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History of Aerial Photography

written by: Misty Faucheux•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 1/20/2011

The history of aerial photography is full of twists and turns. Did you know that some of the earliest pictures were taken using a pigeon? Or, how about a series of kites to photograph the San Francisco Earthquake? Learn more about this fascinating history here.

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    Early History

    Aerial photography is the art of taking pictures from above the object. Oftentimes, this is done from an airplane or similar position. Aerial photography has existed nearly has long as the art of photography, which was officially invented in the 1830s. The history of aerial photography starts with a French photographer in the late 1850s.

    The first aerial photograph was taken by Gaspar-Felix Tournachon, who was a balloonist that wanted to capture Paris, France by air. The balloonist went by the pseudonym of Felix Nadar, and he lived from 1820 until 1910. The photographs that he took usually have the inscription P. Nadar on it, and this stands for Photographie Nadar.

    The practice of taking aerial photographs from a hot air balloon continued with John G. Doughty and Alfred E. Moore. These two flew over Connecticut in September and October 1885 and took pictures of different areas of the state. James Wallace Black did the same in 1860, photographing Boston, Massachusetts from the sky.

    In 1871, Dr. Richard L. Maddox invented the dry plate technique. This technique involves hardening the gelatin emulsions. This means that the plate can take more friction over the wet plate technique. This also made it easier to take photographs from the air.

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    In 1903, Julius Neubronne decided to use pigeons as opposed to hot air balloons to take his aerial photographs. He attached a camera to the breast of the pigeon. About the same time, Albert Maul came up with the idea of mounting a camera to a rocket. He officially used by Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection this device in 1906, and the rocket was operated by compressed air, and the camera fell back to earth via a parachute.

    Also in 1906, George Lawrence photographs the disaster of the San Francisco Earthquake using a number of kites. He attached the kites to a panoramic camera and controlled the movement of the camera from the ground.

    The next major leap forward for aerial photography occurred on April 24, 1909. On this date, a motion picture camera was mounted to an aircraft that flew over Rome, Italy. The pilot of the plane was none other than Wilbur Wright. The footage was turned into a three minute film named Wilbur Wright und seine Flugmaschine.

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    World War I

    The official aerial camera was created in 1911 by a Russian engineer named Colonel Potte V.F. His camera was used to photograph battles like the Neuve Chapelle battle in 1915 and cities during World War I. By 1918, French army units began printing aerial photographs, and it is reported that they printed nearly 10,000 aerial photographs a night.

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    Modern Times

    Modern aerial photography involves using lightweight cameras and using digital photography as opposed to dry plates. And, aerial photography is used for more than simply taking pictures of battles or a handful of cities. We use this technology to locate and view areas all around the globe.