What do the different colors in a color-infrared aerial photograph represent?

Color-infrared (CIR) aerial photography--often called "false color" photography because it renders the scene in colors not normally seen by the human eye--is widely used for interpretation of natural resources. Atmospheric haze does not interfere with the acquisition of the image.

  • Live vegetation is almost always associated with red tones. Very intense reds indicate dense, vigorously growing vegetation. As plant vigor decreases, the vegetation appears as lighter shades of red and pink, various shades of greens, and possibly tans. 
  • Bare soils appear as shades of white, blue, or green in most agricultural regions. In general, darker shades of each color indicate moister soil.
  • Man-made features appear in tones that relate to the materials with which they are made. Asphalt roads, for example, are dark blue or black; gravel or dirt roads are lighter colors depending on their composition; and clean concrete roads are light in tone. The colors of buildings are similarly dependent on the materials used to create them.
  • Water appears as shades of blue, varying from nearly black (clean, clean water) to very pale blue (increasing amounts of sediment). The color of very shallow water is often determined by the material present at the bottom of the water. For example, a very shallow stream with a sandy bottom will appear white due to the high level of sand reflection.

Learn more: Understanding Color-Infrared Photographs

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Will all aerial photographic film held by USGS be digitized?

Yes, there is a plan to scan and digitize all rolls of film. The plan is to first scan all rolls of film that are in danger of decay from vinegar syndrome and then scan everything else. Science and customer requirements are also reviewed on a regular basis, but a formal, online schedule is not available. Learn more: USGS EROS products overview...

Will I be able to see my house in an aerial photograph? Will enlarging the image let me see more detail?

The ability to see specific items in an aerial image is mostly a function of scale and resolution. The following aerial photography products all have a resolution of 1 meter or better, so you should be able to see an object the size of a house: High Resolution Orthoimagery (HRO) National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) imagery Digital...

Are the scanned aerial photographic images georectified?

Scans of traditional aerial photography film products (air photos) are not georectified . The USGS does, however, offer several orthoimagery (georectified aerial photograph) products: Digital Orthophoto Quadrangle (DOQ) High Resolution Orthoimagery (HRO) National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP, NAIP Plus) NAIP orthoimagery has been collected...

How can I download orthoimagery in bulk?

Orthoimagery is offered through a bulk data application in EarthExplorer . Go to the EarthExplorer Help page and select "Bulk Download Tutorial". To receive bulk data via external hard drive, you must supply the hard drive(s) within our specifications, pay for shipping the drive(s), and provide a paid return label or a carrier account number. Send...

How do I download orthoimagery products and what are the available formats?

Download orthoimagery (georectified aerial photographs) using EarthExplorer , which has the full catalog of USGS orthoimagery and aerial photography, or The National Map downloader, which has NAIP orthoimagery only. EarthExplorer : Products Overview Format varies by type of orthoimagery: Native format, Georeferenced Tagged Image File Format (...
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Date published: October 21, 2019

Aerial Photo Scan Reveals Rare Image of Two Airplanes in Flight

Every work day at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, contractor Mike Austad pulls up a chair and begins scanning aerial photographs of the Earth’s surface into the massive public database that is EarthExplorer.

Date published: August 27, 2018

Hazards Data Distribution System Releases Thousands of Aerial Images of Kilauea Impact

The eruptive behavior of the Kilauea volcano that began in May 2018 on Hawaii’s Big Island has created an unparalleled opportunity for understanding volcanic systems.

Date published: October 31, 2016

Before and After Photos: SE Beach Dunes Lost to Hurricane Matthew

New low-altitude aerial photos of Southeastern beaches taken before and after Hurricane Matthew passed offshore show a new storm-cut inlet, and roads, dunes and structures lost.

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Landsat 8 image of Kansas City, MO
September 26, 2019

Kansas City Infrared

Color-adjusted infrared image of Kansas City, MO, created using Landsat 8 satellite data. Follow this link to find a natural color version of the image.

Landsat 8 image of San Francisco, CA
September 24, 2019

San Francisco Infrared

Color-adjusted infrared image of San Francisco, CA, created using Landsat 8 satellite data. Follow this link to find a natural color version of the image.

Color infrared aerial photo mosaic, UMRS Pool 8, 2000
December 31, 2000

Color infrared aerial photo mosaic, UMRS Pool 8, 2000

Subset of orthorectified aerial photo mosaic (Pool 8 of the UMRS color infrared image, year 2000)

Aerial Photo Single Frames B/W, Color, CIR
December 31, 1974

Aerial Photo Single Frames B/W, Color, CIR

The Single Frame Records collection includes black-and-white, natural color, and color infrared aerial photographs as depicted by these images of the Napa River Bridge in Vallejo, California.

Color infrared photograph of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (color infrared)

A subset of a color infrared photograph from the first mission of the National Aerial Photography Program (NAPP). This photograph was collected on April 11, 1988 from an altitude of approximately 20,000 feet to yield a nominal source scale of 1:40,000. A color print was scanned at 150 dpi and reproduced using a Hewlett Packard

Attribution: Water Resources