How to Research Historical Aerial Photographs

Although this isn’t directly related to Google Earth, I thought there might be some people interested in researching old aerial photographs that aren’t available in Google Earth.  I’ve put together some instructions on how to do this research yourself.

We will be using the EarthExplorer website created by the USGS, which has  historical aerial photographs covering most of the continental US that often date back to the 1940s or 1950s.  These aerials are available to download at no charge.

The first step is to create an account.  Just go to the EarthExplorer website and click on the Register link at the top to create an account.  There is no charge. Once you’ve created an account, you can search for the aerials of your area.

First enter the name of the city or town you would like to research (Sacramento, CA) in the example below and click on the little Search link (not the big one).  This should put a placemark on the map near your location.   You can also enter the date range below that.  You can also enter the Lat/Lon directly or search based on an area.

Next, change the Number of Results to 100 since you will likely have more than 10 results.  Then select the Aerial Photo Single Frames option from the menu on the left.  Finally, click on Additional Search Criteria below the list of datasets on the left.

When you click on Additional Search Criteria, a pop up window should open which will allow you to fine tune your search parameters. To see the most results, set all options to All, as shown below.  You might also enter 0 to 30000 for the scale range as anything over 30000 will not have very much detail.

Click OK at the bottom of the pop up window to return to the search page.  Then click on the big Search link next to the number 3 at the top right corner.

The website will then search for images near the point or area that you defined earlier.  Depending on the number of results, the search might take up to a minute to complete.

Click on the Results link, which should take you to a page that looks something like below.

The results page will show aerial photos that met the criteria defined on the search page.  Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version of the image (note that they will typically not be oriented with north up).  Click on the Show link to show a footprint of the image overlaid onto a Google Map.  Once you find an aerial you want, just click on the link to download it and follow the download instructions. Note that some of these are color negatives.  You can still use these, but you’ll need special software (Photoshop works) to invert the colors so they look correct.

That’s it.  You can now find historic aerial photographs for just about anywhere in the continental US.  Below is a sample of a color image from the 1974.


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