The first aerial photograph was taken more than 150 years ago. In 1855 the French balloonist and photographer Gaspar Felix Tournachon, who was known as “Nadar,” patented the idea of using aerial photos for surveying and mapmaking. Three years later, in 1858, he took the first known aerial photograph.
The image, taken from a hot air balloon that was tethered eight meters above the ground, was of Petit-Bacetre, a French village. Unfortunately, through the course of time this photograph was lost.
James Wallace Black took the oldest aerial photograph that is known to still exist. Also taken from a hot air balloon, this photograph of Boston was taken in 1860.
Until 1879 the photos were taken and then processed using an early collodion photographic process. This meant that a complete darkroom had to be carried in the balloon’s basket. When the dry plate process was invented it made it possible to take free flight balloon photographs.
Early aerial photography pioneers also used pigeons, kites and rockets to carry their cameras into the air.
In 1882 E.D. Archibald, an English meteorologist, was one of the first people to successfully take photographs from a kite. He attached the camera to the last kite in a string of kites.
In 1897 Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor, was the first to successfully take an aerial photo with a camera that was mounted on a rocket.
In 1903 Julius Neubranner designed a small breast-mounted camera that was put on carrier pigeons. The camera was able to automatically take exposures every thirty seconds while the pigeons were flying.
In 1906 George R. Lawrence captured the devastation that resulted from the earthquake in San Francisco by using a camera that was also attached to a string of kites. He used a large format camera that was specially designed with a curved film plate. This made it possible to take panoramic images.
The photos that he took are still some of the largest aerial exposures that were ever made.
The feat itself was rather ambitious because the camera was very large and heavy. It took seventeen kites to lift the camera two thousand feet into the air.
In 1909, Wilbur Wright was in Italy trying to market the Wright Brothers planes to the Italian government. At that time a passenger in Wilbur Wright’s airplane took the first aerial photograph from a plane. The images were actually motion pictures of a military field near Rome.
From that time on cameras evolved. Some, which were designed especially to be used in airplanes, used thermal infra-red detectors.
Towards the end of the First World War Sherman M. Fairchild designed a camera whose shutter was built into the lens. This design improved the quality of aerial photographs so much that it set the standard for aerial photography for the next fifty years.