Aerial Photography Guide

A full guide to photography from above.

Aerial Photography

What is Aerial Photography?

Aerial photography is the concept of capturing photographs from up in the air. In previous years, these images were primarily captured from helicopters and airplanes. Over the course of the last few years, however, the rise of drones has seen the interest in aerial photography skyrocket. Coupling drone technology with new high-quality, compact digital camera technology, millions of people now have the ability to become aerial photographers.

While drones are definitely soaring in popularity, numerous other platforms for aerial photography still exist. The most common of these include aircrafts, helicopters, balloons, blimps, dirigibles, rockets, kites, and parachutes.

Historical Uses of Aerial Photography

There are various uses of aerial photography. The most common of which include cartography, surveying, land development planning, environmental studies, structure inspection, power line inspection, movie production, and surveillance. Aerial shots have been used for these methods for well over a century, dating all the way back to 1858, where the first aerial photograph was captured for surveying.

Modern Uses of Aerial Photography

As drones and UAVs have become readily available over the last few years, more modern uses for aerial photography have begun to emerge. Aerial real estate photography has emerged as a substantial new industry, as real estate companies employ drone pilots to capture beautiful shots of their properties to include in listings.

Drone inspection is beginning to gain some momentum as well. GE recently implemented drones with cameras as a safer and more cost effective method of inspecting petroleum refineries. We’re also seeing enterprise quadcopters like the DJI M200 series that were built specifically for aerial inspection. The M200 even allows the camera to point upwards, which allows users to inspect the underside of bridges and structures – which is truly a whole new realm of aerial photography. The new 3DR Site Scan is among a group of new drones that is built for gathering data from an aerial perspective for creating basemaps and planning blueprints.

Of course, many people also enjoy aerial photography just because it’s fun! Drones offer a perspective that wasn’t previously available to amateur photographers, and that opens up a whole new world of creative possibilities. No matter the location, aerial photography can make almost any area look breath-taking.

Since drones have become so portable, you can bring them anywhere. Personally, I love to bring mine anytime I travel. While on a outdoor trip earlier this year, I launched from right outside of my camping tent and was able to capture some really beautiful aerial photographs of the landscape. Once you are in the sky, it really isn’t difficult to find a great angle and make some magic.

Aerial Photography History

The first aerial photograph in history was captured by Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, under his photographer pseudonym Nadar. In 1858, Nadar and his camera flew into the sky in a tethered balloon, above France. He wished to capture photographs from above to help with mapmaking and surveying. So, 80 meters up in the sky, Nadar captured the first aerial photograph in history. The camera technology of that time period required that photographs be developed in a darkroom immediately, so what did Nadar do? He took an entire darkroom with him – in the balloon, in the sky.

Unfortunately, those photos no longer exist today. Instead, the oldest existing aerial photograph is James Wallace Black’s image of Boston, which was photographed in 1860.

Boston Oldest Aerial Photograph

“Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It” James Wallace Black, 1860

As advances in camera technology began to make the photography process easier, photographers adopted new ways of capturing aerial shots. English Meteorologist E. D. Archibald successfully captured an aerial photograph from a kite in 1882. 7 years later, Arthur Batut placed a camera on a kite with an automatic timer that he created. Using a slow burning fuse and a rubber band, the camera would take a photograph several seconds after the kite flew into the air.

Kite photography is still popular today, and is commonly referred to as KAP – Kite Aerial Photography.

batut aerial photography kite
Batut – Aerial Photography from a Kite, 1889

Batut – Aerial Photography from a Kite, 1889

In 1903, Julius Neubranner invented a small camera that could be mounted onto the chest of carrier pigeons. The camera would automatically take photographs as the pigeons of The Bavarian Pigeon Corps flew along their path. In what could possibly be called the first aerial photography business, the carrier pigeons’ photographs were sold on postcards at the 1909 Dresden International Photographic Exhibition, where they were a hit.

Bavarian Pigeons Aerial Photography

Types of Aerial Photography

  • Vertical: Vertical photographs are the second most common type of aerial photography. These are images that are captured from above while looking straight down towards the ground. While it is certainly possible to use this type of photo for creative purposes, they lack depth when compared to oblique photographs. Vertical aerial photographs are commonly used for surveying and photogrammetry, where measurements and data are calculated by observing the images. Newer drones equipped with lidar capability, for instance, will capture vertical photographs to help create high resolution maps.
  • Oblique: Oblique Photographs generally refer to photos taken at an angle. These are divided into two categories: low oblique and high oblique. As their names suggest, low oblique photographs are taken at an angle that is closer to the ground, while high oblique photos are captured at an angle high in the sky. This is the most common type of aerial photograph.
  • Combinations: Panoramas, pictometry, and 360 degree photographs are created by combining multiple aerial photographs together to create a new, complex image. This is referred to as “stitching,” and when done correctly, is seamless to the eye.
  • Orthophotos: Orthophotos are vertical photographs that have been geometrically corrected, in order to create maps. This type of photograph must contain no perspective and is intended to simulate that it was taken from an infinite distance. Think Google Earth.
Orthophoto Aerial Photography
Orthophoto by Marco Verch (Luftbild: Tennisclub Lese Grün-Weiß 1927 e.V.)

Best Drones for Aerial Photography

Good news – it’s 2017, so you don’t actually need a plane or helicopter to capture beautiful images from above. There’s hundreds of camera-equipped UAV drones currently on the market. The prices and quality vary drastically from between different brands and models. So, we took some time to evaluate the major manufacturers and models in the aerial industry to decide which are the most suitable for aerial photography. Although you can certainly capture great photographs with drones in a lower price range, we specifically set out to find the highest quality possible. We split our choices into two categories: high-end consumer and professional, and included the camera specs of each. Here’s what we currently recommend:

High-end Consumer:

DJI Phantom 4 Pro:

DJI Phanton 4 Drone

Sensor:1’’ CMOS
Effective Pixels:20 Megapixels
ISO Range:100 - 12800
Shutter Speed Range:8 – 1/2000s
Lens:FOV 84° 8.8 mm/24 mm (35 mm format equivalent) f/2.8 - f/11 auto focus
Photo Format:JPEG, DNG (RAW)
Maximum Flight Time:30 minutes
Current Price:$1,499


Yuneec Tornado H920 Plus:

Yuneec Tornado H920 Drone

Sensor:Micro 4/3 CMOS
Effective Pixels:16 Megapixels
ISO Range:100 - 12800
Shutter Speed Range:60 – 1/8000s
Lens:14-42mm Panasonic Zoom Lens, Interchangeable
Photo Format:JPEG, RAW
Maximum Flight Time:24 minutes
Current Price:$3,999

DJI Inspire 2 with Zenmuse X5S Camera:

Inspire Drone Aerial Photography

Sensor:Micro 4/3 CMOS
Effective Pixels:20.8 Megapixels
ISO Range:100 - 25600
Shutter Speed Range:8 – 1/8000s
Photo Format:JPEG, DNG (RAW)
Maximum Flight Time:27 minutes
Current Price:$6,198

Tips for Capturing the Best Aerial Photography

Now that you’ve got your drone and camera ready to go, here’s a few quick tips for capturing the best possible aerial photographs!

  1. Use ND filters when taking photographs on sunny days. When the sun shines too bright, you may find that your photographs are overexposed. Wet and snow covered surfaces tend to reflect the sun very harshly, but even dry white rooftops can reflect too much light too. ND, or neutral density filters, can help to correct this issue.
  2. Choose the correct exposure metering mode. Most cameras allow the ability to select matrix, center-weighted, and spot-metering. These metering modes determine how the frame is evaluated, which the camera will then relay back to you via the exposure meter. You can find a detailed explanation of that here.
  3. Plan ahead to compensate for the direction of the sunlight. With aerial photography, shadows can either be your friend or your enemy.

That’s just a few of our most useful tips. If you want to learn some more, check out our full article on Aerial photography tips.


  1. If you are a serious aerial photographer, get The Professional Phantom 3. You will get spectacular photography that can be applied to any type of hobby or business. Comes with 4K video camera that captures 12 megapixel photos. GPS with GLONASS taps into 36+ satellites. Flight simulator lets you become a flying ace before going airborne. It’s a great find!

  2. I didn’t know that those shots were called high and low oblique shots! That is really interesting! I have been meaning to get some of those done for my neighborhood. I run the neighborhood watch and I think it would be nice to give everyone in the association a picture of the neighborhood that we protect!

  3. great article! love the part where you explain the history of aerial photography and how it was used for mapping and survey. appreciate the fact that you shared the picture of it. sometime before I came across the article on Pixpa about the application of aerial photography. found it very interesting how it can be used for different purpose.


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