Aerial photography, as its name says, represents the process of taking pictures while in air. These pictures have plenty of applications and use in many fields of research as well as in touristic and artistic photography. Bound to specific techniques and important in helping us discover and see the world as we know it from a better angle, aerial photography is important and appraised for its usefulness and beauty. Today we will take a closer look at what aerial photography means, taking a look at the history behind it and how it has slowly transitioned into modern day drone photography, as well as offering you information and tips on how you can look to introduce it into your everyday life depending on your interests and photography skills.
Aerial Photography History and How it Became Part of Modern Photography
If you mention aerial photography to anybody now, they’re likely to presume you’re referring to drone photography; one of the latest trends to hit the photography industry, as well as being employed in various industries over the last decade.
Back in 1906, the post-earthquake Chicago aerial photos made people realise that they were on to something with aerial photography as it helped them capture easy-to-miss details, understand landscapes, survey an area and map it correctly from one simple picture, as well as allowing us to view virtually anything we wanted from a new unseen angle. It opened up many new paths in landscape studies, archaeology, documentation, map compilations, environmental changes and much more. It’s no wonder aerial photography became more and more popular with researchers looking to understand the world we live in, in more detail.
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 that you’re not supposed to. 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 everything from above, at a safe distance. We probably have satellite imaging today because one man realized that aerial photography could be used to view places and locations that were/are unsafe or inaccessible for classic ground surveillance etc.
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 archaeology and environmentalism. Aerial photography is now almost exclusively used by photographers and novice photography enthusiasts in the form of drone photography.
Drone photography itself doesn’t really have a very rich history having only come into light in the last few years. Quadcopters were among the first vertical take-off and landing vehicles (VTOLs). The first quadcopter was invented in 1920 by Etienne Omnichen as a solution to the problems that helicopter pilots had making vertical flights, with the quadcopter making 1000 successful flights and flying a record distance of 360 meters. Since the invention of the first quadcopter, they’ve slowly become smaller and more capable. Over time modern quadcopters have been mass produced and are now available commercially for just about anyone that can afford them, as well as the innovation of using remote-controlled transmitters in order to control them from the ground.
Modern Applications of Aerial Photography
Aerial photography soon left the military behind and was quickly snapped up by civilians in their unquenched thirst for new discoveries and adventure. The mass production of small drones meant that aerial photography was now accessible to everyone and it soon took off!
There are many contemporary uses of aerial photography; mainly in the form of drone photography, a few of which are:
Taking pictures from high above the ground has helped archaeologists to locate lost monuments and hidden sites, as well as track sites’ features which are not visible from the ground level. It has also aided in the discovery of treasures buried under the soil, sand or water, along with mapping the surroundings of a certain site and often recording remote, hidden, unsafe or impossible to reach areas in the world.
2. Urban Studies and Real Estate
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. Aerial photography is an all-time partner of landscape studies, sociology, urbanism, geography, mapping and architecture. Low-level aerial photography is often used to study the impact of new structures being introduced in an existent urban landscape. It is also used to help research the current infrastructure, and explore the changes which naturally occur once new urban projects are under development.
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 rainforest and so on. Aerial photography has allowed researchers to conduct environmental forensic investigations, track all the changes we are going through, from documenting invasive species in a habitat, as well as the decimation of other species, soil, water and landscape modifications etc.
If you ever look at famous pictures of famous places around the globe taken within the last 3 years or so, you’ll notice many aerial photographs inserted in amongst the standard ground level ones. This is easily explained by the fact that aerial photography allows people to see broader areas, new angles 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, especially one you’ve likely not seen before.
Finding a gorgeous location and capturing it from the perfect angle, just at the right moment, time of day and weather 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 and recent ways to achieve such a goal. A few photographers known for using aerial photography are; Jason Hawkes, Yann Arthus-Bertrand & Alex Maclean to name a few.
Aerial Photography Know-How and Practice
Many 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.
Author: Declan Darbyshire
This is a guest blog from Declan Darbyshire