The first aerial photographers didn’t wait for the invention of the airplane. There were other ways of getting a camera up in the air, with or without a human operator.
In 1783, Etienne Montgolfier ascended in a hot air balloon, making him the first human to see the Earth from the air. But he didn’t have any snapshots to show for it. Photography didn’t exist yet.
It wasn’t until 1858 that Gaspar-Felix Tournachon, known as "Nadar," rose 80 meters above the French village of Petit-Becetre in a tethered balloon to produce the first aerial photograph. It was an astounding feat, considering what taking a photo entailed back then.
Photography had progressed since Nicéphore Niépce produced the first lasting image in 1826, but Nadar couldn’t simply snap a roll of film and drop it off at a drug store to be developed. In fact, the then state-of-the-art collodion wet-plate process involved applying emulsion onto glass plates just before exposure and developing them quickly afterwards. He had to carry a complete darkroom in the basket of the balloon.
Unfortunately Nadar’s earliest aerial images no longer survive. The oldest existing aerial photo is this one of Boston, taken from a balloon in 1860 by James Wallace Black.
2. Free flying balloons
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The invention of the dry-plate process allowed faster exposures and made it unnecessary to carry so much equipment aloft. According to the Professional Aerial Photographers Association (PAPA), Triboulet took the first free-flight photographs over Paris in 1879.
This aerial view of Paris was taken by Alphonse Liébert in 1889.
The invention of the electrically released shutter in 1869 meant that photographers on the ground could control high-flying cameras. Using a string of kites with a camera attached to the last, English meteorologist E. D. Archibald became one of the first to successfully photograph from kites in about 1882. In 1889, Arthur Batut suspended a large camera from a single kite. A slow burning fuse triggered the shutter soon after the kite was launched.
The above photo is the French village of Labruguière photographed from kite by Arthur Batut in 1889.
4. Panoramic photos from kites
George R. Lawrence designed a large-format camera with a curved film plate for capturing panoramas. The hefty, bulky camera required 17 kites to lift it 2000 feet into the air. His photos of the devastation following the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco are still some of the largest aerial exposures ever taken.
The Bavarian Pigeon Corps was already using carrier pigeons to transmit messages in 1903 when Julius Neubranner patented a miniature camera that could be strapped to a bird. It was set to snap pictures every 30 seconds as the pigeon flew.
Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel is best known for inventing dynamite and for establishing the prizes that bear his name, but in 1897 he was the first to successfully produce an aerial photograph with a rocket-mounted camera. In Germany in 1906, Albert Maul obtained aerial photos from a more reliable rocket propelled by compressed air. When the camera reached 2600 feet, the shutter would snap and the camera would be ejected and parachuted to the ground. Maul kept tinkering with rocket-cameras, but by 1912 airplanes had taken over as the way to get cameras airborne.
The above photo is an aerial shot of the Swedish village Karlskoga taken by Alfred Nobel's rocket in 1896 or 1897.
Sources: PAPA International, “History of Aerial Photography”; Lenman, Robin, ed., Oxford Companion to the Photograph; Marien, Mary Warner, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography.