An aerial photograph can only come to existence if certain parameters are given. A point of view from above is necessary, achievable through many different ways. Over the last century those methods of getting a camera manned or unmanned into the air has not changed majorly, apart from the drone.

Further a camera equipment is needed, which however has developed extremely during the last 100 years. Regardless of whether the photographs were taken on the ground or from the air. Starting with the simple box camera obscura moving on to the most high technology digital cameras from nowadays.

Vehicle methods

The aerial view has always intrigued the humankind, therefore all thinkable methods were explored how to get the humans into the air – higher an higher. Furthermore the interest to capture this breathtaking view for everyone and forever made the scientists and pioneers combine the height methods with the early cameras.

Hot-air balloon

In 1858 Gaspar Felix Tournachon alias “Nadar” was the first known taking an aerial photograph at the height of 80m above French ground in a hot-air balloon carrying a darkroom along, using the collodion-process. Unfortunately this very first aerial photograph does not exist any more, there are later ones from above Paris in 1866. The first known, still existing aerial photograph was taken by James Wallace Black also from a hot-air balloon, showing Bosten in 1860.

With the invention of the dry-plate photography process, the necessary equipment narrowed down immensely and the hot-air balloon method for taking aerials is still very popular down to the present day.


In the 1880s the method of using kites to get up the camera into the air was experimented by several scientists. Using a string of kites and attaching the camera to the last one, it was E.D. Archibald an English meteorologist who achieved successfully to produce some aerial photographs in 1882.

The photographer and pioneer Arthur Batut came up some years later with an aerial shot taken from the kite just above the French town Labruguiere. He hung the still big in size camera below a single kite, triggered time displaced through a slow burning fuse.

In the USA George R Lawrence was a forerunner of the aerial photography using ladders, high towers and also kites. He documented the by the earthquake and fire devastated San Francisco in 1906 with the method of a string of kites, one mounted with a camera. But what made his aerial images extraordinary was that he used curved film plates in his large format cameras, with which he achieved unique large panoramic photographs. To bring this heavy camera equipment up in the air, 17 kites were needed.

Still today there is a considerable community of the KAP – Kite Aerial Photography, making use of the modern times with high quality cameras, small in size and light in weight, as well as the much more sophisticated kites.

Pigeons and Rockets

Two methods which have rather stagnated were the pigeon photography as well as the small rockets launched with air pressure or black powder.

The German Julius Neubronner was the one who evidently invented miniature cameras which he tied around the breast of his pigeons to take aerial photographs in 1907. He developed this method to such an extend that he even applied for a patent which was accepted on the second attempt when presented authentic photographic material. He participated on air shows – selling postcards with the aerials taken by his pigeons.

In the World War I the method of taking aerials with pigeons for reconnaissance seemed interesting as they provide sequently taken aerials at a rather low height above ground. But the sensitive training of the pigeons and the mobile dovecotes needed, made it to an inappropriate method and has not become a major success. Up to date there are attempts of pigeon enthusiasts and for documentary purposes there are high quality miniature cameras attached to (wild-) birds providing brilliant aerial photographic material often as films.

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor in 1897 and the German engineer Albert Maul in 1906 used rockets to launch cameras at a certain height to produce successfully aerial photographs. But nevertheless the vast progress in the airplane developments overtook this method by the time the World War I started.


With the invention of the first controlled manned airplane in 1903 the Wright brothers laid the foundation stone for the flying industry. This allowed passengers equipped with a camera to take aerial photographs or even a silent film was made in 1909 near Rome in Italy by attaching a motion picture camera while Wilbur Wright was flying the plane.

Camera Equipment

As many other inventions with any advantage during the war, also the aerial photography gained a boost of importance due to its help in reconnaissance in the World War I. This led to the vast development of suitable cameras taking good aerial photographs. The high speed of the plane and the jerking movements in the air gave the camera developers a great challenge! Sherman M. Fairchild was the one who located the shutter inside the lens of the camera which improved the rigid quality of the photographs extremely due to its much faster shutter speed.

The cameras by the British Thornton Pickard camera manufacturer called “T-P Model C” or “MKIII Hythe” and the German Zeiss Iko and Ernemann company produced most of the camera equipment used in the World War I for aerial photography. Some of them looked like machine guns well camouflaged.

Not only the camera equipment improved unstoppably also the film material, the developing and printing techniques needed to be faster and faster. By 1916 it took half an hour from the moment the airplane landed to the prints being provided at the headquarters, this revealed a test implemented by the RFC (Royal Flying Corps of the British Army).

There were cameras attached to the planes, the advantage was that they could be big in size and use larger film material. This provided more detailed photographs and with the use of two cameras placed next to each other in a certain distance, even stereo photographs could be taken.

Nevertheless the flight path was determined by the camera. To gain more flexibility in choosing the object or area to be photographed there was no other option than going for the handheld cameras. Those were produced by the British companies Williamson or AGI and by the German company Fritz Volk.

It is said that the Fritz Volk camera “240 HK7” was used by the Swedish military and given to Victor Hasselblad, who then created the “Hasselblad 1600F” in 1948. Which was the first single-lense reflex camera in the medium format (6 cm x 6 cm) with changeable objective and magazine. This was the start of revolutionising the camera market up to today.


35 mm Format:

Invented by Oskar Barnack in the 1920s alongside with the Leica cameras. He looked at  the movie filming size 12 mm x 24 mm but doubled the height to 24 mm and changed the format to 24 mm x 36 mm which gave him the ratio 2:3, still used today in the digital photography age as full format. The name 35 mm comes from the height of 24 mm image height plus the sprocket holes for the guidance of the film which gives it a total height of 35 mm. This format is also called miniature format or small format.

Most well known camera companies used this format from early ages up to the digital photography where it is the approximately size of the digital sensor.

Before the digital era some of the 35 mm photographic films most commonly spread were “Kodachrome” by the American company Kodak and “Fudji Vevia” by the Japanese company Fudji.

The small format has and is surely the most common photographic equipment which also has been used in the past and is still being used in the aerial photography due to its wide availability and flexibility in terms of size.

Medium Format:

The medium format is everything between the 35 mm format and the large format. The most common sizes are 4,5 mm x 6 mm, 6 mm x 6 mm and 6 mm x 9 mm. In comparison to the small format, the diapositives can be viewed without any magnification and they are less sensitive towards dust and scratches. Also the grain appears less as for the same positive size the magnification is less than the small format. As the medium format has always been less popular the film material is more expensive and less photo laboratories can handle this format well.

The companies HasselbladMamiyaRolleiKowa and Pentax provided cameras in the medium format.

A Rollei 6008 middle format 6x6 mm camera


For the start of the digital photography it was the chosen size to experiment with. The back with the negative film holder was replaced with a digital camera back containing a digital image sensor. But those digital camera backs came with a high price – only used by professional photographers.

In the aerial photography the medium format had the advantage of showing more detail and the little appearance of grain.

Large Format:

The origin of the photography started with the large format, as the prints were 1:1 to the negative. To make the photographers life easier the invention of the films with multiple images was a great help as well as the smaller formats. The cameras became smaller and lighter, the film changing much faster, as a result much more photographs could be taken right after another and photography became suitable for the private use. To get good  photographic results an experienced photo laboratory was necessary, some photographs had and still have their own darkroom to achieve the expected quality.

The quality aspect is the major aspect for large formats nowadays still existing. Due to the magnification of the small and middle format the quality suffers and the grain and noise also plays an important role, depending on which film is used. In certain photographic fields like landscape, fine-art and advertising photography the large format is still used as well with  film-based cameras as digital cameras. Often for the reason to achieve a very high quality, detailed and unusual big printed format image.

For the aerial photography the large format played an enormous role in the World War II where the Fairchild K-Series aerial cameras were used. They took photographs in the size of 9×9 inches (approx. 23×23 cm) and 9×18 inches (approx. 23×46 cm).


Next to the camera body also the lenses need to be looked at. On the one hand the quality of the lens has a big impact on the photograph and on the other hand the aperture and focal length need to be chosen carefully.

The lens quality was merely a major matter before the digital age, as now the digital image post-processing allows a big variety of corrections caused by simple lenses.

With the negative film and slide photography where post-processing was rather difficult, a good lens quality was crucial, as the distortion had to be kept minimal. The German company Carl-Zeiss was and is still well known for its very good quality lenses but only compatible with the main camera brands such as e.g. CanonNikonSonyFudjifilm, Leica and Contax.

The focal length ranges from wide-angle for panoramic views up to telephoto images for extreme detailing from the air. So the option of changeable lenses gives a wide spectrum of possible aerial photographs. Originally the lenses with fixed focal length were much better in quality and for example 28 mm as wide-angle, 50 mm as a normal lens and the long-focal lenses 85 mm and 180 mm gave a good arrangement for the aerial photography.

A good variety of lenses for the aerial photography.

Contax 167 MT and the Contax RTS III cameras

The most used equipment at the beginning of my aerial photography times. Contax 167 MT and the Contax RTS III cameras.

Longer focal lenses hardly made sense as due to the movement in the air it was almost impossible to achieve a rigid image. Nowadays as the quality is important but not any more the most crucial aspect, the zoom lenses have become very popular as the changing of the lenses is no longer necessary.

Those zoom lenses have the big advantage to take images in different focal lengths almost simultaneously, which comes very handy being in the air and moving fast. The other rather recent addition to lenses starting in the 1990s are the different stabilisation methods called e.g. “Image Stabilizer” (Canon) or “Vibration Reduction” (Nikon). This allows also longer focal lenses for the aerial photography.

Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens with image stabilizer

My Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens with image stabilizer

Even more support to keep the camera in a horizontal position and eliminate the jerking of the flying aircraft provides a gimbal balanced camera which has established within the aerial photography and mainly filming equipment during the last years. A gimbal is an additional device attached to the camera (sometimes the lens is merged with the gimbal such as DJI Osmo Pocket) that allows an absolute steadiness through counteraction of all outer movements on up to 3 axes.

Apart from the filming industry also the satellite and mapping photography is using the advantages of gimbals.


To summarize the most important aerial photography equipment for the use today is the reliability of both the mean of how to get in the air and the camera equipment.

To charter or maintain a plane, balloon or helicopter is very expensive so the time in the air is very precious. One can not afford to have waisted this time by using poor camera equipment and not achieving the requested results.

During the last years the drones have developed in thousands, from simple and cheap for amateur use to very high tech flying objects equipped with high class and outstanding quality camera equipment.

No matter whether with the drone, handheld in a balloon or mounted to a plane, the camera with the lens is the device taking the photograph. This leads to the fact, that the quality here is not to be compromised. The camera itself needs to be reliable in taking constantly good images, if applicable the autofocus needs to be good. Most of the better lenses have some kind of image stabilisation which is also of great help with the unsteady movements in the air.

While flying the photographer is advised to wear weather-related clothing as the photographs are taken with open windows or in helicopters the doors are often dismantled for the photo taking purpose. Further the air vehicle and the wind noise are very loud, so wearing an active noise reduction headset is advisable.

All photographs taken by Klaus Leidorf

© Klaus Leidorf