Aerial Photographs

Aerial photographs give a unique and fascinating view of your local area. They are an invaluable educational resource, especially when used hand in hand with a corresponding map. Pupils of all ages enjoy exploring familiar landscapes from an aerial perspective. Photographs are usually more readily understandable than an abstract map and will give a much more vivid impression of what a place is like.

Aerial photographs are taken for mapping purposes, as well as many other reasons. For example, some aerial photographs were used during wartime to find out about foreign countries without actually visiting on the ground, and some have been taken especially to show archaeological evidence.

There are two sorts of aerial photographs: oblique and vertical.

Oblique aerial photographs are taken at angles less than 90 degrees to the ground. They are taken by a photographer through the window of an aeroplane. The oblique perspective allows a more ‘realistic’ view of the countryside below, and many details of earthworks and buildings can be appreciated better than they can be by walking along the ground.

Vertical aerial photographs are taken from immediately overhead, using a camera fixed to the underside of an aeroplane, pointing directly downwards at 90 degrees to the ground. This map-like quality to vertical aerial photographs gives many opportunities to develop mapping skills.

Using Aerial Photographs in the classroom

These images can be used to support a number of key skills and curricular content objectives. It is usually better for children to study an oblique photograph before moving to a vertical aerial photograph. The oblique perspective is much easier to understand, and villages, buildings and landscape features can be recognised and studied from an elevated viewpoint, while the front of buildings can still be seen.

It is always valuable to allow the children time to talk about what they see. By using local photographs children are usually better motivated and will enjoy finding familiar features. A good starting point would be to locate key locations:

* the school,

* chapel or church,

* a major road junction,

* the local supermarket,

* a river or bridge.

With younger children or those with special educational needs these landmarks could be labelled.

Children can be encouraged to look for further evidence:

* the season of the year

* the strength of the traffic flow

* the height of buildings

* whether the photograph had been taken a long time ago.


Single aerial photographs are useful for answering questions like: what is this place like? Aerial photographs can also be used to encourage children to share their views about a place, such as whether they think it is beautiful, ugly or ‘green’.

This can lead them to discuss questions such as: what is it like to live in such a place?

Using a single aerial photograph, pupils can identify key types of land-use using different colours for each land-use type:

* transport (road, railway)

* industrial, residential

* recreational, agricultural.

This can be done by laying acetate over the photograph or making photocopies which can be coloured. Scanned aerial photographs can be coloured on the interactive whiteboard. Children could then estimate the percentage of industrial, residential or agriculture land-use. Their findings could be represented in a chart or graph.

* Can any geographical patterns be identified?

* Are there any patterns to land-use?

* Is all the residential land together?

Aerial photographs can also be used to study the development of an area:

* by looking at the location of historic sites

* quays

* buildings

* bridges.

Whilst studying the theme of environmental change, especially how people affect the environment, aerial photographs can be useful to show the location and the effect of a quarry or a new road.

Working with maps

Vertical photographs were often taken for mapping purposes, so this is a good way to explain to children what maps are and how they are drawn. Pupils can work with one aerial photograph to make a map of the area. They should mark the key features with different colours or symbols:

* roads

* railways

* rivers and canals

* key buildings like churches

If this work is done by laying an acetate sheet over the aerial photograph it could be photocopied to produce a map. This can then be compared with an OS map of the area. What other features have been marked on the OS map? What symbols have been used on the map? What does the OS map leave off? (trackways through fields, clumps of trees, recent buildings).

By using vertical aerial photographs children can develop skills of direction, scale, key and symbol use in an enquiry context. Children could give directions from the school to another location by using the photograph to trace the route. Aerial photographs show evidence of things not illustrated on maps, such as the seasons, the time of day and aspects of everyday life that provide clues to the use of buildings and areas of settlement.


Aerial photographs make an excellent source for discovering how a place has changed. Using two or three aerial photographs of the area, taken at different times, allows children to identify changes in the land-use. Children can examine how their local area looked in the 1940s/1950s or how it has changed in the more recent past. Particular types of land-use can be identified by colouring a photocopy or an acetate sheet. Using acetate, or an interactive whiteboard, will allow sheets to be overlaid, which will highlight differences in land-use. The areas that are chosen for highlighting will depend on the topic or area of study: for example, if there have been changes to the road network then transport may be the only land use that is highlighted. This method can also be used to identify new housing, infilling or dereliction.

Aerial photographs can also be very useful when studying an historical site. They allow children to study the landscapes and the details of buildings and monuments, in both town and country. They can help children put an historic site into context and begin to understand its shape and form. For example, historic patterns of development within a medieval town could be studied, with the lines of the old town walls sometimes visible in present-day street patterns.

Thinking Skills / Communication Skills

Aerial photographs can be used as resources for aspects of PSE (Personal and Social Education) or debates on different environmental or heritage issues. Pupils could be set a planning problem and use the aerial photographs to show their solutions: for example, where to site a new car park, supermarket or wind farm.

Language work could include describing the area from the air or creative work based on a balloon or magic carpet flight over the school.

To find local images, including aerial photographs, please use Coflein. There are two methods of using Coflein. You can either use Coflein mapping or use the Coflein text search. To search for images, use the Coflein text search and select YES to search only for sites with online images.

To order images of your local area please contact the National Monuments Record.

Sources of further information

English Heritage publications:

Aerial Photography Book \ CD-ROM

ISBN 1-85074-780-6

Product Code 30026


Teacher’s Handbook for Local Studies

ISBN 1-873592-37-X

Product Code 30096


Contact details:

English Heritage Education

Freepost 22 (WD214)

London WIE 7EZ

0870 333 1181