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Aerial Photography

Aerial photography can make fascinating combined use of backgrounds in art and aviation.

Aerial photography can offer great bird's-eye views. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Aerial photography can offer great bird's-eye views.

Aerial Photography

Aerial photography one of the oldest types of photography. The first aerial photographs were taken from the basket of a hot air balloon in 1858. Capturing different angles and perspectives is a central concern of the art of photography. Whether from the cockpit of a helicopter or from the window of a spaceship, aerial photography offers the unique opportunity to see the world from an elevated perspective.

Aerial Photography and its Uses

Used in reconnaissance by the military, from space to view the earth, in creating topographic maps and filming natural disasters, aerial photography is a functional art form that provides both important information and aesthetic gratification. In its brief history, aerial photography has been achieved in a number of ways, from securing cameras on the decks of satellites to adhering them to the wings of kites. Today, professional photographers utilize the latest in digital camera technology to capture images from perspectives that few people have experienced.

A Brief History of Famous Flyers

According to the Professional Aerial Photographers Association (PAPA), the first known aerial photographer was Gaspard Felix Tournachon, a French hot air balloon enthusiast who decided, in 1858, to take his photographic skills to the air. The first aerial photo was of a French town that Tournachon managed to capture on film from the basket of his anchored balloon. Hovering 80 feet above the town, Tournachon managed to make photographic history as well as make use of his three year old patent on aerial photography.

As photography and photographic equipment progressed, so did experiments in aerial photography. In the 1880s European photographers experimented with cameras attached to kites. George Lawrence, an American photographer, was able to capture the full devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake using kites and a large panoramic camera. Along with kites, early aerial photographs were captured using homing pigeons and, before airplanes became popular, even small rockets. Wilber Wright flew the first airplane to carry an aerial photographer.

During World War I, aerial photography replaced military sketching. Sketch artists were replaced by photographers who took photos to help with military campaigns. According to the Professional Aerial Photographers Association, the use of photography toward the war effort led to lasting inventions improving shutter speed and stability. In the years that followed the war, aerial photography was on a path toward commercialization with the popularizing of topographic photos used to make maps. Sherman Fairchild took the first topographic photos of New York City in 1921. Ever since, the business of aerial photography has proved lucrative.

Types of Aerial Photography

Today, aerial photography has expanded its range with a number of techniques and specialized equipment. The style of photography as well as the specialization of equipment ultimately depends on the nature of the job as well as the budget of the photographer.

Types of aerial photography and related equipment include:

  • Aerial topographic cameras. Includes everything from infrared cameras and GPS systems to satellites. Topographic cameras are used to capture large scale images of landscapes.
  • Kite aerial photography. Attaching cameras to actual kites as well as remote control model planes utilizing camera cradles.
  • Gyro stabilizer. Equipment which attaches to a camera and prevents the vibration of the plane from interfering with the photographic images.
  • Remote sensing. Using photography to gain information about an object without touching it, a common term in topographic photography.
  • Infrared aerial photography. Use of the color spectrum to capture changes in an environment, commonly used in environmental photography.
  • Digital aerial photography. Utilizing powerful lenses and digital camera settings to produce aerial images.

The most sophisticated type of aerial photography is satellite imaging received from space. Common uses for satellite imaging include photographing private property, conducting land surveys, military photography, community planning, engineering surveys and cartography. Many aerial photographers are pilots who also have photography credentials.

Getting Started

Any individual hoping to be a serious aerial photographer should earn a formal degree in photography. Many colleges offer programs and degrees in digital photography. The Brooks Institute of Photography offers a range of classes that allow students to study both traditional and digital photography. The Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University focuses its curriculum on commercially viable photography techniques.

Pilot and plane rental costs can take up much of an aerial photographer's budget. Acquiring a pilot's license can cut costs and assist in gaining employment. Aviation schools around the country offer pilot training, as do a many universities. Oregon State Flying Club, for example, provides comprehensive training that meets Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards. The FAA website lists information on requirements for a license.

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