Google Earth or Aerial Photography?

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, 12.4mp image

Victoria Harbour, 12.4mp image

Victoria Harbour, Google Earth

Victoria Harbour, 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?

Victoria Harbour, Photograph approximately 100% crop

Victoria Harbour, Photograph approximately 100% crop

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

Ladysmith Harbour

Ladysmith Harbour - Google Earth

Ladysmith Harbour - 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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12 Responses to “Google Earth or Aerial Photography?”

  1. Lynn says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I use Google Maps on satellite view almost daily to find new places to walk and it is fantastic for that purpose. Obviously it cannot compare to good aerial photography, the quality is too poor. However, one fun thing to do with Google Earth or satellite view is to find interesting abstract patterns of farm land, deserts, beaches etc. Will that replace abstract art? I don’t think so, but I do know that sometimes I am drawn to photograph subjects because they look like something one would see via satellite maps.
    .-= Lynn´s last blog ..Red Shapes =-.

  2. nermal says:

    While I may not have the cash to hire you to shoot the inner harbour for me, I can use Bing.

  3. kevin says:


    That is very impressive. Something to explore not that I need even more tools to get distracted with. I’m assumming that much of the world is still fairly low resolution with this program!

  4. kevin says:


    It’s great to hear from someone that enjoys the abstract aspect of Google Earth as well. Have you looked at the Landsat exhibit “Earth as Art”?

    Pretty cool stuff, some of the images are stunning!

  5. LisaNewton says:

    I love Google maps. When I need a location to shot close by, I often use Google maps as a reference.

    Plus, I love creating new maps of walks, photo shots, and especially to map the public art here in LA. Combining maps and pictures is what I do. :)

    Nice comparison, Kevin. Google Earth definitely has a purpose, but it will not replace aerial photography. Your stuff is great!!
    .-= LisaNewton´s last blog ..Color comes alive in East Hollywood =-.

  6. kevin says:

    Thanks Lisa,

    I admire you for what you do with Google maps and your journeys. Your web site is an inspiration for all of us. Something similar has been in the works on a few of my sites and will eventually happen, just gotta get the time! It’s coming!

  7. Sara Chapman in Seattle, USA says:

    What a beautiful and thoughtful post. For utility, a low-res image may do the job, but for beauty and detail, how can it possibly have the appeal of a “real” photo? Thanks for posting.
    .-= Sara Chapman in Seattle, USA´s last blog ..Doll’s Eyes =-.

  8. kevin says:


    I hope most folks have your opinion about “real” photos. I was looking at the link in nermal’s post above and thought, “there goes aerial photography work in the big cities for mainstream images”. At the same time, I’m not sure what their licensing terms are and it still isn’t custom work produced for the client. Maybe I have a future after all! If not, I’ll just fly for the pure enjoyment.

  9. Diane AZ says:

    Fascinating comparisons! I sure do prefer the photo of Ladysmith Harbour with oblique angle that shows more of the trees, mountains and horizon than the Google one. Google Earth is a great tool, but understandably most of their photos are not high quality. The abstract art ones in Google’s “Earth as Art” from the link you posted above are very cool looking.
    .-= Diane AZ´s last blog ..Ruby Tuesday – Here and There =-.

  10. lisaschaos says:

    Very impressive. I love that your photo and the google photo were so similar in view, but yes, your’s is much clearer! :)

  11. Nolan Reents says:

    Thx for information.

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