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A Guide to Aerial Photography

Sonal Panse Nov 20, 2018
Aerial photography became a possibility with the invention of the hot-air balloon and the camera. Here's more.
Aerial photography is photography that is shot from a considerable height above and apart from the ground. There are various ways in which such photographs may be taken.
The photographer may be air-bound in a hot-air balloon, glider, parachute, airplane, helicopter and so on, the camera may be a remote operated one attached to a kite, a rocket, a model airplane, a real airplane wing, even homing pigeons, or the photographs may be taken from a satellite.


Aerial photography became a possibility with the invention of the hot-air balloon, the airplane, and the camera. Two early pioneers were Nadar and Fred Zinn, two separate individuals in separate periods of time. Nadar, in 1858, became the first person to take aerial photographs.
A keen balloonist, Nadar navigated his hot-air balloon over Paris, took photographs of the city and began a successful business selling the photographs to the general public. Fred Zinn was an aviator during the First World War, who flew first with the French Armée de l'Air, then with the American Lafayette Escadrille, and then with the U.S. Army Air Service.
Zinn began taking aerial reconnaissance photographs of enemy positions while out on bombing missions―hot-air balloons were already being used for reconnaissance photography, but Fred Zinn's photographs, taken from his plane while flying directly overhead the enemy lines and sometimes swooping down low, were much clearer and detailed.
Fred Zinn was decorated by the French government for his enterprising spirit and bravery.


People got along well enough before aerial photography arrived on the scene, but, once it had, it became a matter of 'Well, if you could invent it, we can find some use for it."
Its foremost use is for providing topographic information, and this has made life easier for cartographers, engineers, site-planners, and surveyors. Taking snapshots of the Earth in this manner is called photogrammetry.
  • Land masses are photographed from the air, studied carefully, and then information gleaned is used for drawing up topographic maps.
  • Aerial photographs are used to study the shape of the land mass so as to understand how it can be put to good use.
  • It is used to spot and/or record the features of historical and archaeological sites.
  • It is used to carry out environmental studies.
  • It is used for civilian and military surveillance purposes. For example, monitoring the state of traffic along a busy route.
  • It is used for recreational purposes. For example, gliding enthusiasts taking photographs, either with a hand-held camera or one attached to the glider.
  • It is commonly used in advertising, films and various artistic projects these days.
  • It is used to carry out property surveys and analysis.

Taking Aerial Photography

It requires more planning than regular photography. To take good aerial photographs, for example, you need to consider the following:
  • Time of the day. Most professional aerial photographers prefer to take photographs at mid-day.
  • The position of the sun. You can take better photographs if the sun is behind you.
  • Motion of the plane, hot-air balloon, etc.
  • The distance of the camera from objects that are being photographed.
  • The weather―if is it clear, cloudy, or hazy.
  • Shadow cast on the ground by the plane, hot-air balloon, etc. You must take care that this shadow does not appear in your photographs, unless, of course, you specifically want it included.

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Shanghai Aerial Via Duct

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Aerial View Of Pittsburgh

Privacy Concerns

In most countries, privacy laws do not apply to what you can clearly see from a public space. When you are up in the air, you are in public space. So whatever you can see and photograph while you are up in the air does not qualify as an offense. So you can legally photograph whatever you want from high above―even private events on private properties.
Given how easy it is for the paparazzi to get up in the air and shoot whatever is happening on private properties, this is kind of unsettling.