The History of Aerial Filming

Aerial filming has been a staple of cinematography for a very long time, so long that it even predates the invention of the aeroplane. If you have ever wondered where aerial cinematography and photography got their start, read on to learn more about how this filming method has been providing new perspectives across the decades.

Hot Air Balloons: 1860s – 1880s

The oldest surviving aerial photo was taken from a hot air balloon back in 1860 by a man named James Wallace Black, but the first aerial picture ever taken was captured by Gaspard-Fexix Tournachon who took a photo of Paris from 1,600 feet in the air using a tethered balloon. This was done in 1858, but unfortunately, the image has not survived.

There was very little Photography at this time, and filmography was yet to exist. To take, and then develop a photo, complete darkrooms needed to be assembled inside the basket of the hot air balloons to successfully develop the photos after they are taken. Almost 20 years later, the development of the dry-plate process allowed photos to be taken without the necessity of a complete darkroom present, allowing the first free-flight balloon photos to be taken in 1879.

Kites: 1880s – 1900s

Photographic technology began to advance rapidly over the next few years, and it was soon possible to affix cameras to smaller flying objects. In 1882, the first photo taken from a string of kites was accredited to an English meteorologist named Douglas Archibald. Just a few years later, a camera with a timed shutter was able to be sent up with a solo kite by, Arthur Batut.

This technology was heavily utilised during a terrible earthquake and fire that affected San Fransico in 1906, it was able to be captured aerially by George R. Lawrence who attached a camera to a string of 17 kites that was able to lift the camera 2000 feet in the air. He used a curved film plate to capture a wide panoramic image, to photograph as must of the destruction as possible. To this day, these photographs remain some of the largest photos ever taken from the skies.

Pigeons – 1900s

During WWI, it was difficult to take photos using larger flying objects as they would frequently be shot down. So to get a glimpse of what was happening behind enemy lines, armies would use pigeons.

Carrier pigeons were already being used by The Bavarian Pigeon Corps to carry messages, so Dr Julius Neubronner invented lightweight, breast-mounted cameras in 1908 that were able to be carried by the pigeons themselves.

These cameras were designed to take photos at 30-second intervals as the pigeon flew. While they were incredibly useful, it was impossible to control the photographs taken, and even though they were smaller than balloons or kites, the birds were still often shot down.

Aeroplanes: 1900s – present

The first aerial photograph was captured not very long after the first successful powered flight by the Wright brothers. It was taken by cinematographer L.P. Bonvillain in 1908 in an aeroplane flown by Wilbur Wright over Le Mans, France. Battle maps based or aerial photos were used by both sides during WWI, as cameras were now able to be designed specifically for airborne use, and by the end of the war, a camera with its shutter located inside the lens allowed more stable photos and greatly improved image quality even while in the air.

By the 1920s aerial cinematography was starting to become more popular, these shots were generally performed by a stuntman or pilot and at this time were limited to films that predominantly featured aircraft dog fighting or aerial stunt sequences, and that this point, most filming was done using hand-held, hand-cranked cameras, as the modern motorised camera hadn’t been invented yet.

Helicopters: 1940s – present

The use of helicopters in cinematography was popularised in 1945 during the filming of the feature film ‘the bandit of Sherwood forest’ and again in 1955 when the highly popular TV series ‘highway patrol’ was aired and showed the benefits of helicopter cinematography to the public. Helicopters are purposefully versatile and in the modern day, what was once prohibitively expensive, aerial filming is very common and cost-effective. While helicopters can fly as low as necessary if safe, most helicopters offer a maximum altitude capability of 8,000 to 30,000 feet, and due to their ability to hover in the air with little difficulty, they can be much better at capturing footage in a smaller area than aeroplanes.

The history of aerial filming and photography is incredibly rich and full of inventive steps that have led us to where we are today. So when you decide to use helicopter filming services in your next film, remember just how far technology has come.