Old Aerial Photos


Aerial surveying is now common place but its roots go back to 1858 when it was first practiced by French balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. He honed his techniques and managed to produce his first photos after 3 years and due to the rudementary technology he had to carry a complete darkroom in the balloon basket!

Over time the types of platform used to acquire aerial photography expanded and for the first time kites, rockets and even pigeons were tried. The devastation wrought by the great earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 was captured by George R. Lawrence who used a series of kites to lift cameras up to 2000ft into the sky. In the same year successfully used a rocket powered by compressed air to fire a rocket with a camera attached to a parachute 2600ft into the air. However soon afterwards airplanes took over at the preferred method of capture and remain so to this day.

In 1909 Wilbur Wright was the first to take aerial photos from an airplane over Italy. When the WW1 broke out soon afterwards, aerial photography taken from airplanes came into its own as a means of surveillance, replacing observers drawing the enemy territory on paper.

Following WW1, aerial photography started to be used for commercial purposes including an aerial survey of Manhattan taken by Sherman Fairchild at 10000ft in 1921. From then on it became obvious that aerial photos could be used across a myriad number of businesses and governmental bodies leading to the its use globally.

Major Collections of UK Historic Aerial Photography

Available on this site

The Luftwaffe Aerial Reconnaissance Collection 1938 to1942: over the United Kingdom: On the 1st January 1938 the German Ministry of Defence created an intelligence gathering unit to understand the defence capability and infrastructure of the UK prior to war. Similar aerial reconnaissance was being undertaken in Poland, Belgium, France and Russia. To carry out the clandestine aerial surveys the Germans adapted civil aircraft to carry secret cameras. They also used The German airship , the ‘Hindenburg’, to take yet more pictures when it toured Southern England including strategically important naval ports.

Luftwaffe Aerial Photo

The Luftwaffe secret aerial survey s continued until just before the outbreak of war and ended up covering many locations across the country, mainly urban areas or areas of strategic military importance like ports, bridges, command and control centres and factories. All of the negatives were sent to A master set of prints were sent to the central intelligence archive at Zossen (12 miles south east of Berlin) which was later destroyed at the end of WWII.

RAF Air Force Survey 1947 to 1953: after WWII the UK had massive areas that had been bombed and needed reconstruction. Additionally many RAF pilots were available to be redeployed. To assist Government reconstruction planning the Ordnance Survey they undertook ‘Operation Revue’, an aerial photographic survey of Great Britain and Northern Irelandthe aerial survey to fill a short term gap as their large scale mapping was effectively out of date due to the bombed out areas.

Photography was taken at two main scales, six inches to one mile (1:10,560) and 50 inches to one mile (1:1,250). They were taken by the Royal Air Force and published by the Ordnance Survey.

It is ideal for understanding historic land use and former bomb sites.

Other major collections:

Aerofilms Collection: The Aerofilms Collection is a unique air photographs archive of international importance. It includes 1.26 million negatives and more than 2000 photograph albums. Dating 1919 to 2006.