The First Aerial Photograph


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The year was 1858 and Paris was abuzz with talk of the dashing Monsieur Nadar's latest escapade.

Though renowned already for his photographic portraits, Nadar was always chasing innovation. So when he caught wind of the Montgolfier's newfangled hot air balloons, his mind raced with possibilities.

"We must take the camera aloft!" he insisted to his skeptics over creme de cassis at the cafe.

Ever the showman, Nadar planned his ballooning stunt for the opening of his photography exhibition.

When the day came, a crowd gathered in the field outside Paris, necks craned skyward. With top hat and velvet coat, he assumed the role of aeronaut, strapping his bulky camera to the balloon's basket.

"You're mad, Nadar!" cried the villagers from little Petit-Becetre. His critics scoffed, but pioneers dared what critics deemed impossible.

The fire stoked, the balloon rose majestically.

Nadar fixed his eye to the camera, fiddling with angles. This would be no ordinary picture. Far below, lens peering down, he captured for the first time the world from above.

Back on solid ground, he raced to develop the image before the chemicals dried. Triumph! The gamble paid off. Though the photo was grainy, Nadar saw its significance. He had photographed the future!

Parisian high-society greeted his achievement with wonder. "Formidable!" they exclaimed. "You have catapulted photography into new heights!"

Nadar simply replied, "My friends, we have only touched the hem of an aerial photography's cloak."

And so Nadar continued reaching skyward. All of Paris soon saw itself anew through his ballooning images. But his first glimpse from the clouds changed photography forever.

Though critics scoffed, Nadar understood—to capture something revolutionary, you must be willing to rise.


What the first aerial photograph might have looked like, colorized
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Though a seemingly simple composition, Nadar's first aerial photograph represented a groundbreaking achievement.

Looking down from his balloon onto the village of Petit-Becetre, he captured an oblique view of the rooftops and buildings.

This high angle perspective was something completely new—never before seen by the human eye or recorded photographically. While the image may appear primitive to our modern sensibilities, we must consider it in its historical context.

The wet plate process Nadar used was cumbersome, the camera unwieldy, and the concept of aerial photography untried.

That he was able to coordinate all these elements and successfully expose an aerial image was an extraordinary accomplishment.

Though small in size, approximately 8 inches by 6 inches, the photograph heralded an entirely new vantage point on the world.

The rooftops of Petit-Becetre were rendered so distinctly, despite the limitations of the technique, revealing for the first time the exhilarating potential of photographs taken from high above.

That single image proved aerial photography was not just possible but could provide images with incredible detail and unique perspective.

While Nadar's photograph seems basic by current photographic standards, it shattered existing boundaries and brought about a pivotal advancement in the medium's development.


An old camera from the 1850s
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The first aerial photograph was no simple feat—it required Nadar to pioneer solutions to myriad technical hurdles.

The cameras of 1858 were vastly different from modern equipment.

His large view camera utilized cumbersome wet plate negatives that had to be prepared with chemicals just prior to exposure.

This process required not only precise timing but also great dexterity while suspended high aloft.

The wet plates also meant he had only a brief window to capture the image before the chemicals dried.

At the same time, Nadar had to account for the motion of the balloon and the instability of his footing.

So in addition to preparing the wet plates, he also had to actively stabilize the camera for the long exposure time required.

Keeping the camera completely still with one hand while adjusting position and operating it with the other presented a tremendous challenge. That the resulting photograph came out clear and detailed is testament to Nadar's ingenuity and skill.

He pioneered entirely new techniques to account for the balloon-borne circumstances and succeeded despite the chemical, mechanical and atmospheric obstacles.

His mastery of these challenges paved the way for the many aerial photographers who would follow in his footsteps.


© History Oasis

Nadar's first successful aerial photograph was the culmination of a lengthy and frustrating experimental process.

In the days leading up to the famed image, he carried out numerous trial balloon flights over the village of Petit-Becetre.

Each time, he went through the complex preparations required for the wet plate process, maneuvered the balloon into position, and attempted to expose an aerial image. But each attempt encountered issues that prevented a clear photograph.

The wind may have jostled the balloon too severely, the wet plates could have dried or been damaged, or his unfamiliarity with aerial photography led to compositional missteps.

After nearly a week spent on balloon flights yielding only failed photographs, Nadar's perseverance was paying off.

He was learning from each troubled attempt and getting a better handle on the variables involved. So it's easy to imagine his elation after that breakthrough balloon ascent that finally produced the world's first successful aerial photograph.

For Nadar, that first set of village rooftops captured from the sky made the long string of frustrations worthwhile.

It validated his tireless efforts to balance the technical demands and revealed at last the exhilaration of photography from new heights.


First aerial photo of London
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Nadar's pioneering aerial photograph resonated widely and served to catalyze the new field of aerial photography.

When exhibited shortly after being taken in 1858, the image captured the imagination of both photographers and the broader public.

For many, it provided their first glimpse at the world from such a lofty vantage point. The level of detail and new perspective it offered made clear the vast potential of aerial photography.

After Nadar demonstrated it was possible, photographers were eager to build on his accomplishment.

Within years of his famous first aerial shot, photographers began experimenting with other means besides balloons.

Kite aerial photography emerged using sturdy kites to hoist cameras aloft. Later, pioneers like Alfred Nobel and William Abner Eddy designed early camera-carrying rockets.

These innovations pushed the boundaries even further, taking photographs from unprecedented heights. Nadar proved that the sky was no limit for photography, and in doing so drove others to advance the technology he introduced.

His first aerial image will forever occupy a seminal place in the history of photography, being hailed in its time and beyond as a groundbreaking moment that launched a new photographic frontier.


First aerial photograph of Paris
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In the decade after his first aerial image, Nadar continued to build upon his pioneering aerial photography accomplishments.

In 1868, he undertook a dramatic and technically challenging feat—creating the world's first aerial photographs of a major city.

Using his advanced expertise in balloon-based aerial photography, he ascended high over the city of Paris and captured stunning oblique images looking down on the urban metropolis below.

These photographs gave the public an entirely new visual perspective on their city. People were able to view Paris' layout and architecture in its entirety, spread out beneath them in a way never witnessed before.

The images were groundbreaking both technically and visually.

They cemented Nadar's reputation as an aerial photography innovator and allowed the rapidly growing city of Paris to truly see itself from a breathtaking new vantage point.

The fame Nadar gained from these images spread his influence even further. His Paris aerial photos built upon his earlier over Petit-Becetre to advance photography in yet another novel direction.

In many ways, Nadar defined and epitomized the new field of aerial photography in its earliest days.


Portrait of Nadar
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Unfortunately, Nadar's pioneering first aerial photograph, despite its significance, has been lost to history.

The original image taken in 1858 no longer exists.

At the time, photographic methods did not allow for reproduction or duplication of photos.

So Nadar's photograph remained an only child, and at some point was damaged or destroyed.

Without the ability to copy it, there was no way to preserve this transient early image as photography advanced into new processes.

All that remains of the world's first aerial photograph are written accounts from Nadar and those who viewed the image to confirm its existence.

Based on their descriptions, approximate recreations have been attempted by modern aerial photographers seeking to emulate Nadar's feat. But we can only imagine what his exact first image revealed as he gazed down for the first time upon the rooftops of Petit-Becetre.

The photograph that made history has tragically been lost to it.

Yet while the original image is gone, Nadar's pioneering achievement endures as a seminal moment in photographic history—the day the camera first took to the skies.