The History and Evolution of Commercial Aircraft Photography

Commercial aviation photography is a popular niche that requires specialized skills, access, and equipment, and its history can be traced back to the early days of aviation.



May 17, 2023

DALLAS – Commercial aircraft photography is the art of capturing images of aircraft for commercial purposes such as advertising, media, or marketing.

It is a popular niche in photography that requires specialized skills, access, and equipment, and its history can be traced back to the early days of aviation.

Photo: Aircraft at U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.] - PICRYL - Public Domain

Early Days of Aircraft Photography

The early days of aircraft photography are a fascinating period in the history of aviation and photography. At the turn of the 20th century, aviation was still in its infancy, and airplanes were primarily used for military purposes. However, aviation enthusiasts and photographers quickly saw airplanes' potential as subjects for their art.

One of the earliest aircraft photos is said to be taken in 1908 by French photographer Léon Gimpel. Using a handheld camera, Gimpel captured an image of an airplane in flight, an impressive feat given the limitations of the technology available at the time. The photograph shows a biplane flying low over a field, with the pilot visible in the cockpit.

In August 1909, Gimpel pioneered aerial photography by ascending in an air balloon at an air show in Béthény to take photographs of the crowds below.

J.A.D. McCurdy flew the Silver Dart in Baddeck, Nova Scotia on 23 February 1909, the first flight of an aircraft in Canada. | Photo: City of Toronto Archives/SC244-79
J.A.D. McCurdy flew the Silver Dart in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, on 23 February 1909, the first flight of an aircraft in Canada. | Photo: City of Toronto Archives/SC244-79


In the early days, photographers faced a number of challenges. The technology available at the time was limited, and cameras were heavy and difficult to operate. Photographers had to use handheld cameras and were often limited in terms of the angles and perspectives they could capture.

Another challenge was the speed of the aircraft. Early airplanes were relatively slow, but they still moved too quickly for photographers to capture clear images without blurring. As a result, most early photographs of aircraft were taken from the ground, with photographers capturing images of planes as they took off and landed.

Despite these challenges, aviation photography continued to evolve in the early 20th century. As airplanes became faster and more advanced, so did cameras, and photographers began experimenting with new techniques and technologies.

The Wright Brothers test fly their aircraft on Fort Myer's parade field.
Photo: The Wright Brothers test fly their aircraft on Fort Myer's parade field. Public Domain

The Wright Brothers

The Library of Congress obtained 303 glass plate negatives of photographs taken and developed by the Wright Brothers themselves between 1898 and 1911. The images and the Wrights' diaries, notebooks, and letters are crucial to understanding their accomplishments.

The brothers used a camera to record their experiments and document their failures and successes. They taught themselves photography and set up a darkroom in a backyard shed in Dayton, Ohio.

The collection includes images of people and places, as well as technical details and hardware specifics of their machines. Some photographs were taken by their friend and mentor, Octave Chanute.

In terms of significance, the photographs captured by Octave Chanute during the crucial years of gliding in 1901 and 1902 are undoubtedly the most noteworthy.

While Chanute and two of his colleagues were staying with the Wrights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, from August 4-11, 1901, and October 5-14, 1902, they captured a series of photographs that represent the only known visual records of the historic gliding experiments that took place on the Outer Banks during that time.

Most of these photographs are part of the Wright Papers collection as Chanute himself or his assistants sent them to the Wrights. The Wright brothers truly delighted in photography and used it to document their work and as a means of pleasure.

Photo: By The Flight magazine archive from Flightglobal, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Rise of Airlines

Commercial aviation took off in the 1920s and 1930s, and airlines began using photography to promote their services. One notable early aviation photographer was Frank Hurley, an Australian photographer who is best known for his images of the Endurance expedition to Antarctica.

Hurley captured a number of stunning images of airplanes during his career. He captured aircraft photographs for Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in both world wars. Further, he captured the Raid, one of his most famous composite photographs.

Frank Hurley Raid Image
Photo: By Frank Hurley - Scan of hard copy image, Public Domain

These early decades of aircraft photography were a period of experimentation and innovation. Despite the limitations of the technology available at the time, photographers were able to capture some truly remarkable images of airplanes in flight.

These early images laid the groundwork for the development of aviation photography as a distinct genre, and they continue to inspire and fascinate aviation enthusiasts and photographers to this day.

Photo: KLM/ Aviodrome, Lelystad

Golden Age of Aircraft Photography

The "Golden Age" of aircraft photography is generally considered to be the period between the 1920s and the 1950s when commercial aviation was first taking off, and aircraft design was rapidly evolving.

During this time, aviation photography evolved into a distinct genre, and photographers began experimenting with new techniques and technologies to capture stunning images of airplanes in flight.

One of the most notable developments during this period was the use of dedicated aircraft for aerial photography. Before this, most aircraft photography was done from the ground, using handheld or tripod-mounted cameras.

However, dedicated aerial photography aircraft allowed photographers to capture images from unique perspectives and angles and take advantage of airplanes' freedom of movement.

Another significant development during that time was the use of panoramic cameras. These cameras were designed to capture wide-angle images of aircraft in flight, allowing photographers to capture stunning images of planes against a dramatic sky or landscape.

Aerial view of Pan American Airways 'China Clipper'
Photo: Aerial view of Pan American Airways 'China Clipper' | Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Notable Photographers of the 1920s-50s

Clyde Sunderland was one of the most famous aviation photographers of these decades. According to Greg and Young Publishing, During his career as an aviation photographer, Clyde Sunderland, one of the premier aerial photographers in the nation, mapped much of the Western states and documented the rise of commercial aviation after World War II.

He headed the Sunderland Aerial Photographs firm, based at Oakland International Airport, for over 40 years until his retirement in 1966. His passion for photography was evident in his compositions, which captured the elegance and splendor of the most technically advanced aircraft of the day in their initial moments of flight, from Amelia Earhart's inaugural voyage to the maiden voyage of the China Clipper.

His photographs appeared on the covers of major magazines and periodicals, including Life Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and National Geographic. Sunderland passed away on December 3, 1989, leaving behind a rich visual legacy of America's achievements on the ground and in the air.

Photo: KLM/ Aviodrome, Lelystad

Beginning in 1949, William Garnett began capturing aerial photographs that would later earn him admiration. He purchased his first plane in that same year. In 1956 he acquired a Cessna 170B that he would use as a vantage point for his photography for decades to come. Garnett made small modifications to the plane that facilitated his photography.

According to the Getty Museum, Garnett experimented with a variety of camera formats and films but ultimately found that using two 35mm cameras (one loaded with black-and-white film and another with color film) best suited his needs.

The Golden Age of aircraft photography was a period of rapid innovation and development, as photographers pushed the boundaries of what was possible with the technology of the time. The images captured during this period continue to inspire and fascinate aviation enthusiasts and photographers to this day, and they stand as a testament to the beauty and wonder of flight.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Aviation Photography: 1980s-2000s

Aircraft photography in the 1980s was characterized by the continued use of traditional film cameras, which remained the standard for professional photography at the time. However, camera and film technology advancements allowed photographers to capture aircraft with greater clarity and detail than ever before.

During this period, aviation photography continued to be popular with both professional and amateur photographers. Aviation magazines such as Air International, Flight International, and Airliners provided a platform for photographers to showcase their work. Many of the decade's most iconic images were published in these magazines.

One notable development during the 1980s was the use of zoom lenses, which allowed photographers to capture images of aircraft from a greater distance, making capturing images of fast-moving planes in flight easier. Zoom lenses also allowed photographers to experiment with different compositions and angles, and they remain a popular tool for aviation photographers today.

The new millennium saw a significant shift in the way that aircraft photography was produced and consumed as digital technology became the norm. Digital cameras had been available since the 1990s, but they only began to gain widespread acceptance in the early 2000s as the quality and affordability of digital cameras improved.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

The Digital Era

The digital era brought about significant changes in aircraft photography, as advancements in digital technology allowed photographers to capture and process images in ways that were once impossible.

Digital cameras are now the norm, and they offer a range of benefits over traditional film cameras, including faster processing speeds, higher resolution, and greater flexibility in post-production.

One of the biggest advantages of digital technology for aircraft photography is the ability to shoot and preview images on the spot. With digital cameras, photographers can see their images instantly, allowing them to adjust settings and composition on the fly to capture the perfect shot. This is particularly useful when shooting fast-moving aircraft, where split-second timing is critical.

Another significant advantage of digital technology is the ability to capture high-resolution images. Modern digital cameras offer resolution far beyond what was possible with traditional film cameras, allowing photographers to capture images with stunning levels of detail and clarity.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Post-Production and Social Media

Digital technology has also opened up new possibilities for post-production work. With digital images, photographers can easily adjust the exposure, color balance, and other settings in post-production, allowing them to fine-tune their images to achieve the desired look and feel. This flexibility level was simply impossible with film cameras, where images were fixed once captured.

In addition to advancements in digital camera technology, the rise of social media and online platforms has significantly impacted aircraft photography. With the ability to share images instantly with a global audience, photographers are now able to reach a wider audience than ever before, and aviation photography has become a popular niche within the broader photography community.

The digital era has brought about significant changes in aircraft photography, offering new possibilities for capturing and processing images. While traditional film photography still has its place in the industry, digital technology has opened up new opportunities for aviation photographers. The field continues to evolve and grow as new technologies emerge.

One of the latest trends in digital aircraft photography is the use of drones. They offer a new perspective on aircraft photography, allowing photographers to capture images from unique angles and heights. Drones also offer the ability to capture high-resolution video footage, making them a valuable tool for commercial and advertising purposes.

Photo: Virgin Atlantic G-VZIG Boeing 787-9. Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Drone Photography

Drone aircraft photography, a newcomer to what is called aerial photography, captures images of aircraft from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This form of photography has become increasingly popular as advances in drone technology and flight stability have made it easier and more affordable for photographers to capture stunning aerial images.

One of the biggest advantages of drone aircraft photography is the ability to capture images from unique angles and heights. Drones can fly at altitudes that are not possible for traditional aircraft, providing photographers with a bird's-eye view of the subject. This can be particularly useful when photographing large commercial aircraft, which can be difficult to capture in their entirety from the ground.

Another advantage of drone aircraft photography is the ability to capture images in a wide range of environments. Drones can fly over water, through forests, and even inside buildings, making it possible to capture images from angles and perspectives that were once impossible.

Drones also offer the ability to capture high-resolution video footage, making them a valuable tool for commercial and advertising purposes. This type of footage can be used in everything from airline commercials to promotional videos for aircraft manufacturers.

However, there are also some challenges associated with drone aircraft photography. One of the biggest challenges is the need to comply with regulations governing the use of drones. In many countries, drone operators must obtain a license and follow strict rules about where and when they can fly their drones.

Safety is also a major concern when using drones for aircraft photography. Drones can be dangerous if they collide with other aircraft, and they can also pose a risk to people on the ground. It is important for drone operators to take safety precautions and follow best practices to minimize the risk of accidents.

While there are some challenges associated with using drones for photography, advances in technology and regulations are making it easier and safer for photographers to explore this exciting field, which offers a range of unique opportunities for capturing stunning images of aircraft.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Getting Close to the Aircraft

It is important to note that accessing secure or restricted airport areas without proper authorization is illegal and can result in serious consequences. Therefore, it is not advisable to attempt to gain unauthorized access to these areas for the purpose of taking photographs of aircraft.

However, in some cases, commercial aircraft photographers may be able to obtain access to certain areas by obtaining proper authorization and following certain protocols, such as obtaining a security badge or clearance from the airport or airline or being escorted by authorized personnel. They may also be able to gain access through special events or tours organized by the airport or airline.

The specific procedures for obtaining access to secure or restricted airport areas will vary depending on the airport and the country, and will typically involve a rigorous background check and security clearance process. Therefore, photographers interested in obtaining access should contact the airport or airline for information on their specific procedures and requirements.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Optimum Future

Today, commercial aircraft photography is a highly specialized field that requires a unique set of skills and equipment. Aviation photographers need to have a deep understanding of aviation technology and terminology, as well as the ability to capture images in a fast-paced, constantly changing environment.

In addition to technical knowledge, aviation photographers must also have a keen eye for detail and a passion for aviation. Many aviation photographers are also aviation enthusiasts themselves and have a deep love and appreciation for aircraft and the beauty of flight.

Commercial aircraft photography is used for a variety of purposes, including advertising, marketing, media, and art. Airline companies often use aviation photography to promote their services and showcase their aircraft. Of course, aviation magazines and websites use photography to feature stories and provide readers with stunning images of aircraft.

But more importantly, aviation photographers also play an important role in documenting aviation history. Many of the most iconic images of aviation history have been captured by photographers, including the first flight of the Wright Brothers, the Apollo 11 mission, and the Concorde's final flight.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Interview with Airways' Brandon Farris

To better understand the journey of an aviation photographer, we sat down with our Director of Photography, Brandon Farris, to discuss his thoughts on the profession.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Why did you choose to photograph airplanes?

I just love aviation, airplanes have always fascinated me, and then you saw websites like Airliners and Jet Photos, and you wanted to be on those sites.

Challenges planespotters face while photographing aircraft?

Heat haze, bad light, vehicles inconveniently pulling into your way/viewfinder.

What are the right angles, and what criteria define a good photo for you?

To me, any photo YOU are happy with, that's all that matters. Some will hate, just eat, sleep, shoot, repeat. Haters gonna hate.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of the field, from handheld devices to digital cameras and now drones?

Honestly, I am more concerned about the evolution of cell phone cameras. Phone cameras do amazing work for video and up-close photos; there's no need to lug around the heavy camera and lens if it's up-close.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

Will automated drones take over the field?

Drones will never take over. They'll struggle for the angle where you are laying flat on the ground getting dirty in glycol, but I will do that to get the damn shot.

Photo: Roberto Leiro/Airways

Bottom Line

Commercial aircraft photography has a rich history and has evolved significantly over time. From the early days of aviation, when photography was primarily used for promotional purposes, to the golden age of aviation, when photographers like Clyde Sunderland and William Garnett captured stunning images of aircraft in flight, to the modern era when technology has made it easier for anyone to capture images of airplanes.

Advances in camera technology and the use of drones have expanded the possibilities of aerial photography and allowed for new perspectives on commercial aircraft. As aviation continues to develop, so too will the art of aircraft photography, with new techniques and technologies yet to be discovered.

You can always enjoy mesmerizing aircraft images from our photography staff on our website, magazine, and social media pages, especially on our Instagram account, where we share some of the best photos of our beloved metal birds.

Have you ever thought about becoming a Plane Spotters? Do let us know your thoughts in the comments on our social media channels. Be sure to follow us there and subscribe to the Airways NOTAM to never miss the best weekly stories and aircraft images on the web.

Feature Image: Aerial photography in KLM history | Photo: KLM/ Aviodrome, Lelystad