Historical Aerial Photography

Historical aerial photography began long before the Wright brothers developed the right stuff for the Kitty Hawk in 1909, in a rather modest if eccentric way, with a Frenchman called Arthur Batut.

In the photograph below, gazing into the camera with beret decidedly cocked to one side, Batut renders himself every inch the maverick.

Indeed, among photographers who have shaped history, we must count Arthur Batut (1846-1918).

The full drape of Batut's black cape gives the impression that he, himself, could take flight.

Batut, however, did not himself leave the ground as he pioneered aerial photography.

He ingeniously attached a camera to a kite and rigged the shutter to open when a lighted fuse burned to its end, causing the camera to take a picture.

Above: Self-Portrait by Arthur Batut

Above; Aerial Photograph of Labruguière, France, 1889 by Arthur Batut

The kite shown to the right is certainly the largest version of what we would consider a child's kite, and the photographer could not know with any certainty if his pictures would be worthy of further study or have intrinsic value.

I think, however, that may be the case for many innovators and their inventions. They seem almost to thrive upon amazing themselves and others (eureka!).

Above: Arthur Batut's Kite

Would we almost universally recognize our blue marble of a planet from NASA photographs if it were it not for the happenstance history of aerial photography? I cannot conceive (perhaps I am a tad biased) of another art form that can lay claim to this level of beauty and utility simultaneously.

Historical Aerial Photography Takes Wings

One of the next logical, if eccentric, moves within the history of aerial photography would be... yes, the carrier pigeon!

The picture made by a pigeon could function as military surveillance, archeology or mapping of a site, or as art.

Although I haven't recently seen aerial photographs made by pigeons, I have seen those made by kite.

Batut had begun what today is considered a way of making artistic photographs. Both amateur and professional photographers follow in Batut's footsteps. The differences, of course, are the kind and quality of the cameras used; the control gained from remote-control of the camera and some elaborate planning; and the sometimes complex anchoring of the kite for optimal imaging.

Historical Aerial Photography in War Time

Let's now examine the next important move in the history of aerial photography, its use in warfare. Warfare was forever changed when the photographer hung outside the plane as it flew above an area for surveillance. During World War II, cameras were already fitted into the bottom of the aircraft and multiple shots taken to simulate a panoramic effect.

Although both German and Allied military relied upon aerial photography during the war, the Allied troops diverted attention away from the planned landing spots on the beaches of Normandy by meticulously planting fake inflatable artillery and tanks, cardboard buildings, and changing tyre tracks, to fool the Germans who photographed these artifacts from the air. They had constructed artificial staging grounds which were monitored by the German military for days leading up to D-Day on June 6th 1944.

Hence, aerial photography proved critical to the success of the D-Day landing by leading the Germans to believe that the attack would come primarily from Calais, diverting many German troops away from the actual Normandy landing sites. Below is a reconnaissance picture of fake ships in an unused harbor.

Above: Aerial View of a Fake Fleet at Pas-de-Calais, France

Today's military operations employ stealth technology to evade the range of cameras and detection, while advances in imaging have made possible the detection of the heat and even mass of potential targets.

Waves that bounce off planes, rockets, and satellites seek to penetrate what might or might not be apparent to the eye. Imaging technology has reached levels that defy the kind of obfuscation possible during World War II.

Historical Aerial Photography from Space

The history of aerial photography is as wide as it is deep. We have barely scratched the surface in this article but hopefully you can appreciate its scope. In a short period of time - from the first attempts at kite photography to the imaging technology available to us today - innovators within all of photography have been limited only by what they could have imagined.

The history of aerial photography has finally led us here...

Above: The Blue Marble by NASA

...the image of Earth known as the "blue marble", as well as to beautiful pictures of myriad earth scapes and more from a satellite's or rocket's eye-view. The sky is indeed the limit!

Above: Kite aerial photograph of Calton Hill, Edinburgh, 2007, made with a remote-controlled camera suspended from a kite (Photo: Patrick Fulton)

Historical Aerial Photography Today

Kites, pigeons and light aircraft all take images which come under the general heading of oblique aerial photography, meaning low-level aerial photography.

The NASA image of the planet earth on the other hand comes under the heading of vertical aerial photography, meaning the photograph was taken from a place where the camera axis was vertical at the exact moment of exposure. More precisely, oblique aerial photography is taken from a camera with more than 3 degrees tilt while those with less than 3 degrees tilt are considered oblique.

Great aerial photography doesn't require an in-depth knowledge of rocket science or vast expense. The Edinburgh photograph above was taken in 2007 with a remote controlled (RC) camera suspended from a kite. The technology involved in making this kind of image is widely available and relatively inexpensive.

Above: Shooting from the Clouds: Popular Mechanics Nov 1939 

If you have enjoyed reading this article on Historical Aerial Photography and are interested in pursuing it further, you might like to check out my two other articles: Aerial Kite Photography 1 and Aerial Kit Photography 2 which together tell you all you need to know to get started with your own kite photography. 

› Historical Aerial Photography

Top of Page

Subscribe to my Photography Newsletter

* indicates required
My Books on Goodreads

PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: I'm an affiliate with Amazon.com. If you use Amazon and would like to help me earn a little money to enable me to keep providing excellent content, click the link to browse through some great photography books. You do not have to buy a book, but I'll receive a small commission on anything you do buy on Amazon within 24 hours. Thanks for your support!