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High-flying shutterbugs document small-scale world

By Nicole Saidi, CNN
  • We challenged iReporters to show us the view from above using aerial photography
  • Some stood on mountaintops or captured the view from a window, one even attached a camera to a kite
  • Next weekend assignment: Walk in our shoes

Editor's note: This story is part of the iReport Weekend Assignment project in which the CNN iReport community takes on a special-skills challenge once a week. Last weekend's challenge was to take a photo from above. This weekend, we're inviting you to join CNN as we try to make a walk around the world. Head to CNN iReport to join the fun and learn a little something while you're at it.

(CNN) -- As long as humans have inched closer to the heavens, they have sought to document the view below. From up high, patterns emerge from landscapes and neighborhoods. Things hidden are revealed.

The history of aerial photography, the art and science of taking pictures from up high, corresponds with the development of air transportation technology. The French balloonist Gaspard Felix Tournachon, also known as Nadar, is often credited with taking the first aerial photos as he perched on a balloon over Paris, France, in 1858. A couple years later, John Wallace Black is credited with taking the first successful aerial photograph of Boston, Massachusetts, also from a balloon. The Wright brothers' flight experiments led to the first aerial photographs and motion pictures taken from planes soon after.

Military surveillance during World War I and subsequent conflicts advanced the practice of aerial photography as the images were used to trace the enemy's movements and plans from afar.

Nowadays, aerial enthusiasts have formed groups on the Internet to share their photos, whether professional-quality or more amateur. A Flickr group called "Window seat, please" is devoted to photos taken out the windows of airplanes while traveling. We received several submissions of this sort, ranging from detailed views of the land below to simple views of sunsets over the wing.

We asked iReporters to go out and take photos from a bird's-eye perspective, and many retreated to their favorite mountain or high building, while others decided to fly into the air. One man launched a kite that helped him take a picture more than 80 feet below. Still others stayed close to the ground and photographed objects just a few feet below.

As iReporter Chris Morrow's photos from a hot-air balloon over California reveal, photos from the air can show patterns unnoticeable on the ground. One image shows the remarkably uniform curvature of a suburban neighborhood while another illustrates a set of new homes in various states of construction.

See Morrow's view from the hot-air balloon

Aerial photographer Greg Wilson of St. Petersburg, Florida, says he loves taking aerial pictures and flies in a plane that has a window in the floor specially designed for photography. He says he often needs to make slight software adjustments to aerial photos afterward to correct for color irregularities, but on a clear day like his March 13 flight, he got extremely vivid blues on the water.

See St. Petersburg from above

"Taking a pic from above is always different and fun. It's amazing how lost you can get above an area that might be super familiar on the ground. Estimating the required altitude for a specific area is always a challenge. Weather is always a challenge including clouds, winds, haze, etc."

Valentin Kelemen of Toronto, Ontario, goes on flights every few weeks with a pilot friend from a local flying club. When he does, he takes his camera along, as he did for a March 11 flight through the countryside northwest of the city. His images show the patchwork of farmland and the curvature of water bodies.

Check out the patterns and shapes of the Ontario countryside

"My favorite part is seeing the gradual change between the snow-covered fields and places where spring has arrived," he says.

It's amazing how lost you can get above an area that might be super familiar on the ground.
---- Greg Wilson, CNN iReporter

Another vibrant aerial-photo community focuses on taking photos with suspended cameras. This practice, known as kite aerial photography, consists of a kite launched into the air with a professional-level camera suspended somewhere along the kite line.

Kevin Lajoie says he is one of a handful of avid kite aerial photographers on the island of Guernsey in the United Kingdom, and probably the most active. For the March 13 image he submitted to CNN iReport, a Nikon D60 camera was suspended more than 80 feet in the air from a kite flying an additional 40 to 50 feet above it.

"To achieve the most stable pictures from a kite it is best to have as much distance between kite and camera rig as possible," Lajoie says.

He tried to take a photo in the area a few weeks earlier but found the wind too strong to get a stable image. He brought a pair of kites for the recent trip and used the stronger one to capture the photo he sent. The images themselves were triggered remotely via a timing device taped to the camera, and Lajoie estimates he took about 700 images from three different angles.

See the final image Lajoie submitted to CNN iReport

Most aerial photographers can share tons of advice from their trips out. Mike Paris, proud of the striking shot of a volcanic crater in Arizona that he captured in June 2009, advises aspiring aerial photographers to keep their shutter speed quick if they make the attempt from a plane.

"Wide angle works better than telephoto in most instances. It's hard to take a telephoto shot from an aircraft because of the stability issues. Try not to brace yourself against the frame of the aircraft. Just let your body absorb as much of the shock as possible and shoot away."

Just because you don't have a plane or kite doesn't mean you can't get a great shot. Some of the viewpoints iReporters chose were from iconic landmarks like Rockefeller Center in New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Others were more atypical. A few chose Ferris wheels, like Marie Sager at Disney's California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, California, and Mark Wolf at the Ostrich Festival in Chandler, Arizona. Others stayed closer to the ground, like Alison Victoria of Rome, Italy, who took simple pictures of the ordinary landscapes in her daily life.

But perhaps the most offbeat -- and interesting -- take on the weekend assignment came from Ray White in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, who proved you don't have to be up very high to get a great overhead shot.

White perched himself over a bridge and looked down at the ducks and fish below. As carp came to the surface to feed, he gazed down at their circular mouths with camera in hand. The resulting shots he captured look like they were taken of otherworldly creatures on some distant planet. The simple images helped tell the story of the fish's longstanding battle with area ducks.

Get an up-close view of the carp

"I photographed down at the carp coming out of the water, competing with ducks for precious food pellets dropped from tourists. The ducks nearly always won."