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Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation

Almost all modern topographic maps and many other types such as those depicting geology,
natural vegetation, and landuse, are based on information obtained from aerial photography. In this
chapter we will consider how aerial photograph surveys are flown and then we will examine the
photogrammetric properties of single aerial photographs and of stereopairs.

We will conclude our

discussion by considering how aerial photographs are used in the interpretation of cultural features.
In Canada most aerial photography is obtained by air-survey companies under contract to various
Federal or Provincial government agencies. All of Canada has been photographed from the air, some of
it many times over at different scales and in different seasons and years going back to the late 1920's.
Federal aerial photographs (and maps) are available from the Canada Map Office and the National Air
Photo Library (both at 615 Booth St., Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0E9) while the appropriate Provincial agency in
British Columbia is Maps B.C. (Ministry of Environment, Parliament Buildings, Victoria, British Columbia
V8V 1X5).
Aerial photographs often are used in the same manner as maps and it might be useful if we note
at the start the advantages and limitations of each medium.
An aerial photograph has the following advantages over a line map:
1. It is a pictorial representation of the ground that shows far greater detail than a line map. This
distinction is greatest in wilderness areas where there are few or no cultural features.

Because aerial photographs are much more cheaply produced than maps, most areas are

photographed more frequently than they are mapped and aerial photographs thus are usually more
3. Related to (2) is the fact that a sequence of aerial photographs can provide a more detailed account of
landscape change over time than is available from topographic maps.
An aerial photograph has the following disadvantages over line maps:
1. Because of various distortions, aerial photographs rarely show features in their correct horizontal
positions. That is, there is planform distortion that must be corrected in order to accurately measure
distances on aerial photographs. This distortion varies from negligible in very low-relief areas to distinctly
significant in hilly and particularly in mountainous regions.

Hills, valleys, and the general lay of the land may not be seen on aerial photographs unless

stereoscopic viewing equipment is available. Heights and slopes cannot be measured from photographs
without special equipment.
3. Ground features may be too small or obscured by vegetation or otherwise too difficult to identify or

8. This type of photography yields a familiar type of view of the landscape (as we would see it from some high vantage point) but it does not allow distance or height measurements in any straightforward way. Depending on the camera angle. A high oblique aerial photograph is one taken with the camera inclined at about 60o to the vertical so that the horizon appears in the photograph (see 96 . an aerial photograph may be vertical or oblique. aerial photography.Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation classify on aerial photographs.1).2A) but which is relatively easy to manipulate photogrammetrically. A low-oblique aerial photograph is one taken with the camera axis inclined at about 30o from the vertical. Used together. is referred to as oblique aerial photography. aerial photographs and maps offset or eliminate some of the limitations noted above. and high-oblique. Related to (3) is the fact that a good topographic map has a wealth of information about the landscape shown in symbols. labels and various other annotations that simply are not available on an aerial photograph. Almost all modern aerial photography is vertical in orientation. 4. All aerial photography taken with the camera axis set at some angle other than 90o to the horizontal.1: Camera orientation for obtaining vertical. low-oblique. A vertical aerial photograph is taken with the axis of the camera at right angles to the horizontal (Figure 8. Types of Aerial Photograph Aerial photographs may be classified according to the camera attitude (angle of photography) and the type of film used. Geographers make use of both maps and aerial photographs as complementary sources of landscape data and as storage for spatial data. This yields an image which may be unfamiliar in format (Figure 8.

Government photograph). Note the B. clock and date panel on the right-hand side of the photograph. B. is shown at 65% of the actual size of the contact print (24 x 24 cm). This photograph of a reach of Squamish River near Squamish.C.Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation 8.C. The fiducial marks centred on the sides allow accurate specification of the centre point on the photograph. Government identification number in the top right corner (BC81001) and the top to bottom display of altimeter.2: Types of aerial photograph (A) An example of vertical aerial photography (B. 97 .C. bubble level.

Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation 8. Government photograph). Like most oblique photography. 98 . This photograph of Squamish River delta and Howe Sound is displayed at 65% of the size of the original print. this example is quite dated (1943) and consequently provides a valuable historic record and baseline for analyzing landscape changes.C.2 (continued) (B) an example of high-angle aerial photography (B.

water bodies appear in very dark tones on this type of photography and thus may lend itself to the mapping shorelines. colour. Because water reflects almost no infrared light. Although multiple camera arrays have been used to obtain aerial photographs in the past. High oblique photographs have the same photogrammetric limitations as low oblique aerial photographs. Panchromatic film is sensitive to all wavelengths of visible light although it is common in such photography to cut out light at the blue (short-wavelength) end of the spectrum by using an appropriate filter on the camera. Panchromatic aerial photography. In Canada and elsewhere false-colour aerial photography is only available for quite limited areas. under suitable conditions. or false colour. It also is used to map vegetation and crops because it can detect very small differences in the chlorophyll content between different plant species as well as differences within species caused by disease and environmental stress. Our work in this chapter 99 . Nevertheless. On the other hand. they provide interesting historical detail in some areas and occasionally are used for general illustrative purposes in reports and books. Examples of these special types of aerial photography will be available for inspection in the Map and Air Photo Interpretation Laboratory but we will not explore them further here. Although obliques were used to prepare maps of Canada's far northern wilderness areas about fifty years ago they have long since been discontinued as a mapping tool. or 'conventional black and white' photography as it commonly is called. Although prints can be produced they are relatively expensive and they commonly lack the fine resolution of detail available on conventional panchromatic aerial photography. an aerial photograph may be panchromatic. Two early formats included fore and aft dual cameras for simultaneously producing pairs of low obliques and the three camera setup known as the trimetrogon system in which a central camera took a vertical aerial photograph as two side-scanning cameras simultaneously took two adjacent oblique photographs. Much of this type of photography is processed as coloured transparencies and are not as readily used in the field as a conventional print. False-colour aerial photography refers to a special type of film sensitive to near-infrared radiation and light at the red (long wavelength) end of the visible spectrum. Depending on the type of film used in the survey camera.Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation Figure 8. in character. colour photography does allow better penetration of water than conventional photography and thus may be relatively more useful in detailing offshore coastal geomorphology or the configuration of shallow lake bottoms. yields an image in tones of grey with good contrast that aids in the identification of ground features. The reason for this filtering is that blue light sometimes obscures ground detail because it is readily scattered by atmospheric haze. Colour aerial photography is not commonly used in Canada for routine surveys although it exists for selected areas where special projects have called for its use. Although these photographs record light across the entire range of the visible spectrum they are less useful than you might expect.1). all modern aerial photography is obtained from single cameras.

The scale of this photography commonly is 1:20 000 or smaller and may be as small as 1:60 000. the edges of the photographs will not parallel the flight path (Figure 8.3: Flight path for an aerial photographic survey showing 60% overlap along the flight lines and 25-30% sidelap between adjacent flight lines. Normally photographic flights are made in a north-south or east-west direction unless it is for a special-purpose project such as a floodplain map in a river valley. It is not unusual. This so- called 'mapping photography' is best accomplished with a short focal-length camera lens (6 inches or shorter) and at a flight height that gives photographs of appropriate scale for use with specific map-making instruments. Mapping pho- tography generally is taken in the spring or fall when obscuring leafy foliage is at a minimum. . Crab occurs when the aircraft is slightly turned into a cross-wind in order to maintain a proper heading. Ideally each flight line should be a straight course but inevitably cross-winds and other problems of aircraft navigation can modify the flight path.4: The relation of photograph orientation to the correct and actual flight lines of an aerial survey under cross-wind conditions causing crab and drift. The flight path for taking aerial photographs consists of a series of parallel 8.4). Drift occurs when the aircraft is not turned to compensate for a cross-wind component and the plane is blown sideways and 100 8. If the airborne camera is not turned to compensate for such crabbing. for example.Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation will be restricted to the interpretation of conventional panchromatic aerial photography. to find that there has been 'crab' or 'drift' of the aircraft during the photographic mission. flight lines laid out so as to obtain overlapping photographs that can be used for stereoscopic viewing (Figure 8. Flight lines and aerial photograph coverage Most aerial photography is obtained in order to produce topographic maps.3).

the triangles abc and cde are similar and it follows that the ratio of object size (O) to image size (i) is the same as the ratio of focal length (f) to flight height (H). as well as images of a bubble level-indicator and an altimeter (Figure 8..........(8..... Most recent B.....C....5. Generally this consists of a letter followed by a five-digit number identifying the flight and the photograph number..... In practice a vertical aerial photograph is rarely absolutely vertical and the nadir point and the centre point do not coincide exactly.4B).Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation off the course of the flight line (Figure 8. In a vertical aerial photograph the optical axis of the camera is vertical and the plane of the photograph (film) is horizontal...... This can be located on an aerial photograph as the intersection of lines drawn between opposite fiducial marks in the margins of the print....... In other words... The distance between the camera lens and the ground represents the flight height of the aircraft and the focal length is the distance between the camera lens and the film.5 is that equal angles are subtended at a camera lens by an object and by its photographic image. Geometry of the single aerial photograph The geometry of a single vertical aerial photograph is illustrated in Figure 8.......... The point where the optical axis intersects the photograph is termed the centre point or principal point of the photograph.. All Canadian Government producers of aerial photography inscribe each photograph with a serial number........ or f i = H O ..5: Geometry of a single vertical aerial photograph vertically beneath the camera lens at the time of exposure...2A).. The scale of a vertical aerial photograph One of the most significant geometric relationships of Figure 8.... In a perfectly vertical aerial photograph the principal point also represents the plumb point or nadir point which is the photographic position representing the point on the earth's surface 8..... Government aerial photography has a 'BC' serial number and each photograph displays marginal data including the date and time of photography.1) The ratio of image to object size is the general scale of the aerial photograph and it follows that the scale 101 ..... the usually small difference being the result of tilt........

... If the area photographed is horizontal and very flat (low relief) then the scale determined by equation (8... is measured on an aerial photograph to € 102 . But if the area photographed has considerable topographic relief the scale may vary considerably above or below that given by equation (8...... Using the scale of the map measure the terrain distance.. 3... For example..1524 1 terrain with a 6-inch (0. Thus..... for a photo-scale 3 048 20 000 determination using equation 8. Note that. the focal length and the flight height must be expressed in the same 0. For this reason a more precise restatement of equation (8.3) It is very important to remember that an aerial photograph is not a controlled map and that a photographic scale determined in this way is a mean or averaged scale ..... The tops of mountains that are above the mean topographic surface will appear on the aerial photograph at larger than the calculated scale and valley bottoms and other surfaces below the mean topographic surface will appear on the aerial photograph at less than the calculated scale..3) will provide a good indication of scale over the entire photograph. An alternative method of determining the scale of an aerial photograph is by direct comparison of the photograph with a topographic map of known scale...2) For example..Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation may be determined if the camera focal length and flight height are known: focal length flight height scale = ..... Δp.2) should read: scale = focal length [flight altitude . That is. Δt.... if we had chosen to use the Imperial units... Measure the distance on the photograph... 2... It 10 000 feet also is very important to remember that flight height refers to the distance above the ground directly below and not necessarily to the altitude (height above sea level or the base airport) of the aircraft.1524-metre) focal-length lens is or .......3). Select two points common to both the photograph and the topographic map. The scale variation over an aerial photograph of a mountainous area is considerable and represents one of the important limitations of aerial photographs as maps... They should be as widely spaced as possible in order to keep measurement error to a minimum. between the two points in question... it is the scale of the mean surface of the area photographed and not necessarily the accurate scale at any one point..... This method commonly is used because information on the focal length and flight height of photography usually are not readily available........ the average scale of photographs taken at 10 000 feet (3 048 metres) above the 0...5 feet units...... A and B.. the scale of the aerial photograph is Δp with the Δt numerator reduced to unity in the conventional way. the scale would be = 1: 20 000.average terrain elevation] ..... If Δt and Δp are expressed in the same units..(8.......(8. between the two points... Scale of a photograph is determined by this method as follows: 1.2....... if the distance between two points.

In other words. it has an apparent location at B" and appears on the photograph at b". Thus the radial displacement due to relief is greater for point A than for B. On the photograph this radial displacement due to relief appears as the interval a' to a". point B which falls below the datum plane of the photograph. then 9. Measurement of heights on single aerial photographs The scale variation on an aerial photograph caused by relief results from the horizontal displacement of images from their correct photograph position as depicted in Figure 8. On any one aerial photograph the degree of displacement due to relief increases with increasing distance from the centre point and with increasing difference in elevation above or below the datum. The basic difference between an aerial photograph and a map in this regard can be demonstrated by comparing the central projection of the single photograph. points A and B in Figure 8. and a topographic map shows the corresponding distance on the ground to be 3.24 km.Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation be 9. has a true location B' on the mean topographic surface and should appear as b' on the photograph. Similarly. For example. Note also that C is the same distance from the ground nadir as A but because C is not as high 103 .6B are the same height above the datum plane but point A is more distant from the ground nadir than B. the terrain feature A on the ground appears to be displaced radially outwards from its true map position (A') to an apparent and incorrect position at A". In a vertical aerial photograph the displacement of images is in a radial direction from the centre point of the photograph. this time the result of inward radial displacement due to relief. The degree of variation in scale is directly proportional to the amount of relief in the area.6A has a true vertically-projected horizontal position on the mean topographic surface indicated by A' and a corresponding true image location on the photograph indicated by a'.6.26 1 = 324 000 34 989 1 or approximately 35 000 scale of the aerial photograph = Photographic scale determined by the map-comparison method is that for the sites A to B on which it is based. with the orthographic projection of a map. in which all objects are positioned as though viewed from the same point. For other sites on the same aerial photograph the scale may be smaller or larger depending on whether these sites are lower or higher in elevation with respect to A-B. point A on the ground depicted in Figure 8. For example. Instead. But point A is above the mean topographic surface and its position on this datum plane appears to be A" and is indicated on the photograph by an image at a".26 cm. This displacement is termed the radial displacement due to relief and represents an error in map positioning. in which all objects on the ground are positioned as though viewed from vertically above.

... and H = the flight height.....Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation 8................ can be determined by the relation: m= rh H . This local height is most accurately determined by finding the scale of the photograph by the map-comparison method and 104 ....4) in which r = radial distance on the photograph from the centre point to the top of the image displaced....... An example of this type of height determination appears in Figure 8......7........... it is not radially displaced to the same extent........ B: Relative radial displacement of terrain features on an aerial photograph in relation to height above the datum plane and distance from the nadir.. Clearly............... For any one aerial photograph the amount of radial displacement............. this method of estimating object height depends in part on an accurate determination of the height of the camera above the object photographed.... h = height of the object displaced.... m. Rearranging equation (8.....4) yields a convenient expression for estimating the height of an object on a photograph by measuring its radial displacement: h= m H ....6: Radial displacement on aerial photographs....5) and (8...4) the photographic measurements m and r must be expressed in the same units and h will be in the units of H.. of the top of an object from its base.... above the datum plane as A......(8.....(8..... A: Relative positions of correctly plotted features in the orthographic projection of a map and the corresponding displaced images on an aerial photograph.............5) r In equations (8..

...... It is also clear that this method of determining the height of an object must be based on measurable displacement. Ideal objects are such things as trees.6) in which L = the actual length of the shadow on the ground and ß = the angle of inclination of the sun.. flag poles.. It is ideally suited to photographs of flat terrain where all the slopes are sensibly horizontal.. The method assumes.. Stereoscopic viewing of aerial photographs We noted previously that aerial photographs are taken with a considerable amount of overlap (see Figure 8. An alternative means of determining the height of an object on a single vertical aerial photograph is by measuring shadow lengths. Just as we use parallax displacement as a 105 ..... of course...... Object height (h) can then be determined from h = Ltanß .. bridges....(8......... vertical cliffs....... This angle can be determined from tables of sun angle by latitude and time of the year.Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation solving equation (8.... If no object of known height is present on the photograph it still may be possible to calculate object heights from shadow length if the angle of inclination of the sun's rays is known...3)....... each tract of land appears on at least two and usually several adjacent prints in the photographic run........ all others casting a shadow can be determined by applying this constant ratio......... That is. On any one aerial object height photograph the ratio will be constant shadow length and if any object height is known.3) for the known focal length of the camera. and Hydro towers....... that the shadows are falling on surfaces with the same slope.. buildings.. Obviously the scale of the photograph must be known in order to use this method... the object top must in fact be vertically above the base and both must be visible in order to measure the displacement.... Stereoscopic viewing is achieved by simultaneously viewing the same tract of land as it appears on two photographs taken from different camera positions. This is not simply the result of cautious photography! The overlap is designed to provide at least duplicate coverage of all the area being photographed so that it can be viewed stereoscopically..

It may help to place a finger on each image of a feature common to both photographs and adjust the photograph orientation until you see the fingernails on each finger merge into one under the stereoscope.Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation cue to perceiving depth in ordinary vision (the same view through two spatially separated eyes). stereoscopic viewing allows us to see the area photographed in three dimensions. Stereoscopes may be simple but quite effective pocket stereoscopes for viewing prepared stereograms or they may be larger mirror stereoscopes for convenient viewing of pairs of contact prints. This may be a virtue in photographs of low-relief terrain but it must always be considered when interpreting photographs of any area. for example. it is a very powerful analytical technique that is an important part of the geographer's 'tools of trade'. The purpose of the stereoscope is to facilitate the merging of the two photographic images into one unified view. we will be concerned with stereoscopic viewing as an aid to aerial photograph interpretation. You should note that the heights of objects and the relief of the land is exaggerated under the stereoscope. the entire field of stereovision will be thrown into an unequivocally three-dimensional view. a stereoscope reproduces the same parallax-dependent sense of depth by allowing us to view one photograph with the left eye while viewing another spatially displaced photograph with the right eye. A geographer concerned with settlement may be interested in measuring housing density or crop areas or the encroachment of urban 106 . Aerial photograph identification and interpretation Rarely do we identify and interpret the information on aerial photographs without some clear purpose in mind. The geometry of the stereoscopic model allows us to determine the height of the land surface based on parallax displacement between adjacent photographs. A physical geographer. Consequently. Initial stereovision may take some time to establish but once achieved it can be readily reestablished on subsequent occasions. Although the application of these photogrammetric techniques are beyond the scope of our introductory survey of aerial photography (they are developed in Geography 350). At that point the photographs should be correctly adjusted for steroscopic viewing. may be interested in mapping vegetation types or changes in river boundaries or the occurrence of glaciated terrain. This technique successfully tricks the brain into thinking that the parallax displacement apparent in the merged images of the two adjacent photographs is the result of viewing a truly three-dimensional surface through unaided eyes. The pair of photographs should be arranged so that a common field of vision can be observed through each lens of the stereoscope. Stereoscopic vision can be achieved by most (but not all) people after a little perseverance. There will be no mistaking the onset of stereovision. This principle is the basis of all photogrammetry and topographic mapping from aerial photographs. Regardless of the type of instrument being used the procedure for stereoscopic viewing is the same.

a known marsh can be used to establish the 'marsh type' surface and others can therefore be identified in unmapped areas nearby. Calibration and 'ground truthing' are important to successful aerial photograph interpretation. reflecting much of the incident light and appearing a very light and bright shade on the photograph. For example. Photographs should always be arranged so that any shadows fall towards the viewer. In this case the water may act as a mirror. The degree to which light is reflected from surfaces depends in turn on the roughness or texture of the surface. like an asphalt parking lot. By the same token a forest or ploughed field may be quite dark in tone because the surface scatters light away from the camera. noting the presence of an adjacent railroad siding or a playground may be a means of determining whether a building is a school or a factory. like hill shading. on some photographs the relief may appear to be inverted if the shadows are falling away from the viewer! Just as we use the familiar to evaluate the unknown in all other areas of human activity. The appearance of various kinds of land surface on a photograph often is difficult to predict but types can be established in known areas and these then form the basis for interpretation elsewhere.Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation areas into former agricultural lands. 107 . At other times it may be necessary to conduct a field study to delineate a particular landform or landsurface type in order to correlate the real thing with the aerial photograph analogue. An exception occurs when the incident angle of the sun's rays is low and the camera lies in the path of the reflected rays. Water bodies provide a special case in that they often appear to be black because they are 'transparent' and absorb rather than reflect light. Indeed. Tonal pattern on conventional aerial photography records reflectivity and not necessarily colour. Many other cultural features can be identified by association. The best teacher of recognition and interpretive skills in any of these contexts is experience and later exercises involve some 'hands on' activity in this regard. we should not disregard the obvious or apparently mundane information when we interpret aerial photographs. The ability to pay attention to detail is important and is the single most important quality distinguishing the novice from the experienced interpreter of aerial photographs. it may reflect a great deal of light and will appear very light in tone even though it may be close to black in colour. shadows can help to convey a sense of the third dimension. Nevertheless. The reasons are many and varied and the appropriate requisite skills of aerial photograph interpretation are similarly diverse. For example. there are some useful general principles of interpretation common to any work with aerial photograph interpretation and you should note them well. If a surface in very smooth. Familiar features such as roads and houses provide useful scales.

Chapter 8: Aerial photograph interpretation 108 .