Sony's AirPeak drone is the world‘s smallest drone that can carry a full frame Alpha series mirrorless camera. It's also a versatile aerial platform that's capable of carrying other payloads. Check out how professional drone pilot Craig Coker deployed powerful drone-lighting tools to capture stunning images of world-class athletes in the first AirPeak "Light The Night" showcase.
What Is Sony AirPeak?
Sony unveiled the AirPeak S1 to the public on January 12, 2021. It's the world‘s smallest drone that can carry a full-frame Alpha series mirrorless camera, but as we're about to learn, that's not the only thing that AirPeak is capable of.
Built with Sony-developed stereo cameras and vision-sensing processors, the AirPeak S1 is a fully featured professional drone that offers real-time 3D spatial awareness, multi-directional obstacle sensing, precision flight in winds of up to 44.7 mph, and a max-speed of 55.9 mph. Drone pilots and creators who want access to high-resolution imaging with Sony's wide range of Alpha cameras and lenses can finally take to the skies with a vertically integrated drone, directly from Sony. They've invested a significant amount of R&D into the platform and are committed to collaborating with professionals and creators to continually improve the AirPeak platform.
While AirPeak S1 is a powerful cinematic drone that can deliver amazing aerial images, it also has a lot of additional potential for other applications. In order to demonstrate the potential that AirPeak S1 has as an aerial platform for other applications, professional drone pilot and content creator Craig Coker developed a creative project to showcase how AirPeak can be used for drone-lighting techniques at night.
Craig and his team went on a three-night journey with high-powered LED and strobe lights mounted to the AirPeak S1 and captured stunning images of three world-class athletes at sea, in the desert, and on snow-covered mountains.
The project is called "Light The Night", and I recently had an opportunity to interview the lead editor of the project, Sony Digital Imaging's Sr. Video Editor, Jonathan Villegas.
Johnny gives us some great insight into what the project was all about: the cast, the crew, and why AirPeak is the perfect aerial platform to enable this level of world-class imagery.
"Light The Night" features three world-class athletes that are at the top of their respective fields, including American Olympic gold medalist Joss Christensen. Let's take a look at each of their bios, along with an overview of their individual segments.
Blake Wilkey is known for his wild off-road builds and amazing talent behind the wheel. In the first segment of LTN, Craig and the AirPeak team take the Light The Night concept out for the first time, creating amazing images of Blake's custom dune buggy. Craig uses a high-powered strobe mounted to AirPeak's Gremsy gimbal to illuminate the scene from above, creating unique images that are difficult to create any other way. He also uses a powerful continuous LED light to film tracking shots of Blake driving.
Joss Christensen is a world-renowned skier who has won many events. He's also the first American slope style skier in the Olympics to win a Gold Medal. In the second segment of Light The Night, Craig links up with Joss on the slopes of Snow Summit to create more amazing drone-lit photos and videos. AirPeak continues to enable unique off-camera lighting capabilities, with amazing strobe-lit photos and continuous lighting for videos.
Austin Keen is a world champion skimboarder. In the third and final segment of Light The Night, Craig demonstrates why the implementation of powerful lighting solutions on AirPeak is such a game-changer. Craig lights Austin from angles above the surf that are simply not possible any other way.
Take a look at the complete Light The Night showcase video below:
I recently had an opportunity to attend the inaugural AirPeak Summit in San Diego CA, where I met and interviewed Sony Digital Imaging's Sr. Video Editor, Jonathan Villegas. Jonathan has a diverse creative background and is the lead editor of the Light The Night project.
Let's take a look at some of the insights that Johnny shares regarding some of the production decisions that the team made, the challenges that they faced, and what's in store for the future of the project.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and the types of work that you do.
A: I’m Johnny V, a freelance video producer, cinematographer, photographer, and the owner of Johnny V Imagery, LLC.
I’ve had a camera in my hand since middle school; filming and editing videos of my friends. In high school, I graduated from “The Media Academy,” a curriculum that fused traditional education with technology and video production. After graduating from UCSD with a Film and Television degree, I spent some time on the backlots of Hollywood as a PA, worked in live events, corporate videography, then co-founded a media production company with my homie Kim “Woozy,” supporting top female action sports athletes and female DJs, aptly named “MAHFIA.”
Since then, I spent time as the Senior Content Manager for the Sony Action Cam division, working with some legendary action sports athletes to create dope content. That expanded into supporting Sony Electronics and Sony Imaging Solutions as a whole. Eventually, I went full freelance, started my own company, and here we are.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Light The Night? How did your team come up with the idea?
A: From the moment I met Craig, Sony AirPeak's senior pilot, it was obvious that he's a crazy genius. He’s also a race car driver and used to be a professional freestyle skier (adrenaline junky for sure).
LTN is his brainchild, years in the making. I remember reading an article that he wrote back in 2016 where he used a drone as a lighting source and Alpha mirrorless technology to capture the most insane images of his buddy, Olympic gold medalist and freestyle skier Joss Christensen.
We tapped into Joss’ skill set once more for this project, along with off-road warrior Blake Wilkey and skimboarder and wakesurfer guru, Austin Keen.
Q: Tell us a bit about your gear choices for the project. What made you choose the gear you used, and how was it advantageous for the project?
A: On the Sony Airpeak S1, Craig utilized the lighting power of a Godox strobe (AD300 Pro) and a Hybrid LED Continuous Strobe called Reflex from Stella Pro.
For BTS, the talented Lee Stockwell shot stills on the Alpha 1, and video on the a7S III, using the 100-400mm GM, 70-200mm GM, and 24-70mm GM.
I shot BTS video using the a7S III, 14mm GM, 16-35mm GM, 24mm GM, and 24-70mm GM.
The a7S III paired with fast lenses was essential for this low-light production, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
Q: Craig mentioned in the video that AirPeak is: "the perfect tool" for Light The Night. Can you elaborate on what makes AirPeak such a great tool to create images like these?
A: The Sony Airpeak S1 and Gremsy T3 gimbal combo create the ideal system to support the payload of these lights, while also providing the maneuverability and control to get a light source right where you need it, when you need it. Shooting action sports is intense and requires lightning-fast reflexes and gear — the moment happens, and then it’s gone. You either get the shot or you don’t.
In the case of LTN, we scouted and pre-planned our shots during the day, but when it was time to send it, each of us (the athlete, Craig (pilot and photographer), Lee, and I) had to be on our A-game. With everything on the line, the Airpeak functioned and performed flawlessly and everything clicked into place.
When your subjects are an off-road race buggy, a skier hucking himself off of massive features, and a skimboarder attacking unpredictable shorebreak, the Airpeak had to be able to match what each of these athletes is setting out to do, and it did beautifully.
Q: What were some of the benefits of being able to have AirPeak illuminate your subjects from the air, versus lighting them traditionally from the ground?
A: I think the imagery speaks for itself. At first glance, the images that Craig captured immediately strike a chord. They’re disruptive. They literally bring new light to the subjects by capturing them in a way that is beautiful, original and freakin’ rad!
Q: What were some of the challenges that you faced with shooting in the conditions that you were in? Any advice for other creators who'd like to shoot similar projects with AirPeak?
A: Each location and athlete had their own idiosyncrasies to adapt to, plus the whole point of the project was shooting in low light. When you have all these moving parts with each person on the crew carrying a multitude of responsibilities, communication is key and gear needs to be dependable.
The Airpeak and Alpha mirrorless systems did not fail and were never something to worry about. They just worked.
There were times radios were being funky. Blake’s section was dusty, so trying to keep the gear clean was something to stay on top of. Joss’ section at Snow Summit got cold as the night went on. Also, whenever you have a drone, it attracts attention (hopefully good, but there’s usually some push-back from concerned individuals), but Craig’s always cool as a cucumber, and knows how to deal with situations.
My advice would be to:
- Have reliable gear that you know well. Fumbling around in the dark will only set you back.
- Pre-plan during the day when there’s light so that everyone is firing on all cylinders come game time.
- Use fast glass and powerful lighting.
- Hit up Craig with any questions. He’s the most proficient drone pilot I know.
Q: What's next for Light The Night with Sony AirPeak?
A: You tell me what you'd like to see from us?!
Craig is a madman with endless ideas of implementations for the Light The Night concept, both creative and even life-saving (water rescue, emergency response, etc.).
I think that this showcase is a successful proof of concept, showing that Sony Airpeak really is an amazing tool that can be utilized in as many ways as you can imagine and that the sky is no longer the limit.
I can’t wait to work with Craig, Lee, the athletes and Sony on more LTN projects; I’m sure they’ll be even more wild than this one.
Let’s not forget to give a huge thank and gratitude where it is deserved:
Craig for pulling me in on this project, it was a full-circle moment to be shooting action sports again; Lee Stockwell for always getting the shot; Blake, Joss, and Austin, you guys really are gladiators — mad respect; the Sony Airpeak team (Jenn, Gabe, Akhil, El-Deane, Hiro, Mark) for supporting the project; the Snow Summit staff for taking care of us; and to everyone who is pumped on Light The Night!
We can’t wait to see where this will take us next!
AirPeak S1 is Sony's first foray into combining its digital imaging expertise with drones. With the wealth of resources at its disposal, Sony is capable of blazing a new trail in the world of aerial content creation and beyond.
The best part is that AirPeak has a promising future and the capability to disrupt and transform the drone industry. The platform is maturing with commitment from Sony's leadership and through collaborations with industry professionals, like the team behind Light The Night.
As an FAA Part 107 drone pilot with nearly a decade of commercial flight experience and a professional Alpha creator and educator myself, I can't wait to see where Sony takes AirPeak next. If I had a personal wish list, it would be to diversify the platform with new generations of AirPeak drones in different categories. Imagine a fully integrated FX-30 in a small AirPeak that can fit in your backpack or a cool battery handle that can take the gimbal payload and use it as a standalone video rig.
The possibilities are endless, and I can't wait to see what's next!
What are you most excited about with AirPeak? Share your comments and feedback below.
Images used with permission of Craig Coker.