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Aerial Photography and Photogrammetry

One of the benefits of photography is that it lets us see our world in new ways. Technological advances give us different ways to do so. In this article, we’ll cover two important changes in photography. The first is aerial photography. It allows us to get a bird’s-eye view of the world. The second is photogrammetry. It’s a technique used to combine photographs, usually to make maps.
An image of a landscape taken out the window of a plane.

Brief History of Aerial Photography

Since the late 1850’s, people have been trying to see the world as the birds do. That’s since before they invented winged planes. The first two attempts at aerial photography were actually by balloon! The first was in 1858 when someone flew over Paris. Sadly, the pictures they took are no longer around. But, in 1860, two men flew over and photographed Boston.

The oldest aerial photograph we still have..

The earliest aerial photograph we have. It’s called ‘Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose see it.’

Next, in 1882, a man named E.D. Archibald used a kite instead of a balloon to take pictures. This proved useful for meteorologists, and others followed his example. Still, even newer methods rapidly gained popularity. In 1909, a group of people mounted a video camera to an airplane! They did it to make a short movie which you can still see here. And think about it, how many movies nowadays still do this?

WW1 Changes Aerial Photography

Now, these uses we’ve discussed are interesting but somewhat basic. Aerial photography really took off after World War 1. During the war, people would use planes to scout enemy territory.
Afterward, air force veterans used these same skills for more peaceful purposes. They’d use planes to take and sell pictures, as people still do today. Although, they’re now also rivaled by satellite photographers!

Aerial Photography Nowadays

Today, a full century after WW1, aerial photography has grown significantly. Here, we’ll outline a few of its modern uses, though you can read about others in the resources below.


The most important use of aerial photography is, simply, to keep track of things. We call this surveillance. Aircraft survey all sorts of things which may need repair or protection. The environment is one such thing. Although we also survey power lines, buildings, and other manmade structures.

An image of a fire spreading across a hill.

Surveillance is important for protecting cities from natural disasters.

Archaeology (Hands-Off Photography)

There’s another simple, but important benefit of aerial photography. We can take pictures of things without getting close to them! This matters a lot when we’re photographing, say, ancient ruins. Sites like these often don’t let anyone in by foot. Fortunately, we can see them just fine from above.

An image of a ruined castle on the edge of a lake.

If we want to protect ruins, we can’t march all over them! Aerial photography allows us to enjoy and keep them safe.


Our other, major development in photography is what’s called photogrammetry. This is the combination of multiple photos to measure distance or to create new images. To demonstrate its use, we’ll go over two different applications.

Mapping and Analysis

Sometimes, it’s actually beneficial to take multiple pictures of the same place. Let’s say we’re trying to map out a HUGE forest which we could never cover by foot. Luckily, we also have a plane. We fly over the forest and take 50 different pictures. Each time we take a picture, we record our height (most planes do this).

An aerial photo of a rice field surrounded by greenery.

It would be quite a task to map out this forest from the ground.

Later, we analyze all of these pictures together. We have photographed most of the forest, and know how high up each photo was taken. Combining them, we have a rough concept of how big the forest (and each area in it) is.

Art and Design

Another use for photogrammetry is making virtual models and textures. This is very useful for making video games. Video game developers often try to create realistic looking environments. One way they can do this is by using real photos! They might, for example, take photos of the wooden floor in a real house. They can then use that photo as a texture in their game.
It is also used for 3D modeling. Engineers use software that allows them to design things like cars. If they’re using the model to see how a car might look, they want it to be as realistic as possible. So, they might map real textures onto the vehicle. This gives them a sense of how a car would look in real life before going to build it.

Other Great Resources:

Aerial Photography and the Environment: https://www.environmentalscience.org/principles-applications-aerial-photography

Aerial Photography and Archaeology: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/archaeology/time_flyers_01.shtml

What is Photogrammetry?http://www.photogrammetry.com/

(Video) Brief Explanation of Photogrammetry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljGzuY6tfzk


Written by: Noah Louis-Ferdinand



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