is one of the most exciting ways to achieve such goal.

One of the most famous modern photographers who made from aerial photography a contemporary art movement is Alexander Heilner, known for his magic abilities to turn a dull landscape into an abstract painting. He, like many other artists, is more than willing to play with angles, zoom, colors, special effects, contrasts, and locations. Of course, for an aerial artistic photographer to capture amazing urban structures for example, it takes an equally visionary urban landscapist and architect to build them.

Aerial Photography Know-How and Practice

Aerial-Photography-Know-How-and-PracticeMany consider that aerial photography consists in taking a good camera in a helicopter and start shooting the ground below. But professionals know there are more things to consider here than your sense of adventure or your fear of flight. The amateur photographer should first consult a comprehensive guide on aerial photography and have his homework done properly. The first things you need to know and decide upon are generally the following:

  • Choose the delivery means: helicopter, plane, or drone – depending on the type of aerial carrier you pick you will have to adapt your gear and your photography skills in order to capture breathtaking images or relevant ones.
  • Choose the right period of the year/month as a landscape often changes due to weather conditions and the seasons.
  • Choose the right time of the day – you need to orient your aerial photography project depending on the sun’s position in the sky; needless to say, night aerial photography is equally demanding, challenging and rewarding.
  • Make an educated choice on whether you want to take pictures from above on a cloudy versus a sunny day, a rainy day, or a hot scorching summer day; each of these situations comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.
  • Choose your gear: you have to be very aware that your optics, the risk of camera shake, the manual modes and custom parameters, the presence or absence of a gimbal, the image composition, the angles and the supplementary equipment you bring on board are all variables of the equation.
  • Other things you need to know and consider: mapping the area, timing your flight, safety regulations and flight legislation, drone use legislation, health precautions for flights and so on.
  • The most important thing you need to keep in mind when experiencing aerial photography is the oblique angle versus the vertical shooting. There are tons of papers on the science of oblique aerial photography and the vertical one, but the main idea is this: oblique is mostly used in archeology as it offers a wider context and depth, while vertical is used for topographic reasons and artistic ones. The oblique aerial photography is more demanding, as you need to keep a steady angle of 45 degrees. However, you can test and have fun with your own degrees, depending on the flying machine you use and how much versatility it allows you.

Aerial photography takes a lot of practice if you are into it for the art and the fun, but always keep in mind that in order to become a professional you have to test and retest your settings, change altitudes and angles and be comfortable with flying. If you can master all these details, you can discover an entirely new world through this type of photography.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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