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A Brief History of Aerial Photography by Paul Rance


Aerial photography is nearly as old as photography itself, with the first successful aerial photograph being taken in 1858. The advances in aerial photography since then have been remarkable, but the early pioneers were very inventive in how they managed to take their photographs.

Balloons Importance in Early Aerial Photography

Gaspar Felix Tournachon is the man credited with the feat of being the world's first successful aerial photographer. His method of aerial photography was rather ingenious, and involved a tethered balloon at a height of over 200 feet. Petit-Becrete, a French village, was the first subject to be photographed from the air. Ten years later, Tournachon photographed Paris from the air. The oldest existing aerial photograph is a photo of Boston, Massachusetts, that was taken in 1860 by James Wallace Black. This was a photograph also taken by using a balloon.

Around the beginning of the 20th Century, kites became a popular method of obtaining aerial photographs. Pigeons were even used in 1903 by Julius Neubronne, and in 1906 a rocket was used by Albert Maul. In the same year a panoramic view was taken of San Francisco, which showed the devastating effect of the famous earthquake on that city. The panoramic view was achieved by photographer George Lawrence's judicious use of kites.

Aerial Photography from Planes

It wasn't until 1909 that the first aerial photograph from a plane was made. Aviator Wilbur Wright, of Wright brothers fame, recorded his flight over Italy via aerial photography. The plane was to revolutionize aerial photography, though it was to become popular first of all when its value in warfare was realized.

Aerial photography had been used in the American Civil War, but this was taken to new heights during World War One. The advent of the plane made it possible for the French to take up to 10,000 reconnaissance photographs in one night. Advances were made in World War Two, when the camera strobe was utilized to aid Allied bombers in photographing targets during the night. Infra red film was initially designed for military purposes also.

From testing beginnings, with heavy cameras and difficult reproduction methods, the digital age of photography has simplified the possibility of getting countless aerial photographs in a short space of time. Around a hundred years after the first successful aerial photographs, images of the Earth were being sent back to the planet's awed inhabitants from space. A long way indeed from photographs taken from a tethered balloon.

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