In 1924 aerial photographs were taken of the Great Barrier Reef for use by the Australian Army in its topographical mapping. In 1928 the Royal Australian Air Force first became involved in aerial photography and in the following year an air survey flight within 3 Squadron began providing the Australian Survey Corps with photographs of the coastal areas south of Sydney. In the mid-1930s aerial photography replaced plane tabling as the basis for topographical map production in Australia. The RAAF Communication and Survey Flight was formed in 1937.

At the outbreak of World War II, only a small portion of Australia was covered by topographical mapping. Many of the settled areas were photographed during the War and in 1947 the RAAF was given the task of progressively photographing northern and inland Australia. Using Mosquito planes flying at 25,000 feet, the RAAF photographed 328,000 square miles in 1947/48. By 1952 it had systematically covered about 1.25 million square miles of northern and central Australia. 87 (Photographic Reconnaissance) Squadron was disbanded in 1953 for financial reasons. In the previous year the National Mapping Section was transferred from the Royal Australian Survey Corps to the Department of the Interior.

From the mid-1950s the responsibility for national topographical mapping and aerial photography was shared by the Royal Australian Survey Corps and the Division of National Mapping. The Survey Corps, which could draw on RAAF and Navy support, concentrated on northern Australia and also Papua New Guinea, while the Division of National Mapping operated in the more settled southern regions. With the withdrawal of the RAAF, the Division had to rely on commercial airlines, especially Adastra Airways Pty Ltd, for aerial photographs. Map coverage of Australia from aerial photographs was completed in 1966, with the exception of a small part of Cape York Peninsula. The Survey Corps and the Division of National Mapping published a total of 540 sheets in the 1:250,000 (four miles to one inch) series. After 1966 the Commonwealth agencies focussed on the production of maps in the 1:100,000 series.


In 1963, at the suggestion of the Division of National Mapping, a substantial collection of Australian aerial photographs, dating from 1928 to about 1953, was transferred to the National Library from the Central Photographic Establishment of the RAAF at Laverton in Victoria. Small groups of photographs were received from the RAAF, the Division of National Mapping and CSIRO in the 1980s. In 1991-95 large consignments of aerial photographs were received from the Australian Land Information and Survey Group (AUSLIG), the successor to the Division of National Mapping. The photographs mostly dated from 1953 to 1987.

The SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) collection of Antarctic aerial photographs was donated by AUSLIG in 1998. It also transferred a collection of aerial photographs of Indonesia. In 2003 the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University presented a collection of Papua New Guinea aerial photographs. They had originally been in the custody of CSIRO.


The Library holds a collection of about 800,000 aerial photographs of Australia, the Australian Antarctic Territory and Papua New Guinea. There are about 500,000 vertical Australian photographs and about 100,000 oblique Australian photographs dating from 1928 to 1987. The Antarctic photographs date from 1956 to 1965, with a small number of later items, while the Papua New Guinea photographs were taken between 1942 and 1973.

The photographs were taken at altitudes ranging from 5000 feet to 25,000 feet and at scales from 1:6000 to 1:50,000. All the States and regions are represented in the collection, although the degree of representation is variable. For some areas, there is a small group of photographs taken on a single flight, whereas for other places there are several series taken over a period of thirty years or more. For instance, the photographs of Darwin and the surrounding district range from 1935 to 1981 and include photographs taken after Cyclone Tracy in 1974.

The collection of Australian aerial photographs is linked to a collection of flight diagrams which are held in photocopy or microfiche form. The diagrams record the routes taken by the survey aircraft and give the run number, date, height and often the scale.


The aerial photographs collection is held in the Maps Collection. The Australian vertical photographs are arranged by the Australian 1:63,360 topographic map series sheet numbers (one inch to a mile series), extending from C48 (Christmas Island) to K55 (Tasmania). Photographs of a particular area taken at different times are thus shelved together. The oblique photographs are roughly arranged by State and then alphabetically by place names. The Papua New Guinea photographs are arranged by the 1:250,000 topographic map series sheet numbers. In contrast, the Antarctic photographs are shelved by year and then arranged on a geographical basis, either by a named area or the 1:250,000 topographic map series sheet numbers.

The Australian and Papua New Guinea photographs are catalogued under the place name and year and one entry may describe a single photograph or up to several hundred photographs. The entries give the flight date(s), flight number(s), run number(s) and print range and may refer to the existence of the relevant flight diagram. The Australian oblique photographs and the Antarctic photographs have not yet been catalogued.

The Australian flight diagrams are held in the Maps Reading Room, either on microfiche or filed in binders. They are also arranged by the 1:63,360 topographic map series sheet numbers. Other flight diagrams are accessible on-line.

Related collection

A comprehensive collection of Australian aerial photographs is held in the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.


Coulthard-Clark, C.D., Australia’s military map-makers: the Royal Australian Survey Corps 1915-96, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 2000

Lines, John D., Australia on paper: the story of Australian mapping, Melbourne, Fortune Publications, 1992

O’Connor, Maura, ‘Aerial photograph collections in Australia’, Australian surveyor, vol. 37 (4), Dec. 1992, pp. 263-69

O’Connor, Maura, ‘Arrangement of aerial photographs in the National Library of Australia’, Information bulletin (Western Association of Map Libraries) , vol. 28 (2), March 1997, pp. 70-76