What is aerial photography?

What is aerial photography
(Image credit: Digital Camera World)

What is aerial photography? Put simply, it's imagery that's taken from the air, usually from an aircraft. Which has historically made it both expensive and difficult. However, with the advent of new technology, the genre has completely transformed. 

Once upon a time the answer to 'what is aerial photography' was 'photography captured from a plane or helicopter', making it the preserve of a very exclusive cabal of specialists. Thanks to the proliferation of camera drones, though, the genre has been radically democratized in recent years.

What started as a curiosity for the rich in the 19th Century has now become a commonplace pastime enjoyed by people all over the world. 

You no longer need a helicopter for aerial photography (Image credit: Jamie Carter/Digital Camera World)

What is aerial photography?

The very first aerial photograph was captured in 1858 by Gaspard-Félix "Nadar" Tournachon, by taking a camera up in a hot air balloon and capturing images above the French capital. 

When the first World War broke out, specialist cameras were developed and mounted to aircraft in order to perform reconnaissance missions. This technology was expanded upon, post war, to perform commercial survey and cartography services.

Aerial photography quickly became a creative tool for the entertainment industries, with 'helicopter shots' being used to capture dramatic scenes for Hollywood films, and shots from aircraft used to embellish documentaries providing a unique perspective of the subject matter.

Amateur and professional photographers have traditionally employed light aircraft to capture images from the sky, chartering professional or private pilots to fly them over specific regions and using regular cameras with telephoto lenses to shoot.

However, an absolute revolution occurred in the field of aerial photography with the widespread adoption of affordable, easy to use and increasingly powerful camera drones. 

The helicopter shot has now been rendered virtually redundant by drones, and what was once an expensive technique only available to Hollywood filmmakers can be captured by anyone with a DJI drone, whether it's high-resolution photography or 4K video. 

Read more: 

Best camera drones
Best DJI drones
Best cheap drones
Best drones for beginners
Best drones for kids

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James Artaius

The editor of Digital Camera World, James has 21 years experience as a journalist and started working in the photographic industry in 2014 (as an assistant to Damian McGillicuddy, who succeeded David Bailey as Principal Photographer for Olympus). In this time he shot for clients like Aston Martin Racing, Elinchrom and L'Oréal, in addition to shooting campaigns and product testing for Olympus, and providing training for professionals. This has led him to being a go-to expert for camera and lens reviews, photo and lighting tutorials, as well as industry news, rumors and analysis for publications like Digital Camera MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon MagazineN-Photo: The Nikon MagazineDigital Photographer and Professional Imagemaker, as well as hosting workshops and talks at The Photography Show. He also serves as a judge for the Red Bull Illume Photo Contest. An Olympus and Canon shooter, he has a wealth of knowledge on cameras of all makes – and a fondness for vintage lenses and instant cameras.