When You Can't Use a Light Stand: The Drone-Mounted Flash Fashion Shoot

When You Can't Use a Light Stand: The Drone-Mounted Flash Fashion Shoot

I use flashes a lot in my photography, whether a speedlite or in the studio with some big strobes and modifiers. But this is the first time I have ever used a drone-mounted flash.

This idea first came to mind years ago, four to be exact, after reading this article about lighting a landscape of a lighthouse with a strobe attached to a drone. Ever since then, I have had this vision in the back of my mind, slowly growing and becoming clearer. Then, last season, my videographer friends crashed their Phantom 3 drone. They figured it was junked and had left it in a closet, collecting dust. This spring, I inquired about their drone to see if we would still be able to get it airborne after the crash. While the camera was permanently damaged, the drone itself could still fly. We were in business.

Our first test was with the smallest and lightest flash that I own, the Canon 430EX, with a simple radio trigger attached to the foot. We literally tied the flash to the bottom of the drone with several feet of paracord. Let's just say it was janky. With the flash being mounted to the bottom of the drone, we had to do a hand launch.

We powered up the drone and slowly throttled up until the quadcopter was flying. We were both astonished that the drone was flying incredibly stable with all that extra weight.

Proof of Concept: Check.

With the ability to digitally remove objects or composite images and the small size of flashes, you could really put the drone anywhere. But the whole point of this shoot was to light the impossible. I wanted to be able to position a flash where it would be impossible using any normal means.

While location-scouting, I found this rock face with the eastern sky as the background. I first thought it would be an amazing location for an engaged couple or something that I usually shoot. But when I realized that the sun would rise right behind the cliff, I knew a sunrise session was in order.

Rather than a traditional, naturally lit sunrise session with a silhouetted subject, I wanted to light the model so they would stand out from the background. The only way to be able to do that from this position would be with a light that could fly; so, we did just that.

It Was Now Time to Ramp Things Up.

Recognizing that I was going to be fighting against the sun, I knew that the little 430EX flash was just not going to be enough power. Another test flight was in order, this time with the Canon 600EX RT. Just like we did with the first flight, we were able to launch the 600EX RT flash, and the drone held steady. Now, we also had the added benefit of the built-in radio receiver in the 600EX strobe. With the Canon ST-E3-RT Speedlite Transmitter on top of my camera, I would be able to control the flash's power while it was flying in the air.

I reached out on social media to see if anyone was interested in getting up for a unique sunrise photo session. Michelle McEwan, the 2018 Miss NH contestant, answered the model call. I told her my vision for the shoot and together we planned out hair, makeup, and wardrobe for this sunrise session. Then, we set a date for the shoot, hoping for an amazing sunrise.

We woke up at 3:30 AM to be able to get on location, set up, and shooting before the sunrise at 5:12 AM. I really wanted to capture the predawn light and the red glow from the rising sun. Luckily, on the morning of the shoot, it was a very calm day with little wind, so we didn't have to fight against any strong gusts while flying and maneuvering the drone.

After I posed Michelle on the rock cliffs, I got into my shooting position and launched the drone. Once the drone was in the air, I started shooting away, creating the compositions that had been on my mind for such a long time.

We were having a bit of a problem with the communications between the flash and the transmitter on the camera. I imagine that was due to all of the interference from the drone. But I was happy to be able to have the ability to adjust the power output of the strobe. When we first launched, the sky was just starting to get some color, so I was shooting at ½ power, but as the sun began to rise, I upped that all the way to 1/1 power, and we needed every last drop of it.

A lot had to come together for the shoot, but I am very happy with the results. It was exactly the vision I had in my mind.

Final Images

ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/125 s

ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/125 s

Here is a behind the scenes video explaining more about the shoot and my mindset.

After we landed the drone safely I took advantage of the beautiful morning light for a fashion portrait session with Michelle.

Some Key Takeaways From This Shoot

  • This did not just happen spur of the moment. It was the result of years of brainstorming, months of testing, weeks of planning, days of editing, and hours of shooting.
  • Collaboration is key. We had a whole team come together for this: a drone operator, model, photographer, and behind the scenes video team. All of these people I connected with via social media, networking, and friendships.
  • You have to get out there. Create. Create. Create. Every single day. If you have a dream, an idea, or anything, just get out there and make it happen. Experiment, and have fun with it. It doesn't have to work out and no one has to even see it. The whole process is so much more gratifying than the end result. Because you did get out there, you did try, and you did create. Love the process, not the end result.

Gear Used

The Team

Big thanks to the team that made this all possible!

Model: Michelle McEwan

Photography: Lee Germeroth Photography

BTS Video: JDM Video

Drone Operator: Daniel Cavanagh

Lee Germeroth's picture

Lee Germeroth is a Seacoast New England wedding, engagement and environmental portrait photographer. He has traveled over the world focusing on an instant to capture moments with his passion for photography and creates something new every single day.

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The moon and clouds came together perfectly as well! Great idea and great shots!

Thanks Alex! I couldn't have asked for better weather. It all came together perfectly :)

Great idea but, honestly, not the best use. At that distance, you could have bracketed the exposures and gotten similar results. It'd be nice to see the results from much tighter shots, highlighting the subtle lighting such a setup would allow.

The goal of the shoot was to create an image with one shot and not have to composite out the lightstand or anything like that. A close-up shot would have been way easier to "fake" by using a traditional lighting method.
And with a bracketed exposure there is no way that you would have been able to get the shadows and texture in the rocks seeing as the only other light source (the sun) was behind the model and behind the cliff.

I hadn't noticed the rocks must have been lit with your speedlight. I was just looking at the model. Well, on closer inspection, I still don't think it was a great implementation but, again, applaud the idea. :-)

Sam, enlighten the group. What would you consider a proper “implementation” of the drone flash?

Okay, but you asked!

As I said before, I originally just looked at the model and thought the effect not nearly subtle enough to justify the effort, which I still think. Having learned it was used to light the rocks as well, they got my attention and I just don't think the whole thing looks natural. Now, this is subjective but, whenever I see something lit in a natural setting like this, the light source has to make sense. It doesn't. There's just no way those rocks, or the model, would be lit that way. And, again, there's nothing subtle at all about the lighting on the rocks, even assuming it made any sense, which it doesn't.

The whole thing looks a lot like a "proof of concept" shot, which it is more or less. And that's fine.

I think a better use would be a closer shot, close enough to demonstrate more subtle lighting but far enough away that it couldn't have been faked and that shown to be the case. Maybe the same camera position but zoomed in about half-way. Then, I'd tone down the lighting a bit. Just enough to pull her out of the shadows + 1/2 stop and add some texture to the rocks. The whole thing might require a couple or three drones.

Sorry you asked? :-)

Edit: In summary, it looked like a solution looking for a problem versus the other way around.

There's nothing natural in anyway with the shot. I hate speaking for someone else, but if I were looking for "natural" I wouldn't have a beautiful woman in a dress standing on a cliff facing the ocean. In other words, I don't think "natural" is the goal .

In my opinion, the incongruity of the model with the surroundings and lit the way it is is WHY it works.

Without the juxtaposition it would just be a pic of a person standing on the rocks during a sunrise.

As it stands, it's a cool shot that, although there is a bit of a proof of concept vibe, works quite well.

Again, that is just my opinion.

What can I say? I'm very picky. :-) The worst thing anyone could say about my work is, "It's fine."

It would be extremely helpful if you gave a link to the Paracord used. I feel like that was a key component to the success of the shoot. ;)

I use only the best paracord sourced from my secret rope supplier. If I could give you a link I would, but it is actually classified information -- very hush hush ;)

Ok it's a commercial, ok it was a bigger drone and so on ... but :

I hadn't seen that one before, but I did know that people were strapping studio strobes to commercial drones. If only I had a bigger drone... :)

If only I had a drone at all ;) :p

( And strong enough to hold a powerful strobe with a softbox )

That'd be a dream. But this shoot was also to just show that you could do this with consumer level drone and a Speedlite. You don't need a huge studio kit and commercial payload drone.