Despite a fairly tenuous link to Nelson (See footnote) the Navy were slow in embracing photography except as a means of recording the fall of shot for gunnery marking and the accuracy of torpedo firings. The first, hand held, aerial photograph of a Royal Navy ship at sea was taken by Colonel Cody during demonstrations of his man lifting kites from HMS Revenge in 1908 but again the military potential of this was not recognised until just before the First World War.
Until 1913 and even running into the First World War virtually all aerial photography in the military was taken by enthusiastic amateur photographers using their own equipment.
Prior to and during World War 1 the Royal Navy recruited civilian photographers who gave specialist training in the gunnery and torpedo schools at HMS Excellent and HMS Vernon respectively. Lord Curzon was the Fleet Photographic Officer for the Grand Fleet, embarked in the Flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, and there were seven “highly skilled” naval photographers working for him.
The Royal Engineers ran their first photographic course in 1856 and established a school of chemistry and photography close to their balloon base at Chatham in 1874.
In May 1912 the aerial elements Royal Engineers and Royal Navy became the Royal Flying Corps with Military and Naval wings. The RFC set up a Photographic School at Farnborough in 1915 and the Naval wing which by that time become the Royal Naval Air Service undertook the training of aircrew and photographers at the Naval Air Station at Chingford. At the peak there were some sixty photographic staff and students working at Chingford.
Although there was some rivalry between the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the RFC there was close cooperation between the heads of photography of the two services, Charles Campbell for the RFC and Charles Gamble for the RNAS. Gamble had been loaned from Manchester University and was based at Chingford.
Both the RFC the RNAS recruited many civilian photographers and gave them short courses in aerial cameras and aerial photography. At that time photographers in both services were aircraft mechanics. On the 1st April 1918 all the RFC and RNAS photographers became part of the RAF and the Navy lost all the expertise in the aerial photographic field. In 1919 the Navy set up a dedicated photographic school and again this was mainly in support of gunnery and torpedo work.
The first recorded photograph of a Royal Navy ship is of the San Josef, taken in Devonport dockyard, just before she was broken up in 1849. She was a Spanish first rate, captured personally by Nelson during the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797.