In Aerial Photography, 10,000 Acres Looks Like What…?

Just exactly what does 10,000 acres look like?  An aerial photography project that looks at that much acreage doesn’t come along very often (at last not for me).  Most of the properties I look at in the commercial  photography business range from downright small, to urban properties, to maybe a hundred acres or so.


This aerial photo of some island property in the Snohomish River Valley, as you can see, seems to be tiny, though the actual acreage is more than is evident.  With the advent of climate change, island property such as this is likely to become more common around this part of the country!

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Urban lot-sized property (a few hundred feet on a side) is much more common aerial photography subject. This commercial building sits on what looks like 2-3 acres.  Something like this is bread and butter.



Occasionally — but generally a lot less common — a commission to photograph some acreage comes along.  In this aerial photo, the property in question amounts to 124 acres.  The boundaries extend from the waterfront just to the right of the house, upwards to the top of the hill, takes in most of the brown vegetation up to the greener north-south tree line, around the south side of the green trees to about the open meadows, then back inside the road to the waterline in the right foreground.  124 acres is not quite 20% of a square mile.

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These variably sized properties are the bulk of the subjects I have encountered in 30 years of aerial photography.  So, when I was commissioned by a rancher’s daughter to make aerials of her family’s 10,000 acre ranch in western Montana – the Whiterock Ranch — my first response was “Sure – glad to! I’m looking forward to it!”  We set a price.  She sent me a Google Map outlining the property boundaries, which was very helpful.

But – I’m thinking to myself – OK, just what does 10,000 acres look like?  And more to the point, how am I gonna recognize the boundaries when I get there and how high am I gonna need to be to get a good look at the whole thing??  Well, this called for a little faith we can figure it out when we got there.

From Seattle to Madison County, Montana, is about a 1250 mile round trip.  We lifted off about 8 AM, made a very necessary pit stop in Butte to take care of the essentials, and came into sight of the Madison River Valley and the Whiterock Ranch about 1 PM.

So, just how big is 10,000 acres?  Here’s the math.  There are 640 acres in a square mile. 10,000 acres ÷ 640 acres/sq. mi. = 15.63 sq. mi.!  That’s a whopping 100x larger than most of the larger sites I’ve ever looked at before!  The valley floor is about 4700 feet elevation. The highest peak adjacent to the ranch to the east – Manhead Mountain — is just shy of 10,000 feet.  About half the ranch is in the river valley, about half in the high mountains SW of Manhead.  Out of dozens of aerial photographs of the property, this view looking SE is one that I think describes the acreage best.

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It turns out that the ranch land is easy to recognize.  The thing about property in general is that it is laid out on cultural boundaries.  Especially in the Western US, big blocks of acreage are delineated by section lines — fence lines, crop blocks, roads, vegetation variations, linear features.  To see the whole ranch adequately, we climbed to an elevation of 10,800 feet.   In this photograph, the ranch property starts at the base of the mountain face on the extreme left, zigzags west past the three crop circles and the crop squares to about the middle foreground, heads south on the white road to where it disappears, then turns east up into several sections of the mountains to the SW of Manhead, then back along the near mountain front to the northeast corner again.  It took me only about 2 to 3 minutes to recognize the property lines, a few minutes to climb to altitude, and about an hour total at various lower altitudes to photograph a bunch of ranch details.

Job completed, my pilot, Ed Bryce, and I headed back, stopped for a meal and a couple of pit stops, then home — a total of 10.6 hours flight time, about 13 hours round trip.  It was both a successful and out-of-the-ordinary aerial photography project.  I’m always happy to figure stuff out, the client was happy, the check was good.  Then it was time to move on to the next big aerial photography challenge (which turned out to be a 6,000 acre property — from a helicopter — a narrative for another time).