Lighting A Lighthouse With A Strobe Attached To A Drone

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.
Sullivan's light house poster print

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.

best flash for quadcopter dji phantom nikon sb 300Mounting 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.

how to trigger camera and flash helicopterThe 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.

sullivan's light house drone patrick hall

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.

 

Final Image:
night shot sullivan's light house patrick hall

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36 Comments

steven tippett's picture

amazing, you just changed the game forever... i feel like this is going to be the future of a lot of good things to come :) thank you for the idea... :) if i use it ill link it back

OH MY GOD you have just pushed me over the line. I AM BUYING THE DRONE AS I TYPE

That was very cool! Now I want a drone...

Tam Nguyen's picture

Dat ass on the front page tho.

Zach Sutton's picture

I'm hustling my workshop game for the sole purpose of becoming a drone pilot. :3

Like a boss! But seriously...love the vision and the process to make it work.

Awesome final image!

Killed it. Awesome job guys.

Clay Cook's picture

AWESOME!

very nice... thank you

Brilliant!

this is simply the best use for a drone in photography I've ever seen, the image is perfect, thx for sharing

There no doubt about it, it worked... But one would have to ask, why would you go to all the issues of drones, remote commanders and so many layers, whereas you probably could have done this with a Brinkman Q-Beam and a snoot, and 10 shots layered? We've used handheld powered spotlights to shoot time exposures since 1984.

I'm not knocking this in anyway, shape or form.. Just questioning the complexity of it.

Patrick Hall's picture

How would I have gotten light angled down? The whole top of the light house is lit from above.

Digital Macdaddy's picture

You can just have Lee jump! A running start might be advisable, though.

Duh Patrick. You skydive in. A lot.

How did you come back the next day and ensure you had the same position and framing? Or did you have to tweak quite a bit in post?

Lee Morris's picture

The picture was completely re-shot. Nothing from day one was used in the final image.

Ah, thank you. That makes sense. For some reason I interpreted it as Patrick just going back to get a better sky.

Patrick Hall's picture

Nope, went back the next day for the whole setup. Everything you see was taken within 90 minutes on one single night.

Scanning......yup, confirmed. Rad.

WTF!!! How many layers did you end up with? Awesome image. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all the different things you did.

Neil Holloman's picture

Hey great Lighthouse image! I understand that you guys are bracketing exposures for ambient light periodically, but are you also "bracketing" flash pops as well? i.e. multiple flashes on the same basic position at varying powers?

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

Very unique use of the drone. Has to be a first. Great composite.

Hell yeah

Looks like lots of fun - but can't help think that similar results could have been achieved by combining daytime, dusk and night shots of the scene with masking/dodging and burning - without all that flash/drone work.

Patrick Hall's picture

I really don't think it would be possible. To light the right side of the light house you would have to be there early in the morning for sunrise. Some of the detail like the area around the red paint at the top would probably never get light from that direction. Also the way the shoot was executed, it allowed me to flash the intricate rails, towers, antennae at the top against a near black background. Doing that during the day would make it very very hard to separate those details from a bright background.

Also many of the light pops in the foreground are coming from a direction that would not be seen by natural sunlight. The sun would have risen and set from the right to the left but behind the camera....so having shadows coming towards the camera would not be possible.

I have been wanting to do something like this for a while but just don't have the funds to buy myself a decent tablet atm never mind a drone :)

Keep up the good work :)

Keith Walters's picture

Inspiring -- thank you for sharing! I just taped a speedlite to mine and am looking forward to giving this a try :)

Wouldn't be easier if you just lightpainted it with a flashlight?

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