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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 (opens in new tab), 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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab), whether it's high-resolution photography or 4K video. 

Read more: 

Best camera drones
(opens in new tab)Best DJI drones
(opens in new tab)Best cheap drones
(opens in new tab)Best drones for beginners
(opens in new tab)Best drones for kids (opens in new tab)

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The editor of Digital Camera World, James has 21 years experience as a magazine and web 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 as diverse as 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, photographic and lighting tutorials, as well as industry analysis, news and rumors for publications such as Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine (opens in new tab)Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) and Professional Imagemaker, as well as hosting workshops and demonstrations at The Photography Show (opens in new tab). 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.