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22 Fascinating Pictures From The History Of Aerial Photography

Throughout history, people have long been fascinated to see the world from above as birds do. A new book chronicles the exciting and at times dangerous story of aerial photography.

Posted on November 6, 2019, at 4:25 p.m. ET

Introducing the BuzzFeed News newsletter JPG — this weekly newsletter will feature the most powerful images from around the internet, as well as behind-the-scenes exclusives from renowned photographers and our hard-hitting photo stories.


Rodrigo Kugnharski on Unsplash

Rodrigo Kugnharski, Arc de Triomphe, Paris, 2018.

From as long ago as the invention of photography in the early 1800s and on through the first flight by the Wright brothers in 1903, people have always been fascinated by the bird's-eye perspective. To finally see the world as birds do was not just an enormous technological feat but also a paradigm shift in how we understand the world around us. In gigantic leaps and bounds, each new advancement in technology offered new ways of seeing the world and therefore changed the course of history forever.

A new book titled From Above: The Story of Aerial Photography explores the long and exciting history of aerial photography. BuzzFeed News spoke with the book's co-author, photographer Eamonn McCabe, on how the progress of aerial photography coincided with major events that defined world history.

How does From Above approach the history of aerial photography?

Eamonn McCabe: This book chronicles everything from Nadar's balloon photography in the mid-1800s to the use of drones today. We felt like there was a need in understanding how images from above have functioned historically and continue to progress.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Left: Nadar, Self-portrait, with wife Ernestine, simulating a balloon flight in his Paris studio, 1865. Right: James Wallace Black, Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It, 1860.


Collection l'espace photographique Arthur Batut / Archives départementales du Tarn

Photographer unknown, Batut's camera-kite, 1889.


Collection Espace photographique Arthur Batut / Archives départementales du Tarn

Arthur Batut, The town of Labruguière, southern France, 1889.

For me personally, I was very interested in the beginning of it all — the pioneers. These were people who would build both planes and cameras. There was no problem that they couldn’t solve. Without these innovations, we wouldn’t have much of the technology we take for granted today, including the tiny cameras on mobile phones in our pockets.

Who were some of these pioneers of aerial photography?

EM: Nadar was a French photographer in the 1800s who is commonly attributed as the first aerial photographer. He would float above Paris in a balloon and took the first-ever photographs of the city from above. There’s a fantastic cartoon of Nadar in the book that shows him in a top hat with his camera, hanging out from his balloon above Paris — this shows you just how edgy it was to do this kind of work.

Many of the first cameras used in aerial photography were also clockwork-based, so photographers could make pictures without the need of actually going up in the air. During World War I, these clockwork cameras were strapped onto the chests of pigeons and flown over the battlefield. The camera was timed to go off while they were flying over the target and when they’d return, you’d hope that the camera went off at the right time for a good picture. The reality is that some days the birds would come back with nothing at all.


Library Of Congress

George R. Lawrence, Photograph of San Francisco in ruins from the Captive Airship, 600 meters above San Francisco Bay, overlooking the waterfront, 1906.


Deutsches Technikmuseum

Julius G. Neubronner, Aerial view of Frankfurt, Germany, c. 1907.


Library of Congress

Photographer unknown, A battlefield on the Somme front, France, 1916.

How did aerial photography affect the outcome of major world events in history?

EM: There was a tremendous amount of development during World War II, when aerial photography became a very important tool for all sides. Aerial surveillance became indispensable and was a prerequisite for deciding where to send troops, where to bomb, and in determining if your mission was successful. Each nation was hiring some of the greatest photographers of the day and expand their capabilities at the same time. Also, many of the great photography brands that we know today were gaining their reputations during this time — brands like Leica and Hasselblad, before Nikon and Canon were really players in the market.

For Hasselblad, they were asked by the US several decades after the war to provide the technology that would photograph people on the moon in 1969. They had to adapt their cameras to work with huge gloves and awkward equipment, but they cracked the problem. In time, the camera motors that Hasselblad developed for NASA made their way into consumer hands.

In your opinion, what's the next frontier of aerial photography?

EM: The fact that you can make captures of aerial photography with your personal computer and without ever touching a camera is an enormous advancement. If I had said that a few years ago, you’d think I was crazy!


ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz / Photo Walter Mittelholzer

Walter Mittelholzer, Kano, Nigeria, c. 1930.


Library of Congress / US Air Force

Left: Lt. Victor Jorgensen, Capt. Edward Steichen photographed above the deck of USS Lexington, 1943. Right: Photographer unknown, D-Day landings at Utah beach, Normandy, France, 1944.


Library of Congress

Left: Photographer unknown, Hydrogen-bomb explosion, Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Pacific Ocean, 1946. Right: Photographer unknown, Aftermath of the atomic bomb, Hiroshima, Japan, 1945.

Beyond satellite images, there’s plenty of improvement for drones to optimize their image-making capabilities. Most consumer drones are fairly wide-angled when it comes to the pictures they make, so the next development will be longer lenses on very small drones. That’s the difference between a general view and high-definition close-up.

What do you want people to take away from this book?

EM: Today, a lot of people don’t even know how their cameras work, they just pull out their phone and take a picture. But if you think back at those early years of aerial photography, everything had to be exact — down to the temperature of the camera and film. Can you imagine how cold it is up there and how that would affect your equipment in those early years?

I hope people are intrigued by all of these incredible developments in technology over the last 150 years and realize that without these pioneers we wouldn’t be able to use something as common today as the cameras on our mobile phone. It’s because of these innovators, their development and passion, that we have the technology that have today. I think we owe these individuals a debt of gratitude.


New York State Archives

Photographer unknown, Manhattan, New York, 1947.



William Anders, Earthrise, as seen from NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft, 1968.


USGS Landsat 7 Team, at the EROS Data Center

NASA, Satellite image of the World Trade Center, Sept. 12, 2001.



Jeff Williams, Cleveland Volcano, Alaska, USA, 2006.


Jananne Al-Ani

Jananne Al-Ani, "Aerial III" from Shadow Sites II, 2011.


National Park Service

Left: Photographer unknown, The inauguration of Barack Obama, 2009. Right: Photographer unknown, The inauguration of Donald Trump, 2017.


Public Lab

Public Lab, An Infragram plant-health project view, location unknown, 2018.


Public Lab

Balloon mapping to temporarily stall eviction proceedings, Kampala, Uganda, 2013.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.