Amazing Aerial View of Edinburgh

18 Mar 22 7 Comments

When I first saw this image, I assumed it was result of modern image manipulations, maybe even the poster for a film. It was too perfect and too modern to be what it claimed to be, which was a historical photograph of an aircraft over Edinburgh.

Aerial View of Edinburgh by Alfred G. Buckham, 1920
Published under personal-use license agreement courtesy of National Galleries Scotland. © Richard and John Buckham.

I was half right. it is a composite photograph but it was created well before “photoshopping” became a verb.

The photographer was Alfred Buckham and he was born in 1879. He was not a healthy child and was taught at home by and uncle as he was not well enough to attend school until he was a teenager. He loved to draw and initially aspired to become a painter. He showed early talent, however, according to The Official Site for Capt Alfred Buckham, when Buckham visited the National Gallery and first encountered the work of JMW Turner, an English romantic painter who is well known for his turbulent paintings of ships at sea, Buckham lost heart and made a bonfire of his own work.

Whether this is true or not, it seems clear that Buckham’s photographic work was influenced by Turner’s paintings, showing the same use of golden light and billowing clouds to enhance a sense of motion.

Dutch Boats in a Gale by JMW Turner, 1801, oil on canvas.

Buckham turned towards photography, inspired by a friend who did landscape photography, and quickly began winning awards for his work. He joined the Royal Photographic Society in 1913, going on to instruct in photographic techniques at the Borough Polytechnic Technical Institute in London. During World War I, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service as a reconnaissance photographer. His knowledge of photography and techniques quickly got him promoted to the Royal Navy’s head of aerial reconnaissance, a position that did not exist until Buckham filled it. Later, he was promoted to Captain in the Royal Naval Air Service.

Now Buckham was not a pilot so he can’t really be blamed for the plane crashes that he was involved in. But, in a startling figure even for World War I, he survived nine plane crashes despite working in open cockpits; standing up so that he could hold his heavy equipment over the side and then crouching down in the seat to change the plates.

He was thirty-nine when he was badly injured in the throat in the ninth crash and lost his larynx; he had a small tube inserted into his neck which allowed him to breathe and to communicate in whispers. He was discharged from the Royal Navy Air Service as 100% disabled.

As a civilian, he continued to focus on aerial photography, hiring a small aircraft and pilot out of Croydon to take aerial photographs for sale. He said that he got the best photographs standing up in the plane, saying “If one’s right leg is tied to the seat with a scarf or a piece of rope, it is possible to work in perfect security.”

Buchkham preferred glass plates despite the cumbersome size and need to change them, claiming that the results were far superior to film.

He also preferred older planes with open cockpits and through trial and error decided that he captured the best photographs flying between 1,000 and 2,000 feet above the ground. This must have been uncomfortable, as the would breathe in the cold air directly into his lungs with no warming. He never wore gloves because, he said, they got in the way. He also refused safety belts as he needed to be able to stand and sit quickly. “If you stand erect you will not have to resist the fatal tendency to rest your arms on the side of the aeroplane whilst making the exposure, for if you do so your photograph will surely be spoiled by the vibration of the engine.”

Flying Boat Over Sea by Alfred G. Buckham, 1930.
Published under personal-use license agreement courtesy of National Galleries Scotland. © Richard and John Buckham.

Up until Buckham’s work, aerial photography was treated as a documentation exercise whereas Buckham clearly strove to fill his images with motion and light. He didn’t just want to document the views from the sky, he wanted to create art. In order to create these effects, Buckham used several negatives in order to create a single image.

The National Galleries Scotland explored his technique by getting direct access to the negatives which were still held by Buckman’s grandsons.

Happily, as Buckham’s camera survives, we know exactly what he was using to make his exposures. In an article written for the benefit of prospective aerial photographers, he advised using the kind of cameras used by newspaper reporters, which operated at eye-level, rather than the cumbersome cameras which had originally been developed for aerial photography. ‘The camera best suited to the purpose and the one I usually employ has a F4.5 lens and a large direct vision view-finder the same size as the plate, fitted on the top of the lens panel’. He cautioned however that the leather bellows needed to be reinforced with cardboard or aluminium, as the otherwise delicate bellows could not withstand the force of the winds encountered at altitude.

When it came to crafting _Aerial View of Edinburgh_, the first stage would have been to select one of the many negatives he made in the skies above Edinburgh. … [The] negative he used as the basis of this photograph focuses on the landscape of the city with very little sky visible. This is because negatives of landscapes, especially when taken at height, require a different level of exposure to those made of the sky. Because of this Buckham would begin by printing a negative of just the cityscape in his darkroom, using an enlarger to increase the size of the final image.

The same article quotes Buckham on the subject:

‘Unfortunately, Nature does not always surmount her landscapes with clouds such as will compose well, as a whole, in the picture space, consequently I have provided a store of over 2,000 cloud negatives for such contingencies and from this suitable clouds for combination purposes are selected. And here is just where the hasty or unobservant worker may go badly astray, producing incredible or even appalling results. For the lighting of the landscape must be in correct relation to the light coming down from the sky, and heavy cloud masses insist that they shall have corresponding shapes upon the earth. Selection for the right negative for the purpose may entail the inspection of fifty or more, and on the print some handwork with a chemical reducer and stumping chalk, or other medium, is usually required to bring the whole into harmony. So before venturing upon combination work it is surely wise to serve some years of apprenticeship sketching and painting in the open air, which happens to have been my own way of approach to photography’.

In Aerial View of Edinburgh, the clouds and the aircraft were both added from separate negatives. There is another similar image where the cityscape remains the same but with different clouds and no aeroplane. In other images, the aircraft sometimes fly at impossible angles or multiple aircraft are fly dangerously close to each other.

Then, to finish off the effect, Buckham retouched the printed images by hand.

For Buckham, the final stage of creating a finished image was to use watercolour paints and sometimes ink to add detail to the final print and soften the areas where the two negatives meet. In some of his photographs these hand-drawn elements are easily visible, though in the case of Aerial View of Edinburgh they are more subtle. The clouds on the horizon have been softened to make the join where the two negatives meet less noticeable in the finished print, highlights have been added to the clouds to make them more dramatic and the light below Arthur’s Seat has been adjusted to better match the clouds above. In addition, some areas have been highlighted and others darkened to sharpen the details of key landmarks and make them more recognisable. The use of black watercolour or ink to strengthen and define specific areas of the photographs shows Buckham’s ingenuity. Whilst other photographers would alter the negatives and perhaps scratch out an area that they wished to appear darker, Buckham added the darker tone to the photographic print itself. He also used a scratching out technique, similar to Turner, where a dark area of the photograph is scratched revealing the lighter colour of the paper beneath. This artistic intervention results in each photograph being a unique piece of work. No two can be exactly the same.

You can see the entire breakdown of the images used to create Aerial View of Edinburgh in the National Galleries Scotland article.

Volcano Crater of Popocatepetl by Alfred G Buckham, 1930,
Published under personal-use license agreement courtesy of National Galleries Scotland. © Richard and John Buckham.

In 1930, Buckham was commissioned to take aerial photographs “anywhere in America” and spent 15 weeks over which he covered 19,000 miles, starting in the United States before heading to Cuba and Haiti and Puerto Rico and from there to South America. He wrote for the Morning Post about his adventures.

It was not a pleasant transition from the humid heat of Brazil to Buenos Aires, where the piercing pampiero winds were blowing, in motion for the production of permit, aeroplane and pilot, I was laid hers de combat by violent influenza. Fortunately, that intrepid fellow, Eduardo Bradley—the first man to cross the Andes in a balloon, and who walks despite a broken back sustained on his last aerial adventure—carried on the negotiations. Unauthorised aeroplanes flying over the city were liable to be shot down, because South American revolutionaries have an unpleasant habit of conducting preliminary operations from the air. Eventually, the permit was forthcoming and, surprising enough, I was allowed to fly over “The Paris of South America” at 500 feet altitude.

The man was clearly an excellent writer as well as photographer and image manipulator. The Official Site for Capt Alfred Buckham has copies of all three articles, originally published in the Morning Post in 1933. I recommend them as an interesting and amusing read.

There was every reason for hopefulness at the outset, for, although not in possession of the necessary permits to photograph the territories to be flown over, I was armed with the following certificate, supplied by the New York Police: “The Bureau of Criminal Investigation at Headquarters states there is no criminal record of the above-mentioned aerial photographer during the past five years, and no warrant of criminal process is, outstanding against him.” In addition, I carried a medical certificate supplied by a remarkably prescient doctor, who, for the inadequate sum of ten dollars, was able to affirm, without seeing me, that I had been vaccinated within the last three months and was entirely free from a whole list of terrible diseases. Surely the most respectable among South American Republics could not deny facilities to such a well certified aerial photographer.

Clouds came driving along the passes, bringing with them a burden of snow; it was necessary to rise above them. Then for the first time in my flying experience, even at greater heights, I began to feel the effects of altitude. Higher we climbed to 18,000 feet, my pilot taking oxygen. He passed the tube back to me, but owing to certain physical abilities I could not use it. Struggling for breath at 19,500 feet, I realised that unconsciousness was inevitable, as no attempt could be made to descend to a lower altitude for at least another fifteen minutes. I passed a note to my companion requesting him to thrust back my head whenever it fell forward; then I settled down in great discomfort, but with perfect confidence that I should survive the remaining minutes before going down.

* Above Volcanoes Dead And Alive

Along level coasts stretched mangrove swamps where alligators lay piled up, and so indolent in the oven-like heat that only the most drastic measures brought to bear upon them made the brutes scuttle. A very considerable proportion of the yearly quota of 370 inches of rain which comes to the vicinity of Beneventura descended upon us. The shortest possible visit was plainly indicated.

Captain Buckham continued to focus on aerial photography until the start of World War Two, when he retired to Brighton. He died there in 1956, age 76. He was clearly a most amazing man!

If you’d like to find out more, I recommend the following two sites. Note that I haven’t read the book but other than an issue with the image reproductions, it seems to have good reviews.

Categories: History, Photography,


  • Getting back to the important bit, I think it’s a Sopwith Pup. I’d say Camel, but the open centre section and the slightly longer nose look more like the Pup.

    Any advance on Pup?

    • no, this is a Camel with an enlarged center section (like William Barker’s). the way to tell is to see how close the pilot is to the engine, and also the wing dihedral. In the pup, the pilot is sat further back from the engine, behind the upper wing, in a camel the pilot is almost directly below the upper wing. he’s quite close to the engine as well; the rudder bar is almost directly behind the firewall! Regarding the wings, on a camel the upper wing is straight across but the bottom wings angle upwards, on a pup both upper and lower wings angle upwards. they also have differently shaped wingtips. Both are beautiful machines on the ground and in the air!

  • I too think that the bipe over Edinburgh is a Sopwith Pup. And the “flying boat over the sea” appears to be a Consolidated Commodore…. but it seems to have a three-stepped hull and the Commodore had but two (although the outrigger float might explain the extra edge). only 14 were built, most going to western-hemisphere air services, a few to China, so one wonders where Buckham got the image. the machine in the picture seems to have a registration beginning with “P” or “D” so i suspect it’s one of the Brazilian (“P”) examples.

  • So beautiful! Black&white photography lent itself much better to retouching than colour photography—at least before digital photography became a thing.

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