Aerial Photographs - Identification of Photograph Features

The identification of features on a photograph is not difficult if the following facts are remembered. The view that is presented by the aerial photograph is from above and, as a result, objects do not look familiar. Objects that are greatly reduced in size appear distorted. Most aerial photography is black and white, and all colors appear on the photograph in shades of gray. Generally speaking, the darker the natural color, the darker it will appear on the photograph.

a. The identification of features on aerial photographs depends upon a careful application of five factors of recognition. No one factor will give a positive identification; it requires the use of all five.

(1) Size. The size of unknown objects on a photograph, as determined from the scale of the photograph or a comparison with known objects of known size, gives a clue to their identity. For example, in a built­up area the smaller buildings are usually dwellings, and the larger buildings are commercial or community buildings.
(2) Shape (pattern). Many features possess characteristic shapes that readily identify the features. Manmade features appear as straight or smooth curved lines, while natural features usually appear to be irregular. Some of the most prominent man­made features are highways? railroads, bridges, canals, and buildings. Compare the regular shapes of these to the irregular shapes of such natural features as streams and timber lines.

(3) Shadows. Shadows are very helpful in identifying features since they show the familiar side view of the object. Some excellent examples are the shadows of water towers or smoke stacks. As viewed directly from above, only a round circle or dot is seen, whereas the shadow shows the profile and helps to identify the object. Relative lengths of shadows also usually give a good indication of relative heights of objects.

(4) Shade (tone or texture). Of the many different types of photographic film in use today, the film used for most aerial photography, except for special purposes, is panchromatic film. Panchromatic film is sensitive to all the colors of the spectrum; it registers them as shades of gray, ranging from white to black. This lighter or darker shade of features on aerial photographs is known as the tone. The tone is also dependent on the texture of the features; a paved highway has a smooth texture and produces an even tone on the photograph, while a recently plowed field or a marsh has a rough, choppy texture and results in a rough or grainy tone. It is also important to remember that similar features may have different tones on different photographs, depending on the reflection of sunlight. For example, a river or body of water appears light if it is ref1ecting sunlight directly toward the camera, but appears dark otherwise. Its texture may be smooth or rough, depending on the surface of the water itself. As long as the variables are kept in mind, tone and texture may be used to great advantage.

(5) Surrounding objects. Quite often an object not easily recognized by itself may be identified by its relative position to surrounding objects. Large buildings located beside railroads or railroad sidings are usually factories or warehouses. Schools may be identified by the baseball or football fields. It would be hard to tell the difference between a water tower next to a railroad station and a silo next to a barn, unless the surrounding objects such as the railroad tracks or cultivated fields were considered.

b. Before a vertical photograph can be studied or used for identification of features, it must be oriented. This orienting is different from the orienting required for the construction or use of the point designation grid. Orienting for study consists of rotating the photograph so that the shadows on the photograph point toward yourself. You then face a source of light. This places the source of light, an object, and its shadow in a natural relationship. Failure to orient a photograph properly may cause the height or depth of an object to appear reversed. For example, a mine or quarry may appear to be a hill instead of a depression.