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Film Photography at 70,000 Feet in the U-2 Spy Plane


The United States’ U-2 spy plane first took to the skies back in 1955 during the heyday of film photography. But even as cameras these days have largely shifted to digital, the U-2 continues to shoot its spy photos on film. The Wall Street Journal made this 19-minute documentary on the U-2 that offers a closer look at the U-2’s photography.

WSJ journalist Michael Phillips was given a rare tour of both the U-2 (America’s oldest operating spy plane) as well as the film processing lab at Beale Air Force Base in California.

Photos shot with the wet-plate camera onboard any U-2 plane flying around the world is shipped (via FedEx) back to the base in California to be developed and analyzed. The images are shot on 250-pound rolls containing 10,500 feet of 6-inch-wide film.

The 1950s camera, combined with the U-2’s altitude, provides formidable photo capabilities: it can cover every inch of an entire country in a single mission. Photographing nearly all of California takes just four hours, and the planes are used to photograph the entirety of Afghanistan about once every month.

Using loupes and microscopes, analysts can distinguish objects in the resulting photos that are just 8 inches apart on the ground — enough resolution to read the numbers on the wings of a parked airplane.

While the military is working on computer technologies to help analyze scans of the film, the analog processes themselves aren’t going anywhere (for now).

“[W]et-film cameras still outperform other surveillance gear by delivering crisp images from above 70,000 feet, where the pilot can see land for 250 miles in any direction,” the Wall Street Journal writes.

“It works, and that’s why it’s still around,” says Sr. Airman Taylor Workman in the documentary.