Pigeons to Drones: Aerial Photography Then and Now

What do pigeons, rooftops, planes and rockets have in common? They instrumentally propelled aerial photography into the technological marvel it is today. And they all played a part in the inspiration to develop drones to capture images and footage once only imagined possible. From pigeons to drones, or wing to joystick, the history of aerial photography and drones is colorful, intriguing and … well, just plain cool. 

Looking back at the evolution of the pictorial ‘bird’s-eye view’ we see what aerial photography and drones have brought to the culture today. Step back to the mid-1800’s when balloonist and photographer Gasper F. Tournachon snapped photos of cities while tied to a basket from 600 or so feet up. It is recorded that he patented the idea of using his images for mapping and surveying purposes. Brilliant!

Fun Fact. The oldest known aerial photo to still exist is one of the City of Boston, shot by James Wallace Black in 1860.

As the size and complexity of cameras and other equipment shrunk, photographers began to tie them onto pigeons and kites to – more safely – capture images suitable for mapping, picture postcards and other uses including the earliest means of gathering intel … okay, spying. 

Fast forward about 100 years and cameras were being mounted to airplanes, helicopters, and the earliest forms of rockets, making it possible to capture images from heights of more than 2000 feet. 

Today, cameras are snapping shots from space. A giant leap from pigeons and hot air balloons, one only needs a drone, a bit of technical know-how and a good eye to snap still and video imagery from just inches off the ground to heights limited only by the imagination. 

So, what has drone photography brought to our culture? 

Professionally it is widely used for security, search and rescue, inspections and surveying, and military uses. For private and business uses, drone photography has opened the doors to a host of opportunities. 

Recreational popularity.

Flying clubs can be found most everywhere and are great places for the hobbiest to find others with which to collaborate and compete, or just to share ideas and have fun. For the traveler, a drone offers a new way to photograph beautiful vacation sites and activities. A word of advice, get to know your drone and how to operate it before you decide to shoot footage of a rugged mountain terrain. Enough said. 

Community Outreach.

Drone owners that love to volunteer time and talents help their communities to capture footage of local events like graduations and other ceremonies or help locate missing pets and children. Are you proud to call your community home? Check with the local chamber of commerce and ask about shooting some drone footage to help attract new families and businesses there. 

Personal Purpose.

Drones are handy around the house for inspecting roofs and gutters, creating property maps or creative home display footage. Drones also help capture unique vacation, holiday and activity photos at home or on-the-go. Still photos often don’t offer much in the way of experiencing a romantic tropical locale. Drone video and stills can add perspective like nothing else.   

Business Branding.

As PR and brand specialists, drones are a great way to offer unique elements to storytelling and branding for business and nonprofit clients. Video is recognized as one of the top branding mediums and drone video offers a new level of creativity and perspective to business videos. 

Experts in our industry use drones for filming events from angles that are impossible to catch any other way. Read more about the impact of event video in my blog Using Video to Make Events Better.

Drone photography is perfect for collecting b-roll for advertising, news media, social content and more. This secondary footage adds impact and tone that enhances the main message and keeps viewers interested and engaged.  

Drone video and photography expands brand awareness across multiple platforms. Possibilities for repurposing footage and virtually limitless. It can be used for social media, websites and television. The sky really is the proverbial limit. 

For the hobbyist and professional photographer, drones have become a new favorite piece of equipment for limitless creativity and opportunities. For brand specialists and storytellers like Chemistry PR and Multimedia, drones bring opportunities to add value to the products and services business owners and nonprofit leadership look for in branding and marketing strategies. 


Kathy Barnes brings more than 15 years’ executive level administrative and marketing experience to the team. Her skills include project management, research, writing and editing, and client representation. Kathy has worked in marketing and administrative support roles for small companies and large corporations ranging from general and specialized construction to public safety communications and engineering. Follow her on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.