Nadar and the Evolution of Air Photography

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Today, anyone can do air photography thanks to drones – but have you ever wondered how it all started?

In this article, I’ll talk about one of my favourite characters in photographic history – Nadar.

He was the first artist to wonder how to capture the world from above. To do so, he used a hot air balloon.

Since then, many have come up with all sorts of solutions.

If you want to learn about the evolution of air photography – keep on reading!

The Origins of Aerial Photography

“Boston, as the eagle and the goose see it.” Credit:  James Wallace Black. Public Domain, donated to Wikimedia Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first aerial photograph that we know dates back to 1858. It was taken by the French photographer known as Nadar.

Unfortunately, this photograph is no longer around.

His earliest image still surviving is from 1866. This isn’t, however, the earliest aerial photograph that survived.

That title belongs to “Boston, as the eagle and the goose see it.” The author is James Wallace Black, and it’s kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Who Was Nadar?

A man and woman in a basket on a hot air balloon.

Credit: Nadar, CC0, donated to Wikimedia Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gaspar Felix Tournachon, who was later called Nadar, was a French photographer. He was actually a pioneer in the photographic field. In the process, he also impacted other fields beyond photography.

His artistic career started as a caricaturist and novelist. He was part of the Parisian bohemian group, where he met renowned writers such as Baudelaire. This is where he got his nickname, Nadar.

In 1853, he started experimenting with photography, and in 1854 he opened a portrait studio.

As I mentioned, he was a pioneer – so he refused to follow the ‘rules’ of traditional portraiture practiced at the time.

His portraits lacked the sumptuosity that characterized the works of his fellow photographers. He only used natural light and got rid of any unnecessary accessories.

Being fond of innovation, he used his studio to host the first Impressionist exhibition.

The idea that a painting exhibition could be held in something other than a gallery was a breakthrough – let alone an exhibition of this new style that critics did not consider art.

Another primacy Nadar owns is the first photo interview or photo report. This was when he and his son visited the famous scientist Michel Eugène Chevreul. The interview was published in 1886 by the “Journal Illustrè”.

Beyond all that, however, he is known mainly for being the first person to take an aerial photograph.

He was also the first one to take a photograph underground by capturing the Catacombs of Paris.

The First Aerial Photograph

A drawing of a man flying in a hot air balloon.

“Nadar Élevant la Photographie à la Hauteur de l’Art.” Credit: Honoré Daumier, Public domain, Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Nadar patented the idea of aerial photography in 1855. Initially, he wasn’t thinking of the artistic uses. Instead, he proposed it as a tool for mapping and surveying.

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As you can imagine, it’s not the same to come up with an idea as to successfully bring it to life. So, while the patent dates back to 1855, the first photograph wasn’t done until 1858.

The image captured the small village of Petit Becetre from 80 meters above ground using a hot air balloon. This was not easy to do, as the photographic process used at the time was the wet collodion.

The wet plate collodion had to be coated, sensitized, exposed, and developed in 15 minutes. This meant Nadar had to carry a portable darkroom in the balloon basket.

At first, the gas escaping the balloons caused him imaging problems. So, he invented a gas-proof cotton cover that allowed him to get more stable images.

The original of the first photograph no longer exists. As mentioned above, the earliest aerial photograph from Nadar that reached our days is from 1866.

When he wasn’t in the air, he was still taking portraits in his studio. He even crafted a balloon gondola to use in the studio.

However, once Nadar managed to do this, others followed his lead. One of them was James Wallace Black, who is the author of the first aerial photograph still in existence – “Boston, as the eagle and the goose see it,” pictured above.

The Early Developments of Aerial Photography

Aerial photography had two obstacles to overcome: the photographic process and the vehicle that would take the camera above ground.

The first problem was settled with the advancements made in dry collodion. Since the plates used for this technique are dry – as the name says – you didn’t need to carry the entire darkroom.

So, the first free air balloon flight took place in 1879 by Triboulet who flew over Paris taking photographs.

Now, let’s see what ingenious solutions came to the great minds of the time to launch and fly photographic cameras.

The Use of Kites

In 1882, the English meteorologist E.D. Archibald strapped a camera to the last of a string of kites.

In 1889, Arthur Batut decided to use a single kite. He strapped to it his camera with an automated time exposure to fly over Labruguiere, France. To trigger the shutter, he used a slow-burning fuse.

On the other side of the ocean, we have records of George R. Lawrence using a string of 17 kites to fly his camera and document the devastation caused by the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

His innovation was that the camera used a curved plate, allowing him to take panoramic images.

Carrier Pigeons

A white dove with a camera attached to it.

Credit: Bricetofly, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Using carrier pigeons is one of the oldest ways to send long-distance messages and packages. Julius Neubranner, a German apothecary, thought of a new task to assign to these helpful animals: taking aerial photographs.

In 1903, Neubranner designed a breast-mounted camera so that pigeons could fly with them. The camera was set to take a photograph every 30 seconds.

While the flying path wasn’t often reliable, the photographs proved to be a commercial success at the 1909 Dresden International Photographic Exhibition, where they were sold as postcards.


Alfred Nobel – known mainly by the Nobel Prize – is credited with the first aerial photograph taken with a camera mounted on a rocket. This dates back to 1897.

However, there’s a photo-rocket design from 1888 by Amedee Denisse. Although this design came before Alfred Nobel, there is no record that this rocket was ever built.

Then, in 1903, Albert Maul patented the idea of using powder rockets in Germany. In 1904, he used gyroscopically stabilized cameras that could be recovered with parachutes. By 1906, he was using rockets propelled with compressed air.

Unfortunately for him, by the time he perfected his method, aerial photography was already being done with airplanes.

Aerial Photography and its Developments During War Times

A black and white photo of a city.

Reconnaissance aerial photo WWI. Credit: Europeana 1914-1918, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If there’s one thing that’s powered by wars, is the development of new technologies.

Soon after the first airplane flights in 1903, photographs were taken from them. The first aerial photograph taken from a piloted airplane was taken in 1908 by Wilburg Wright – one of the inventors of motor-operated airplanes.

Once WWI started in 1914, all participant countries used aerial cameras to get updates on the battlefields and enemy movements.

The pioneer in this field was Germany, which acquired a Gortz camera to be used in aerial photography. This led to the fast development of specially designed cameras.

The first specifically designed camera dates to 1915, invented by John Moore Barbizon.

However, it was the British army that was leading the experimental techniques. Frederick Charles Victor Laws discovered that by taking vertical shots overlapping by 60%, you could achieve a stereoscopic effect.

One of the first technologies added to them was the thermal infrared detectors. By the end of the war, a new design featuring the shutter inside the lens significantly improved the stability and quality of the images.

During WWII, aerial images were used not only by the military but also by the media. It was common to see aerial photographs in newspapers and magazines.

The moving picture was already common as well, and in movie theatres, you could see aerial videos during the newsreels.

Margaret Bourke White was the “first woman to fly with the U.S. combat crew over enemy soil,” according to LIFE magazine (1943).

The Cold War kept the developments going. This wasn’t just because the U.S. and the former U.R.S.S. were still surveying each other – it was also due to the Space Race.

The goal of taking the first photograph from space was a powerful motivator to keep developing aerial photography. That’s how satellite imagery came to be.

The first known photograph of the earth seen from space was taken in 1946 with a rocket launched from New Mexico.

Drone photography as we know it today had great advances in the 1980s in different conflicts in the Middle East.

Aerial Photography Enters the Commercial Field

After the Second World War, aerial photography made its way into civilian life. Different fields started using it, from construction to advertising, movie films, and archaeology.

Of course, some of these uses were done even before 1945. However, as it kept improving, the more it reached the public and had more widespread uses.


Photography played a role in cartography ever since it was invented. However, photographs were taken on the ground at that time.

When Nadar and other pioneers in air photography started documenting the world, they mostly used oblique views. The first one to take a vertical view was Cecil Victor Shadbolt in 1882.

During the Great War, photography was mainly used to make battlefield maps. Once this technology was known, it took on civilian uses at the end of the war.

Sherman Fairchild used aerial photography to create a map of Manhattan after WWI. This map was a success, as many agencies and businesses in New York wanted it. This led to many other cities asking for one of their own.

To this day, photographs taken from aircraft and satellites are the best way to create maps – the most common example is Google Earth.


A view of a lake and a city.

Credit: N.E. Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Postcards featuring aerial photographs were popular at the Dresden International Photographic Exhibition in 1909. They were the ones taken by Neubranner using carrier pigeons.

However, Harry Oakman was the first to realize the full potential of aerial photography postcards. In 1919, he developed equipment that allowed him to fly a plane and take photographs simultaneously.

He then identified the cities that were more popular amongst tourists and flew over them to document them. Oakman managed to mass-produce aerial postcards. His career was most prolific from 1940 to 1970.

To this day, even if tourists only need a smartphone to make memories of their trips, bird’s eye views are hard to get. So, postcards that feature aerial photography are still popular.

Commercial Aviation

A large airplane flying over a tropical island.

Credit: Oleksandr P.

The Wright brothers were known to photograph their experiments, and many of those plates are now kept at the Library of Congress.

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As airplanes improved and flying became a commercial activity, airlines saw the potential in photography to advertise their services.

At this point, we’re not just taking about aerial photography but also aviation photography as a separate genre. In the case of the latter, it’s not just about photographing the world from above but about capturing airplanes in flight.

One of the most famous aviation photographers of this era was Frank Hurley. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of aviation photography occurred between 1920 and 1950.

The development of panoramic cameras allowed photographers to capture flying airplanes with entire cities and unique landscapes as backdrops. This led to some stunning images never seen before.

By the 1980s, there were specialized magazines where aviation photographers could publish their work. Some of the most important were “Air International“, “Airliner“, and “Flight International“.

Today, aviation photography is well incorporated into everyday life. After all, who among us hasn’t taken a photo out the plane window with our phone while traveling?



Technically speaking, this isn’t photography but cinematography. That said, the cinematography is made out of a series of still images – so I figure it’s valid to mention it here.

Aerial moving images date back to the Civil War in 1863. However, their commercial use – or artistic use, if you will – started in 1908 with the film “The Count of Monte Cristo”.

As flying became more popular and Hollywood established itself as the capital of cinema, more and more pilots wanted to become aerial cameramen.

So, in 1917, The Associated Motion Picture Pilots was formed to organize pilots and producers, set prices, etc.

In 1926-1927, the movie “Wings” made some aerial footage that is considered impressive today. The bird’s eye view shots of the bombs dropping over the targeted towns are some of the most famous in the history of aerial cinematography.

Since then, doing aerial shots has become part of cinema. Nowadays, thanks to commercial drones, these shots are available even for low-budget productions.

Real Estate

An aerial view of a home with a golf course in the background.

Credit: Curtis Adams

More and more real estate agencies are using aerial photography in their listings. This allows people to get a better idea of the size and context of the properties.

Before, achieving this point of view was difficult and expensive. Photographers needed to climb up rooftops or rent special cranes. This limited the clients who could benefit from it.

Almost any real estate listing includes an aerial shot nowadays, thanks to modern drones. Of course, people have become so used to this that it’s no longer a wow factor but a necessity.

Prospective clients are expecting to see aerial photographs and videos of the properties. As a result, listings with these shots have a 68% higher likelihood of being sold or rented.

Final Words

The ability to take photos from above has greatly expanded the way we use photography in everyday life – from creating artistic images to drawing maps and selling houses.

While the evolution of this art started with the Frenchman, Nadar, it’s still going today. And the more technology evolves, the greater our capacity to take incredible photos and footage from the sky.

I hope you enjoyed this journey back in time and history. If you have any comments to add, please leave them below.

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