Everything You Need to Know About Aerial Photography

Everything You Need to Know About Aerial Photography

Long before drones took aerial photos, tethered balloons and pigeons did the job. The first aerial photograph was taken in 1858 from a tethered balloon. The photographer was Felix Tournachon (commonly known as “Nadar”), and he shot from above the Bievre Valley in France. Tournachon’s photographs are sadly no longer in existence; the oldest existing aerial photograph was taken of Boston by James Wallace Black in 1860.

Soon after, French photographer, Arthur Batut figured out how to attach a timer to a camera and attach the camera to a kite. By lighting a fuse to set off the shutter, he captured what’s said to be the first clear aerial photograph taken from a kite. But balloons and kites both had their limitations in terms of mobility and speed. So then came the pigeons.

In what seems like an ingenious early model of Postmates, Julius Neubronner, a German apothecary, used homing pigeons to deliver urgent medications to patients located a few miles from his home. In 1903, realizing the pigeon’s potential, he attached cameras to his pigeons. The pigeons were fitted with leather harnesses and light aluminum breastplates to which the tiny cameras attached. The cameras were also attached to timers, set to take a picture every 30 seconds. The total added weight to the pigeon was just 75 grams.

Neubronner was also able to create a horse-drawn dovecote with a darkroom attached to it, which could be pulled into whatever area the photographer was hoping to capture from above. The photos could then be immediately developed.

Originally intended to track migratory patterns of birds (He was wondering where his prescriptions were ending up), the pigeon cameras quickly adapted for use in war time. By the start of World War I, however, the airplane had largely usurped the pigeon for reliable aerial battlefield pictures. These simple creatures set the stage for what would become modern surveillance. Pigeons were the original drone (and GoPro, and Google Earth) it turns out.

Neubronner’s pigeon images have a surreal quality to them, almost dreamlike in their odd angles and askew orientation. It is not unusual for wing tips to be visible in the side of the frames. You can see some of the pigeon’s photographs here.

Aerial photography continued to gain popularity in 1906, after an earthquake devastated much of San Francisco. Photographer George R. Lawrence used a ship on the San Francisco coast as a launching point. He attached a 49 pound, hand-built panoramic camera to seventeen silk-string kites, then launched the kites 950 feet above the San Francisco Bay. He triggered the camera by “shooting a battery current up to the device.” This photo became an iconic image of a city in ruin and on fire. Aptly named “San Francisco in Ruins” the iconic photograph is now housed in the Library of Congress’s Panoramic Photographs Archive.

Because aerial and bird’s eye photos were so rare at the time, Lawrence sold prints of his shot for $125 each (the modern day equivalent of approximately $3000.) This photo was so lauded that in 2006, 100 years after the original shot, aerial photographer Scott Haefner and the Drachen Foundation re-shot Lawrence’s panorama using modern kite techniques. You can see both images here.

Though the exact year is a subject of debate (1908 or 1909), we know that the first photograph taken from an airplane was by L. P. Bonvillain. Bonvillain was in a plane flown by Wilbur Wright above Le Mans, France. 1935 marked the first time a photo showed the curvature of the earth. This photo was taken by Albert William Stevens, who was accompanied by Orvil A. Andersen. Amazingly, the pair was not in a plane, but inside a sealed helium balloon known as the Explorer II.  There were 20,000 spectators, and a live NBC radio broadcast of the event. The balloon reached 72,395 feet, nearly 14 miles, and this record was not broken until 1956.

Aerial Kite Photography in 2018

The history of aerial photography shows that humans have long been fascinated by what the earth looks like from above. Even before we had aerial photography, there were renderings of how cartographers imagined the world looked like “from the heavens.” In 2018, the drone is common, affordable, and used by photographers for real estate photography and artistic expression. But there is still a sect of people who are loyal to kite photography.

Even as drone popularity rises (and perhaps in spite of its popularity), Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) continues to have a loyal and active community. There is a website devoted to Kite Aerial Photography run by Charles C. Benton of Berkeley, California. “Aerial photography is a way of extending our native senses,”  Benton explained in an interview with Mashable’s Arthur Holland Michel.

KAP is still relatively unregulated because it is low risk, quiet, and stationary. Kites are typically allowed in places that drones are not, including national parks. The Mashable article explained some of the benefits of KAP verse drones saying, “Depending on the conditions, kites fly for longer than the alternatives. While a drone will only fly for about 15 minutes, a kite will fly as long as there’s wind. To maximize this benefit, Benton combines KAP with hiking. He attaches the string of the kite to his torso and walks for hours, taking photos the whole way. Ideally, he spends “10% of my time thinking about the kite and 90% of my time thinking about the photographs — pure bliss, as I am really there to do the latter.”

Drone Aerial Photography

I think it’s safe to say that humans never grow out of toys and gadgets, hence the drone’s ever-rising popularity. Depending on whether you are flying, or using a drone or even a kite, aerial photography tips and tricks will differ. Below are some of our tips for capturing aerial photography with a drone.

The first step is to choose a drone (also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV) that has an on-board camera built in, or has an attached gimball (a mount that can rotate) that is able to carry a GoPro, DSLR etc. You will likely want to pick a drone that stabilizes and adjusts for high wind. Some drones that do this include the Yuneec Typhon, DJI Inspire 1, and Freefly Alta 8. You may also want to consider buying a drone with “follow-me” mode, which means, quite literally, that the drone is programed to fly above your location. This will enable you to capture selfies and aerial action shots. Think of it as a personal camera crew.

You are going to want to fly your drone the second you get it, but it is important to take the time to research, read the instruction manual to learn the drone’s capabilities, battery life, and how to edit in post production. You need to be sure that you have registered your drone and are familiar with no-fly areas. If you are a first-time drone user, some suggest starting with an inexpensive drone until you become comfortable piloting.

Many drones come with a real-time video feed, which is an essential feature for aerial photography. The feed will allow you to see exactly what the drone is seeing either on the controller or on a compatible smartphone. Having a real-time feed makes it easier to plan your shots and avoid excessive post-production.

Maybe you have already heard of “smart drones” or drones with smart mode. These drones can be fully autonomous or have smart features that can turn on and off. They are attractive for photographers because they have stabilization features, and you can set a flight path so the drones goes exactly where you want to shoot.

Before you take your drone anywhere, you need check to the UAV forecast. It will tell you any off-limits area, weather forecast, wind speed, any nearby airports, heliports or seaplanes, visibility, number of active GPS satellites, cloud cover and more.

You also want to be sure that you fully understand the legality surround UAVs. In late 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the all drones weighing .55 lbs or more must be registered with the federal government. The registration costs just $5 and is good for 3 years. You will also need to secure a remote pilot certification and be sure that your drone avoids any other aircrafts and maintains a safe distance from buildings and large groups of people.

Tips and Tricks for Shooting Aerial Photography

Shoot in RAW Format

Without further adieu, you’re ready to shoot. The Adorama Learning Center suggests shooting in RAW format. RAW preserves detail and color making it easier to adjust in post-production. For the best composition, you should use a thirds grid overlay. Many drone cameras have a thirds grid built into their apps which will help you frame your photos and avoid unnatural cropping in post-production.

Use a Low ISO

It is widely recommend that you use a low ISO when shooting with a drone cameras. Because drone cameras have smaller sensors, high ISO settings end up looking grainy. If you are shooting during the day (which you likely will be with a drone) stick the lowest ISO. Adorama adds, “When shooting in windy or shady places, consider opening up your aperture or use a slower shutter speed (1/6th of a second will do) to let in more light and be able to maintain the lowest ISO for clean, sharp images.”

Try a Panorama

Drones are not legally allowed to fly more than 400 feet in the air, which can sometimes limit the scope of your shot. The panorama technique will capture high-resolution images. If your camera does not have a Panorama Mode, you can take multiple shots of a scene, “then stitch the shots together using an editing software like Adobe Lightroom to create a single, high-quality panoramic image.”

Experiment with Aspect Ratios

Photographers also suggest experimenting with the aspect ratios. Most digital cameras have an aspect ratio of 3:2, but drone cameras tend to have aspect ratios of 16:9 and 4:3. These aspect ratios will actually work to your advantage by allowing you to focus “on a particular subject or scene by increasing or reducing the spaces between your focal points and the sides of the frame.“

Use a Lens Filter

Lens filters are not top of mind when it comes to drone photography, but they can be immensely helpful. Using a filter will allow you to have greater control over light and glare and are especially helpful on bright days or when shooting near a body of water.

What to Capture

Aerial photography is inherently interesting because of its perspective. People are curious about the things they cannot see, and aerial photography shows us  how things look from above. To enhance your aerial photography, look for shadows, symmetry, repetition, dividing lines, and patterns. You can also break from the typical landscape motif found in much aerial photography by taking a picture of yourself from above: an “aerial selfie” if you will.

How Should I Scout my Shoot?

Scouting locations for drone aerial photography is very different from typical location scouting. First of all, it is hard to know what scenes will look like from above, and it can be time consuming to take your drone for a test run each time you have a shoot in mind. Pre-production in aerial photography is essential however, and it will save you a lot of time when you are shooting. Drones without lithium batteries typically do not last more than 20 minute in flight, so managing your time in pre-production is essential for a successful shoot. We have some tricks for finding locations to shoot, plus some of our favorite places in the United States to capture aerial photography.

Google Earth

This trick seems simple but it was save you ton of scouting time. Google Earth works by stitching together satellite imagery. You can view anywhere in the world from above. Using Google Earth helps you to plan your shoots; in addition to having a good sense of the shots you’ll take, you will also have an understanding of the surrounding areas, places, trees, and buildings to avoid, and where to park and prep for your shoot. Look for areas that are vast and clear. One photographer explained the uses of Google Earth in drone photography saying, “You can either zoom in to a certain region where you want to go and then look for good photography locations by scrolling around the place, or you can pick the photo mode which brings up photos tagged in the area uploaded by other users. Once you find the location your will be photographing, you can switch to Street View and check the accessibility of the place, how crowded it gets and the times when you will be able to use your drone without any problems.”

Another photographer on the 500px blog said the following about Google Earth, “A lot of locations and subjects which seem run-of-the-mill or overdone can make for great drone photography subjects, so the best advice is really to not rule anything out until you’re in the air. That said, scouring Google Maps/Earth can be a great way to scout for locations which could make for good aerial shots, since you essentially get a preview of what you could capture.”

Worldview from NASA software, TerrSet, and Geomatica are also great software imaging tools to checkout.

Dronestagram is a cool website that will help you plan your shoot, and give you aerial photography inspiration. It’s also fun to check out what other photographers are capturing with drone photography on Instagram using the hashtag #fromwhereIdrone.

For more ideas about where to shoot considering using an app or attend a meet-up with other aerial photographers. One of the best apps is PlanIt! For Photographers (PIPF) is can integrate with Google Maps and give you information. You can see a view maps find aerial views of the place you are hoping to photograph. The app will also give you a detailed timeline for sunrise and sunset and light pollution. One photographer said about PIPF, “I use this app to find great locations in the place that I already am, and then use the info provided by the app to enrich the quality of my photography.”


500px is a helpful website for photographers. Though the content is not exclusively devoted to aerial photography, the community of photographers is knowledgeable and eager to share what they know. You can learn about the best drones for aerial photography, how to best crash your drone (when you must), and tips for taking flawless aerial photography by drone.


Meet Ups are a great way to meet others who share your passion for aerial photography. One drone photographer on 3dinsider said,

“I find a lot of inspiration when I meet other drone users who have enjoyed the chance of photographing some great locations. It is easier to connect with people when they meet face to face because you can see them using their drones and you can talk to them directly to learn of their experiences and to perceive their excitement of different places that they may have visited. If you have drone users in the area you live then you can connect with them through local meet-ups in a café or a bistro. You can even ask them about the editing software programs that they use or the angles that they most prefer for drone photography.”

There are hundred of “Drone Geek” meetups across the country, and it is a great way to immerse yourself in the community and learn from seasoned pros.

Where Should I Shoot?

Note: Some of these suggestions were sourced from Tom’s Guide (Thanks, Tom!) They have worked to make sure that it is legal to fly drones in all of the suggested places; however, drone rules are constantly changing, and it is always best to check before you fly. A great resource is the Federal Aviation Association’s site Know Before You Fly.

Silver Spray Shipwreck: The wreck of Silver Spray happened in 1914 off the lake shore of Chicago. Just the top of the boiler is visible above the water, but on a clear day, your drone will be able to capture the rest of the ship through the water.

Sleeping Bear Dunes: Found on the shores of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dune is an ideal location to fly drones. The National Shoreline is off-limits, but flying is allowed along the shoreline of Glen Arbor.

The World’s Largest Crow: Located in Belgrade, Minnesota, this fiberglass crow is over 18 feet tall and sits atop a 30 foot high “twig.” It was erected to celebrate Michigan’s 100th birthday and looks amazing and strange from above.

Bailey Island: Off the coast of Maine, this small island is an aerial photographer’s dream. The rocky shore, glistening harbor, and slightly eerie quality to the island make for a great photograph.

Mount Monadnock: Mount Monadnock is famous for appearing in the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The majority of the trees on the trees burned in a fire and never grew back. This makes for clear flying and vast expansive views in all directions. It is the most prominent peak in Southern New Hampshire.

Point Judith: Point Judith is one of the coolest spots to catch sunrise photography. Located in Rhode Island, the shore faces eastward for a brilliant daybreak.

Flattop Mountain: This 3350 foot mountain is located outside of Anchorage. If you make the hike up and hope for clear weather, the summit offers an excellent clear launching point for drones.

Port San Luis: North of Los Angeles, this sleepy town is a great place for sunset aerial photography. Be sure to capture the point that juts into the water.

Haiku Stairs: Also known as Stairway to Heaven, this Hawaiian peak was built to “reach a radio station on a local mountain.” You can no longer hike the stairs, you can capture them by drone. You should note, however, Tom’s Guide says that “parts of the stairs are within the restricted airspace of the local Marine Corps air base.”

San Clemente: San Clemente Beach in California is a great spot to capture aerial photography of surfers as the waves break.

Fort Rock: This rock in the Oregon desert was formed when a magma erupted into a lake bed. The resulting rock looks like a fort and is awesome to photograph from above.