Looking at Earth

Onwards and Upwards

From the first clumsy flights and fuzzy photos, airplane photography developed rapidly into a precise and useful tool for looking at Earth. Surveyors, mappers, geologists, resource managers, urban planners, and military strategists have all come to rely on the airplane view of our world. Beyond these practical uses, however, air photographs reveal landscapes of beauty and symmetry that go undetected on the ground level.


George T. Murray of the Boston Journal photographed Salem, Massachusetts on June 26, 1914, following a disastrous fire. The photograph was enlarged to cover the entire front page of the Journal. This is the first known use of aerial photography for journalism.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Early airplane photography was not without its technical difficulties. In 1911, this enthusiastic flyer photographed his own feet.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

San Diego, CA, 1911. The aerial panorama, taken from a Curtiss Hydroplane, is thought to be the first photograph taken from an airplane in the U.S.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Surveying The Scene

Aerial photography has practical applications in many fields. When the Earth is viewed from the air, patterns, boundaries, and landmarks appear that are often not visible at close range. From this vantage point, the camera can record natural and man-made features and events, from the remains of ancient civilizations to the aftermath of a modern disaster.


Fremont County, Wyoming

With aerial photographs, geologists can easily spot rock structures like the one pictured here. Shale and sandstone beds have been folded to form this elongate dome.
U.S. Geological Survey Photograph

New Jersey Coastline
Aerial photographs such as these allow scientists to monitor shoreline erosion.
U.S. Geological Survey Photograph

Kilauea Volcano
A record of Kilauea's recent volcanic activity is documented in this aerial view of the summit crater.
U.S. Geological Survey Photograph

Ohio River
Scars on the terrain tell the tale of the river's shifting path.
U.S. Geological Survey Photograph

Mt. Everest
Some places are easier to photograph from the air than any other way. A U-2 aircraft was used to obtain this photograph of one of the most inaccessible spots on Earth.
Courtesy of CIA

Columbia Glacier, Alaska
Study of rugged and inaccessible glacial terrain is made easier by the use of aerial photography.
From National Snow and Ice Data Center

Mt. Mayon, Philippines
A unique view of a volcanic eruption is provided by this nighttime aerial shot.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center


Diyala Plains, Iraq

Aerial mosaic of the Diyala Plains found in Iraq, east of Baghdad. Ancient canal systems dating from 637 to 1150 AD have been mapped on the photograph. Identification of archaeological features such as these, which extend over vast areas, can be greatly facilitated by the use of aerial photography.
Courtesy of Robert McCormick Adams

Close up aerial view of the same region. Traces of the linear canals can be easily located in the upper left and right. Also visible are an ancient dam (center) and the basin where water backed up behind it.
Courtesy of Robert McCormick Adams

Map of Diyala canal systems from the period between 637 and 883 AD. By combining information gathered both in the field and from aerial photography, the layout of the canals can be mapped for different periods.
Courtesy of Robert McCormick Adams

The canal system in the period between 883 and 1150 AD.
Courtesy of Robert McCormick Adams

Egyptian Pyramids

A U-2 aircraft supplied this view of the ancient pyramids at Giza. In the center is the pyramid of Cheops, the largest structure of its kind ever built. Numerous excavated tombs are located next to the large pyramid. To the lower left is the Sphinx.
Courtesy of CIA

Disaster Assessment

Alaskan Earthquake

Air photos are useful for pinpointing disaster areas and organizing relief efforts after major disasters such as the Alaskan earthquake of 1964.
Photographs courtesy of Dino Brugioni

Landslides and an 8-meter (26-foot) wave combined to ruin most of the businesses in Seward.

Turnagain, a town on the outskirts of Anchorage, experienced the largest landslide in the region. Up to 400 meters (1300 feet) wide, the slide destroyed 75 homes.

Guatemalan Earthquake

U-2 cameras caught this scene of the destruction caused by the Guatemalan earthquake of 1976. The quake resulted in more than 22,000 deaths and 75,000 injuries.
Courtesy of CIA

Washington, DC Flood

In 1936, the Potomac River inundated low-lying areas of Washington, DC. The Washington Monument is visible on the left.
From the National Archives

Italian Earthquake

The view from the air provides a quick assessment of the extent of damage to this town in Italy destroyed by a major earthquake in 1980.
Courtesy of CIA


Love Canal

The top image is an aerial photo of the Love Canal taken in 1951. In the 1940s and 1950s the abandoned site was used for disposal of tens of thousands of tons of chemical wastes. Photos such as these have been used throughout the country to help pinpoint old hazardous waste sites beneath more recent construction.

The image on the bottom shows Love Canal in 1980. Comparison of the photos illustrates the extensive development around the canal. These buildings were later abandoned and torn down because of dangers of the hazardous wastes.

Today, study of historic aerial photos before the beginning of new construction can help avoid later environmental problems.

First image courtesy of Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Second image courtesy of National Ocean Service, U.S. Department of Commerce. Aerial photo analysis courtesy of EPA's Environmental Photographic Interpretation Center.

Underground Fire

In Centralia, PA, an underground fire has been raging through the coal mining district since 1962. This aerial image, made with a heat-measuring instrument, indicated the extent of the fire. The bright white areas, which cannot be seen with the naked eye, show where the blaze had made the upper ground level abnormally hot.
Image and aerial photo analysis courtesy of EPA's Environmental Photographic Interpretation Center

Typhoon Ida

High-altitude aircraft can be used to monitor weather systems. Typhoon Ida was photographed by a U-2 about 750 miles off the coast of the Philippines in 1958. The storm was characterized by surface winds of more than 200 knots and the lowest sea level atmospheric pressure ever recorded.
Courtesy of CIA


The Enviropod is a 2-camera system used to locate and document sources of environmental pollution. Designed to fit a Cessna 172 or 182 aircraft, the portable pod can be strapped to a waiting plane with no modifications. The Enviropods allow a low cost, rapid response to environmental emergencies or routine monitoring.
From the EPA's Environmental Photographic Interpretation Center

The Broad View

High Altitude Aerial Photography

High altitude photography allows coverage of vast areas on a single frame. Large-scale structures and landmarks can be quickly and conveniently scanned, mapped, or surveyed.

Ascension Parish, Louisiana from 12,200 meters (40,000 feet).
Courtesy of National High Altitude Photography Program, EROS Data Center, U.S. Geological Survey

Cape Cod, Massachusetts from 19,800 meters (65,000 feet).
NASA Photograph

Furnas County, Nebraska from 12,200 meters (40,000 feet).
Courtesy of National High Altitude Photography Program, EROS Data Center, U.S. Geological Survey

High Resolution Aerial Photography

High resolution photography provides coverage of large areas without loss of fine detail. Both a broad regional overview and a detailed local survey can be combined in one photo.
Photographs courtesy of Raytheon Systems Company

High resolution view of New Orleans from about 13,000 meters (42,000 feet).

The same scene enlarged 12 times.

The same scene enlarged 24 times.

Airborne Radar

Airborne radar provides the capability to study geologic structures and terrain characteristics as they extend over large areas. Because radar "sees" through clouds, imagery is available in all kinds of weather. Radar images have useful applications in the fields of mineral resource exploration and ground-water analysis.

Side-looking Airborne Radar image of the Ugashik region of Alaska.
Courtesy of EROS Data Center, U.S. Geological Survey

Side-looking Airborne Radar image of the De Long Mountains region in Alaska. The "smiling face" is in reality a geologic structure of folded rocks called a syncline.
Courtesy of EROS Data Center, U.S. Geological Survey

Photo Interpretation

Photo interpreters can read an aerial photograph like a book, and they employ many skills to help them analyze the terrain they are viewing.


One method that aerial photo interpreters use to view large regions in one glance is called mosaicking. Several photos of adjacent areas are pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle to present the "big picture."

Laying mosaics at the Photo Interpretation Center on Guadalcanal. Mosaic lines between the photos are clearly evident. Today digital images can be processed by computer to produce smoother image transitions.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Piecing together aerial mosaics at the Training School at Chanute Field, Illinois, in the 1920s.
Courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Stereo Photography

Stereo photography allows the interpreter to see the ground in three dimensions by viewing overlapping scenes. This stereopticon or "parlor stereoscope" is an example of an early instrument which employed the stereo effect for entertainment.

To acquire aerial stereo photography a series of overlapping photos must be taken along a designated flight line. So that stereo coverage of an area will be complete, the amount of overlap for each adjacent pair of photos must be greater than 50%.

The Earth in Stereo

Natural and man-made features can be seen in three dimensions with the aid of a stereoscope and two overlapping scenes. With the addition of depth, aerial photos can provide the interpreter with more information on geologic boundaries, terrain characteristics, relative heights, and regional topography.

If you have a pair of red/blue glasses you can simulate the 3D effect of using a stereoscope by viewing these anaglyphs made from aerial photos.

Carquinez Bridge, CA

Sunset Crater, AZ

Mt. Capulin, NM

Menan Buttes, ID

The Changing Landscape

A valuable service provided by aerial photography is the ability to view changes in the land through time. This is important not only to historians, but also to those who plan cities and monitor the environment.

Neville Island, Pennsylvania

When workers became ill during the construction of a public park on Neville Island, environmentalists used aerial photos to look back through time and locate the problem.

Aerial photo analyses courtesy of EPA's Environmental Photographic Interpretation Center

  • 1938
    Farmlands on Neville Island.

  • 1948
    Signs of development. Apartment complexes have sprung up and a large Earth scar on the island's tip indicates increased construction.

  • 1952
    Dark patches suggest dumping of liquid wastes.

  • 1959
    A long narrow holding trench has been constructed for liquid wastes. A new road leading to the shoreline may have been built to facilitate dumping in the channel. Trenches indicate burial of solid wastes.

  • 1969
    Solid waste disposal has ceased, but many dark patches of liquids still remain.

  • 1973 Spring
    Liquid wastes have been dumped along the central road. The apartment buildings have been knocked down suggesting plans for new development.

  • 1973 Fall
    By the fall of the same year all dumping has ceased.

  • 1979
    The completed recreation area is empty and abandoned due to the hazards of wastes buried many years before.

  • 1980
    In this near infrared, bright red represents healthy vegetation. The paler spots indicate areas where the long-forgotten wastes inhibited growth of grass in the park.

Washington, DC

Through the years the Nation's Capital has undergone many changes, both physical and political. Historical aerial photography has recorded some of the transitions and events that have molded the capital city.

Building the Memorial Bridge
An aerial photo from 1927 shows the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and construction on the Memorial Bridge.
From the National Archives

Aerial Parking Survey
Parking was a concern in Washington, DC as early as 1930 when this photo was taken to inventory the parkers around the Capitol.
From the National Archives

The Tidal Basin
Construction on the Jefferson Memorial was recorded on film in 1940. The monument was completed in 1943.
From the National Archives

Inauguration Day, 1941
An aerial photo from 1927 shows the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and construction on the Memorial Bridge.
From the National Archives

Washington, DC in the 1990s
Both the growth of the city and the advances in aerial photography are reflected in this scene from 1994.
U.S. Geological Survey National Aerial Photography Program

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Aerial photos of the city of Sioux Falls illustrate the growth of an urban center within a few decades.
Photographs courtesy of EROS Data Center, US Geological Survey

Note the sinuous pattern of the Big Sioux River, especially to the northeast.

Much urban expansion is shown in the 1951 aerial view. An airport has been constructed and the Big Sioux has been "straightened out" by flood control measures north of the city.

City growth has continued through 1968. Clover leaf highways are now evident. Because of spring floods due to heavy snowfall to the north, flood control has been expanded. Note the change in the river's course west of the city.

High altitude photograph from 1984. This view is marked by the spread of housing developments especially to the west.