The School of Photography – The Story

Army Navy Airforce

The story of a most unique photographic training establishment,  

founded by the Royal Flying Corps in 1915

Celebrating over 100 years in Military Photography

Where it all began:

The current home of the Defence School of Photography is the largest purpose built training school for photography in Europe. Since the origins of its foundation in 1915, it is now the oldest established photographic training facility with a continuous history.

 The background to Aerial reconnaissance

The story of aerial reconnaissance really goes back to the efforts to gain information from use of the high viewpoint and tethered balloons in particular.  The advent of the photographic process used in the field began to create a great influence on the amount of information which was permanent accurate and recordable, rather than dependant on the eyes of an observer.  Initial experiments were made difficult because of the long exposure times required to record the image onto the slow sensitive glass plates together with the time taken for subsequent processing.
During the many conflicts during the 19th century, including the American Civil War, photography became increasingly important to present images of persuasion, both for and against the  consequences and  brutality of war.  It was also recognised as an essential advantage to provide accurate intelligence gathering.
However, it was not until the aeroplane emerged as an ideal controllable  camera platform that the full power of aerial photographic reconnaissance was proven to the sceptics of the British high command.  The turning point for acceptance of its value came in the battle for Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. In the February of 1915, the pioneer photography work of Nos. 2 and 3 Squadrons gave Sir Douglas Haig a detailed picture of the area, including the hidden intricacies of the enemy defences.  This information ensured that the battle casualties were far less than expected under previous conditions and confirmed the value of aerial photography from that moment on.  Despite the previous experiences of some army units such as the Royal Engineers and the photographic surveys completed in Canada and other parts of the world in the latter part of the 19th century, the need to train many more soldiers in the skills of the photographic process became essential to keep pace with the increasing demand for aerial photographs.  The School of Photography was therefore founded by the Royal Flying Corps  at South Farnborough to fulfill this primary objective.  In the following years to come the School of Photographic Interpretation and the School of

Military Survey also became interlinked to form the nucleus of British Military Intelligence.

The Royal Flying Corps
WW1 1914 – 1918

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

In September 1914 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) took its first air photographs of the war over enemy positions at the battle of the Aisne. The results were sufficient to encourage the formation of an experimental photo section attached to the RFC. In January 1915 Lieutenant Moore-Brabazon (the late Lord Brabazon), commanded the section at Pinehurst near Farnborough set up to investigate the most suitable cameras and methods for obtaining air photographs. As air photography progressed during the early stages of World War 1, the increasing number of prints required soon overwhelmed the few enlisted photographers and although many more were trained in the field it soon became evident that some form of organised training needed to be introduced. In the summer of 1915 formal training began at Pinehurst and at the Regent Street Polytechnic. During the two years that followed, air photographs became indispensable to intelligence and the demands for photographs seemed insatiable. It was during this time that a Sergeant Major Laws (the late Group Captain Laws), with the British Expeditionary Force, was busy forming, equipping and organising the running of photographic sections at the various Wings in France. Laws was sent back to the UK to deal with the photographic training at Farnborough. Matters seemed to have progressed slowly at first and it was not until 11th September 1915, that a Lieutenant Campbell was able to report that “Sgt Major Laws is now at this station and training is proceeding on sound lines. About 6 men are sufficiently advanced to send to a Wing.” Shortly after, on the 7th November 1915, Sgt Major Laws was granted a commission in the Lincolnshire Regiment and seconded to the Royal Flying Corps as the Officer Commanding the School of Photography. The primitive accommodation for the schRFC air Cameraool consisted of two packing cases known as BE huts and was commented on by Captain Porri: “At present our limited accommodation hardly enables the supply to meet the demand for trained photographers. The men have to be rushed through their course, which should last 3 weeks or a month, in about 10 days, and are then posted away, a fresh lot of recruits then taking their places. Consequently, we are unable to keep a pool of trained men with the present accommodation. There is however, ample room in our proposed new buildings, to enable us to keep this pool of 50 trained men and enable another 20 to be in course of training. Our present permanent staff of 25 NCOs and men required for the production, instruction and experimental section’s work, would require augmentation, and at least 5 further NCOs and men as instructors would be required”.  The new buildings, specially constructed by German POWs, came into use in 1917 when the school became No 1 School of photography at Farnborough. It was the only permanent building erected for the Royal Flying Corps during the 1914 — 1918 war. Early air reconnaissance soon showed that air photography posed very different problems to those of general photography.

The aeroplane was a vibrating platform subjected to “air pockets” and buffeting, from which the camera operator worked in the teeth of a howling gale often freezing in the process. Apart from the effects of vibration and haze, there were many other problems including hostile enemy action — in at least one instance an operator had to interrupt his photography to shoot down an enemy plane. Cameras, at first hand held, were soon mounted on the side of the fuselage. Longer focal length lenses were developed; plate magazines with mechanical changes were fitted, and followed by complete camera installations fitted inside the fuselage. The School not only kept pace with the numerous developments in training, but helped solve many of the problems involved. It also learned from first hand experiences that the unique problems and limitations of aerial photography called for very specialised training to produce photographers capable of coping with it. On 1st April 1918 the Royal Flying Corps became the Royal Air Force and on 11th November 1918, Armistice Day, hostilities ceased. The “war to end all wars” was over.

Neve Chappelle

1918 – 1939 Between the wars

Darkroom processA period of training stagnation followed the end of hostilities but in 1920 the School started a regular programme of peacetime training, which progressed smoothly until 1925. An event occurred which revolutionised air photography and caused dramatic changes in the training of photographers. This was the introduction into the Royal Air Force of the first air cameras to take roll film instead of plates. Soon afterwards enormous strides were made in the techniques of both air reconnaissance and map making (survey) photography.

Large numbers of exposures could be made on a single flight (sortie) and large areas could be covered. The long lengths of film raised a hoard of problems in processing and printing and necessitated a vast amount of new equipment. The School had the difficult task of familiarising itself with all this new equipment and of revising syllabuses and training methods. All this was accomplished with little disruption to the training programme. In 1935 the clouds of war began to gather over Europe once more and the RAF began to expand to meet this threat. At the School the expansion of training though gradual at first was rapidly intensified, once it became apparent to those in high places that air photography would play a prominent role in the event of war. The graph for training output rose steeply, the staff increased and extra accommodation had to be provisioned.

Royal Air Force School of Photography
WW2 1939 – 1945

WW2 air ForceThe outbreak of the second World War  is a matter of record. As the enemy occupied more and more of Western Europe in 1940, the use of air reconnaissance became very extensive, and the photographers were completely swamped.

It was vitally important to train more photographers and at greater speed. In August 1940 therefore, a second school was started in Blackpool, using a hastily converted

technical college. The training of airwomen photographers began in 1941 at Blackpool and soon afterwards it was reported that the consumption of materials had increased by some 15%. The need for economy demanded an investigation which showed that to their credit, the increase was entirely due to the increase in recruitment of young airwomen. They proved to have better manual dexterity and were able to complete intricate manual tasks more quickly so produced more  volume of work. At both Schools training was streamlined to the maximum and intakes were as large and frequent as space allowed. This was a period of intense activity in air photography and gave rise to an enormous gain in experience.

The development of cameras, new installations and new techniques progressed alongside the development of aircraft, which flew ever faster and higher. Partly to minimise enemy intervention, photo reconnaissance sorties were flown very low down where image movement was a problem, or very high up where long focus lenses were necessary for adequate image scale. Both conditions gave rise to acute problems in the resolution of fine detail needed for intelligence. In addition to its reconnaissance uses, air photography was extremely useful for recording weapon strikes, both on operations and in aircrew training. The introduction of night photography with its special complications added to the ever growing list of tasks. To help in coping with the miles of film exposed and the millions of prints required, continuous film processing and multiprinting machines were introduced. Air photography became a vast organisation and the intelligence it produced was vital to the progress of the war. Not only were the two Schools faced with the task of training the numbers of photographers needed to feed this organisation, they had to continually adapt instruction to embrace new equipment and new techniques and yet strive for higher standards in training (without increasing training time) to meet the increasingly exacting demands made on photographers in the field. Together the Schools trained a total of 6,510 photographer personnel during the war.

This crest was granted Royal Approval by King George VI in November 1939

Post WW2

After the return to peacetime training in 1945, the School unfortunately had to move from Farnborough into improvised accommodation at Farnham, only to suffer a second move in 1948 to Wellesbourne Mountford in Warwickshire.

The mighty Victor reconnaissance aircraft
The mighty Victor reconnaissance aircraft

There is remained until October 1963, when it moved to temporary accommodation at RAF Cosford (joining the “Photographer Boy Entrant” training which had been there since 1956). The construction of a new purpose built school building was soon to be completed there. Since the war dramatic changes in aircraft performance and the wide coverage obtainable with multiple camera installations brought about far reaching changes in air photography. New sophisticated equipment and techniques   increased the complexity. It follows that the training courses became more comprehensive and intense to enable students to achieve the required skills and knowledge.
On the 3rd December 1965 the new building for the School of Photography was formally opened at RAF Cosford by Air Chief Marshal Sir Alfred Earle, KBE CR. Sir Alfred Earle was a former student back in 1930 and 1934. He had also been the Deputy Chief Instructor at the School and it was during that time he started the “Boy Entrant” training scheme and the SNCO’s Instruction Course. He flew most of the SNCO’s attending those courses in the School’s Avro Anson aircraft — up and down the southern railway taking overlap photography. He later became the Officer commanding, No 2 School of Photography at Blackpool. The site for the new School was made ready by clearing an old hangar called “Hinaidi East”. There was a great deal of careful planning to enable the latest equipment to be incorporated and it became the largest, most advanced photographic school of its kind in Europe. The first courses to be trained at the new School were of one year’s duration for “Craft Apprentices” in photography. The skills included air film processing, printing and management of air camera systems. The students were also expected to be very competent with general photography including studio work, public relations tasks, exterior and technical subjects using sensitometric quality controls. The training syllabuses were aligned   to civilian examination requirements.  In 1968 a “single skill” Training Policy was introduced. A basic “Air Photography Operator” course was devised to last 17 weeks and produce a tradesman capable of operating air film processing machinery including electronic printing machines and installing air cameras into aircraft under supervision. Advanced courses were made available to tradesmen when they had qualified to Senior Aircraftsmen, in the skills of “Air Camera Fitter’ and “Ground” general photographer. “Air Photography Operators” who had been promoted to Corporal, were eligible for the advanced training course titled “Photographic Processing Analyst”.

The Joint School of Photography

The closure of the Royal Naval Air Station, HMS Fulmar, at Lossiemouth in 1972 brought about the formation of the Joint School of Photography at RAF Cosford when the School took on the additional tasks of training the Royal Navy and Army basic students formerly trained at Lossiemouth. It was perhaps inevitable that further rationalisation would take place as a Tri Service School. In 1978 the air photography training was again revised to become a 16 week basic course and titled “Air Photography Processor 2”. This came about due to the sophisticated air cameras now requiring specialised skills given over to the electronics training of the Air Radar Fitter who was made responsible for the “optical sensors”. The “APP 2” tradesman could apply for the advanced “Air Photography Processor 1” course (13 weeks long) when they became selected for advancement to Corporal.

An additional course was held at RAF Hereford which covered Service disciplines and management aspects which they must s attend before promotion to JNCO. The promotion to Sergeant followed a similar pattern with the advanced course for the “Photographic Processing Analyst” (10 weeks long) and the Service management training course at RAF Hereford for SNCO’s. The general or “Ground” photographer underwent a very intense course of 27 weeks duration covering all the aspects of studio, public relations, architectural, technical, portraiture, copying and an excellent colour phase. Some “Ground” photographers were also responsible for staffing Lithographic printing shops therefore all students were given a basic litho course, followed by an advanced course if and when they are required to fill such a post. Advanced courses were also available together with specialist colour courses.  All students were given the opportunity as part of their course to qualify for the City and Guilds Certificates relevant to their trade. The photographic Processing Analysts could apply for membership of the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) as Associate members. All other students could apply to the BIPP, the Master Photographers Association  and the Royal photographic Society through the normal qualifying procedures. It is a reflection on the training and their personal endeavours that many ex students reached Fellowship standard in these organisations. The specialist Officer training courses gave an appreciation of management skills required for administering complex photo litho establishments both at home and abroad. There were also commitments to train foreign students of many nationalities during this time. In the 1980’s and the 1990’s, Video production and media operations became an essential part of the tri service needs as many International conflicts became highly sensitive to public information. The role was taken to very high standards by experienced Instructors whose enthusiasm and skills were reflected by the achievements of their ex students. The media became heavily reliant on their productions when the operational areas became too dangerous to permit normal coverage by National media reporters.

The Defence School of Photography

The digital revolution changed the face of training and the timescales beyond recognition in a very short space of time and placed tremendous demands on the skills and adaptability of the training staff.   They rose to the challenge, achieving remarkable increases in students practical and creative standards in a time scale previously thought impossible. The greatest challenge was to keep current training realistic, relevant and valid to the rapidly changing requirements of the digital equipment and software.

The Defence Training Review brought about the re naming of the school.  On June 6th 2004 the School was renamed again as the Defence School of Photography under the control of the Defence Intelligence Services Centre (DISC) at Chicksands.  A wide variety of specialist training courses, to (around 36 in all, including complete video production) became available to many government and local civil organisations including a local fire service, police, DHSS and HMRC.  From July 2004, students from all three services attending the basic photography training were placed on the same course known as the Defence Photographers course.

This principle of training became the prototype and flagship of tri service training amalgamation at Cosford particularly in aircraft engineering. The RAF Cosford base became the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering and a massive expansion programme estimated at over 200 million pounds was announced in September 2005.

A summary of accomplishments

In the first 50 years of its history the School trained more that 20,000 photographers, including those from 20 different countries. Many well known personalities attended the School either in command or as pupils. Mention has already been made of Group Captain F C V Laws who had so much to do with its origins and was Officer commanding the School in 1924 as a Squadron Leader and later in 1933 as a Wing Commander. Reference has also been made to Air Chief Marshal Sir Alfred Earle and the following should also be mentioned. These include Air Marshal Sir Ronald Rees and Group Captain J Bussey, a first World War pilot. He took the long course successfully in 1921 and later became the Chief Instructor. One of the famous Beamish brothers, Flying Officer G Beamish was a student in 1927.  Perhaps the least known student was a remarkable airman known as  Aircraftman Ross, who was better known as the legendary Colonel Lawrence of Arabia.  Sadly his stay at Farnborough was short lived due to the hounding of newspaper reporters and he was forced to leave the Service before completing the course. He re-enlisted as Aircraftman Shaw and contributed much to the development of marine craft in the Marine Branch. The first war sortie of World War 2 was a photographic operation, made on the day war was declared. Since that day much has been demanded of the Air Camera, and also of the men and women on whom its success so greatly depended. I include this article of an appreciation of the photographers by Bomber Command. It echoes my driven ambition to re-instate a Military Photography Museum as a tribute to their memory:

100 years of Military Photography

“Shall history forget the photographers … they toiled unceasingly and year by year the task increased; in squadron camera rooms, in the multiplying aircraft and in the darkrooms, as the first handful of F24 cameras increased to a grand total of 3,000 and the miniature cameras for the radar numbered 600. The first of the 1,000 bomber raids in mid 1942 found them “ready “at the operational and training units. Colour photography with its exacting demands for skills and care in all stages of the long process, was tackled successfully by our photographers, who had no previous experience of this work. Radar photography, requiring entirely separate treatment increased the flow of work by numerous miniature films. And finally, the daylight offensive of the heavy bombers, which came about as an addition to the night attacks and was on the same great scale, rising to a force of 1,107 aircraft between the 6 Operational Groups alone. The skill, patience, ingenuity and endurance of all photographers had indeed been worthy of the highest praise”.

10 thoughts on “The School of Photography – The Story

  1. I did my RAF Air Photography Operator course at RAF Cosford in 1972. Posted to RAF Leconfield to… the Photographic Section. In 1973 I was attached to 11 Squadron (Lightnings) when the squadron were based there while the runway at RAF Binbrook was being resurfaced (I was finally doing what I was trained to do) and we went to RAF Luqa, Malta on an APC. On return I was posted back to the Photo Section again. In 1974 I was then posted to RAF Wyton where I served on the 39 Squadron RIC (Canberras) before crossing the road to work in the Photo Factory. Unfortunately in 1974 I was injured (dislocation of my left knee joint) in and following unsuccessful reconstructive surgery & rehabilitation in 1975 I was discharged from the RAF in 1976 (totally gutted).
    I went on to work as a freelance photographer & journalist.
    I attended the Centenary of the DSOP.


  2. Hi I went to RAF Cardington early 1960 and was selected – just a few of us – from around 200 applicants in September 1960 went to RAF Cosford to join the 41st Entry Photographers where I joined 12 other future Photog’s and what an amazing 18 months I had learning a great trade, giving me some amazing skills to get me through life and most of all meeting my great friends of the future — here we are 57 years later and seven of us are still in contact – meeting up every other year at various sites including Cosford. Thank you to the RAF for giving me this lifetime pleasure. I left Cosford in April 1962, off to RAF Wittering, followed by RAF Bruggen in Germany, back to RAF Brampton, off to RAF Episkopi – Cyprums and finished up at RAF Marham running my own Photographic Flight of up to 15 staff. What a fantastic life it was and so glad that I went on that Adventure. Ex Corporal Ralph Hoult of Ramsgate.


  3. I need a clear version of the JSOP crest in order to get a wall plaque made
    Could you assist me in this matter
    The quality of the RAF crest at the bottom of this article is perfect but I need the JSOP one


  4. my grandfather was flight sergent a e wynn and he was at gaydon until 1965 and taught photoghraphy until he retired in 1965 previously he was at raf scampton during the war


  5. might as well bore you with my sorry tale. Joined in the glorious summer of 1976. arriving at Cosford in July on APop 54 posted to Waddington on completion working on Vulcans with the F95 and R88 cameras , processing 70mm and 35mm on a type 12 for some reason. then on to the NDT section processing X ray shots on an Xomat machine.
    Aldergrove for a couple of tours in ther RIC(NI). then back to Cosford for my Air camera fitter course . ACF41. posted to Brawdy on completion, where I hold the distinction of being the last ever ACF on the unit . on the disbanding of the trade in 1983. all that came after me were L Tech AR and L mech AR.
    yours Mik ( Danny) Boon ,


  6. Help! I served with the band of the RAF(G) 1984-1989. In (I believe) October 1985, at RAF Wildenrath we presented a live dramatization of The War of the Worlds, involving various aircraft, personnel and music support from the band. The event was recorded on video and we are trying to obtain a copy if one exists. We have contacted BFBS/SSVC and they tell us they did not cover news and events in Germany in 1985 and that the video was more likely recorded by an RAF Media team. It’s a long time ago I know, but maybe something exists in the archives?

    Frans de-Leuw

    Retired WO RAFMS – served 1977 – 2009


  7. A handful of RAF personnel were posted to RAF Lossiemouth in 1972/73 to take over the RNAS HMS Fulmar from the Royal Navy. The Navy flew Gannets and helicopters, the RAF flew Shackletons and SAR helicopters, and were awaiting the Jaguar in 1974.


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