As a photographer, I'm always looking to capture something in a unique way. This is the craziest landscape photoshoot I have ever done. By taping a tiny Nikon Flash to my DJI Phantom II Drone, I was able to fly my remote helicopter up the side of a lighthouse and light the entire thing with flash. Creating this photograph was one of the trickest shoots I've ever done, and this is how I made it happen.
When it comes to compositing in Photoshop I usually would try to avoid it as much as possible. Truth be told, I was just never that good at blending multiple frames together in a realistic way. Now I feel forever indebted to real estate and architectural photographer Mike Kelley after he taught me a bunch of easy ways to composite multiple exposures together using his "Mike Kelley Flash Technique". I literally use this technique all the time now. After watching Mike work in person on a few interiors I began to think, "how could I take this style of lighting to an extreme?" Naturally I began brainstorming a few project ideas I had floating around.
For the last month or two we have been producing a ton of videos featuring the DJI Phantom II like this video taken in the Bahamas. It's literally one of the most fun "toys" I've ever owned. For the longest time I have wanted to photograph a historic landscape in Charleston and apply this flash light painting technique. One of the most iconic landmarks in Charleston is the Sullivan's Island Lighthouse so I knew it would be an awesome candidate for this test.
Mounting a speedlight to a quadcopter as small as the DJI Phantom is not an easy task. First off, the flash has to be extremely lightweight in order to keep the helicopter stable in flight. That meant all our SB-800s, 910s, and even smaller 700s were not going to work. Another obstacle I had to solve was not only finding a lightweight flash but finding a flash that could also be controlled manually since the distance from helicopter to lighthouse would most likely not be consistent shot by shot. Luckily the Nikon SB-300 fit the bill perfectly....well sort of.
The Nikon SB-300 does not have manual control but it does use Nikon's iTTL system. In order for me to control the output of the flash, I was going to have to sync my camera and flash with a wireless radio trigger that worked with iTTL. My trigger of choice is the Pocket Wizard Plus III triggers but they cannot control flash output. Therefore, I had to try this shoot with another radio system. The Phottix Odin wireless system is designed to give you control of your Nikon flashes directly from the transmitter on your camera's hotshoe. It was an added bonus that the Odin receiver made it easy to mount both the receiver and the flash directly to our quadcopter with little more than some electrical tape.
Once we had the quadcopter flying, I began directing Lee Morris as to where I wanted him to fly the copter for the best light. Overall I took over 200 photographs with half of those being frames exposed for the flash and half of them being bracketed images of the natural sunset light. Overall I think I used about 25 unique frames to build my final composite. In this sort of situation, it's best to over shoot and over bracket so that when you get back to the computer you are 100% positive you have all the images needed to make the composite work. Here is a fun little image I made showing different exposures throughout the entire process.
Once I started photographing the lighthouse, I began to think it might be cool to make the foreground look like it was being illuminated by the lighthouse itself. I wanted some of the foreground to be dark while part of it to be bright. In order to bring everything together in a coherent way, I used Aaron Nace's "How to create beams of light" Photoshop technique. Aaron is an extremely talented photographer, retoucher, and educator, and I'm excited to say he is going to be teaching a few workshops at our 2014 Fstoppers Workshops in the Bahamas this May. Here is the video that helped me achieve a realistic beam of light for the final lighthouse composite.