Will Google Earth replace Aerial Photography?

I originally published this article about the advantages of aerial photography compared to the images we get from Google Earth and thought it might be interesting to revisit the idea.

A fellow sent me a link to Microsoft Bing which has a similar experience to Google Earth in that you can zoom in on areas and see aerial photographs. Here’s an example of the Victoria Harbour in which you can bring up a good quality aerial photograph and compare it to the Victoria Harbour images from my original post. It’s really surprisingly good but, as with any archived images likely isn’t terribly up to date. My original aerial photo of Victoria was shot with a Nikon D300, a 12.3 MP camera and from about 2,000 feet, the lowest we can easily fly over the city without getting in trouble. I would guess that if I had shot with a 200mm lens (this image was shot at 19mm!) so cropping wasn’t needed that my image would be sharper and would have better detail than the Microsoft Bing image but Bing certainly is impressive.

I will plan on reshooting this Victoria Harbour image again with my new Nikon D800 camera and it’s higher resolution and see how it compares. Like Google Earth, Microsoft Bing has very good details in larger urban centers but as you head out into the rural areas the quality goes down substantially.

The original article is below these photos so make sure you scroll down.

Aerial photograph of Victoria Harbour, British Columbia

Aerial photograph of Victoria Harbour, British Columbia shot from an altitude of 2,000 feet.

100% crop of the Victoria Harbour aerial photo from above.

100% crop of the Victoria Harbour aerial photo from above.

Victoria Harbour as viewed on Google Earth

Victoria Harbour as viewed on Google Earth

Microsoft Bing aerial photograph, January 2013

Microsoft Bing aerial photograph, January 2013

I was asked the other day to make a comparison between Google Earth and aerial photography or more accurately, is aerial photography in danger of being overlooked for the ease of use and cost saving measures that Google has provided?.

To start, I love Google Earth; it’s an amazing tool that makes exploring the world a little easier and can become very addicting. From a photography perspective I use Google Earth both to plan a photo shoot and also to help me identify an area once I return from a shoot. When I was in Paris last year for instance, I took basic notes and at a later date used Google Earth to identify buildings and landmarks. With the great streetview coverage in Paris I was even able to look at individual buildings and make accurate identifications. We also spent two weeks in the Loire and Burgundy area boating on the canals and I was able to identify accurately where almost all the images were taken regardless of whether I kept notes or not. Does this mean that I don’t need to keep notes anymore? I don’t think so but it certainly is a great tool for filling in the blanks.

Back to the question, is Google Earth a replacement for aerial photography? This is a little harder to answer. If you are doing research where the flow of a river is what matters than Google Earth might work for you. On the other hand, if you are looking at purchasing a piece of property then the Google Earth view of a completely vertical perspective might not give you the information desired. As well, much of the Google Earth imagery is quite old and we all know that things change quickly in the modern world; and then there is the lack of detail. While Google Earth is quite impressive in much of the urban jungle in other areas this isn’t the case. Even in the urban areas aerial photography will show much more detail.

I decided to explore this a little further and grabbed a stock photograph of Victoria Harbour to really get an idea about the advantages of aerial photography. I knew what to expect but it certainly felt good to actually see for myself and be able to share this with others.

The two photos below are: top, a view of Victoria Harbour shot with my Nikon D300 and below, a close representation of the image as seen on Google Earth. Even in these small sizes that lack of detail is very apparent in the Google Image. I realize that Victoria, British Columbia probably isn’t the highest resolution city in the world on Google Earth but at the same time the images are better than most of the planet unless you are lucky (unlucky) to live in one of the truly huge cities.

Victoria Harbour aerial photograph, 12.4mp image

Victoria Harbour aerial photograph, 12.4mp image

Victoria Harbour, Vancouver Island as seen in Google Earth

Victoria Harbour, Vancouver Island as seen in Google Earth

I decided to crop my image to 100% and compare the new image to Google Earth and you can see the results below. Again, the actual camera image is quite a bit sharper and carries lots more detail. Is the Google Earth image good enough? Depending on the desired uses it likely might be and you won’t be calling me anytime soon to do an aerial photography shoot for you. On the other hand, If you were selling real estate in this area what would you prefer to see on your brochure?

100% crop of the Victoria Harbour aerial photo from above.

100% crop of the Victoria Harbour aerial photo from above.

Victoria Harbour, Google Earth to match photo above

Victoria Harbour, Google Earth to match photo above

The vertical versus oblique angle offers a little more to the photographers’ arsenal in my opinion as most vertical images are actually quite boring. I realize that for mapping, mineral rights, property lines and the like the vertical angle can often be the most useful but purely from an artistic viewpoint shooting from an oblique angle often looks far superior. There in no sense of scale, the mountains don’t stand out, a town doesn’t have a horizon. These two photos are of Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. It’s not hard to tell which image is the vertical and which is the oblique.

Ladysmith Harbour Aerial Photo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Ladysmith Harbour Aerial Photo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Ladysmith Harbour as seen in Google Earth

Ladysmith Harbour as seen in Google Earth

What does this all prove then? Not a bad question really! Google Earth is an amazing tool that has potential to change the way we look at the planet, do our research and for the photographer can even change our workflows. At the same time, I’m feeling good that my passion for flying and aerial photography will still have financial rewards at least for the foreseeable future. This may all change of course as nothing is very constant anymore.

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