What to Expect from the Emerging World of Drone Lighting

September 21, 2016

By Aimee Baldridge

Imagine a world without light stands, cranes or booms. Imagine that all you’d have to do to illuminate your scene would be to release your lights into the air and command them to hover in the perfect spot, like some magical production-scale firefly. This is the world of aerial drone-mounted lighting that is just beginning to take shape.

While many forward-thinking shooters are still using improvised systems they’ve put together in the years since drones became available to consumers, the first generation of dedicated drone-mounted lights has hit the market this summer. This new category of light promises to bring down the cost and physical demands of very high-angle lighting, open up creative possibilities, and even illuminate scenes that couldn’t have been lit before.

Photographer and filmmaker Jeffrey Moustache started experimenting with mounting his Canon 580EX II Speedlite and PocketWizard wireless transceiver on a DJI Phantom drone in 2014, developing a setup that allows him to take outdoor action shots lit from above, even in settings that would be costly and arduous to light with other equipment, like just offshore in the Pacific Ocean. “I can use it essentially as a light stand that I can put anywhere,” he says. Moustache has kept the practical things simple, attaching the Speedlite to his drone with gaffer’s tape and using a few test shots to get his exposure right during twilight shoots.


From Jeffrey Moustache’s series “Master of Shapes,” lit with a simple Speedlight attached to his drone with gaffer’s tape. © JEFFREY MOUSTACHE

Moustache shoots with a Canon SLR about 20 to 40 feet from his subjects, and plans his shots carefully. “We block everything out, just because I’m shooting at a shallow depth of field,” he says. “I’ll set the camera up on a tripod and then we’ll go out and mark the spot where they need to do the trick or be mid-action. And then I’ll set up my drone there and fly it basically directly up so that [the subjects] can go right into the frame and right into their position.” Having the drone start from the subjects’ position keeps him from expending battery life flying out to the subject. Conserving the drone’s flight battery life is one of the challenges of drone-mounted lighting, since the added weight of a light cuts flying time. “If it’s too much, the motors can short out or not have enough power and overheat,” says Moustache. “So it can come crashing down if you overweight them.”

But all things considered, it’s a simple and efficient way to light. “I think the biggest technical difficulty I had was syncing issues, because the radio frequency of the drone was interfering with the radio frequency of my PocketWizard,” he says. Moustache solved the problem by setting up a second PocketWizard midway between his camera and the drone, to relay the signal. His next projects will use LEDs for motion and he’s also experimenting with having more than one lighting drone in the air.

The first generation of dedicated drone-mounted lights are all LEDs, which allows them to be very light and compact. They include the diminutive Fiilex AL250 and Light & Motion Seca 2200d, which both put out about 2000 lumens, as well as the heftier 5000-lumen Light & Motion Stella Pro 5000d. The AL250 can be attached with a GoPro mount to any drone with a payload capacity of 0.6 pounds, and runs on its own battery for about 25 minutes.

While the AL250 is compatible with numerous drones, Fiilex consulted with 3D Robotics during its development, a collaboration that promises strong integration as more feature-rich models come to market. 3DR’s Solo drone features open gimbal and accessory bays that facilitate compatibility with photo and video gear, and the company envisions adding controls for any compatible light to its remote control app for the Solo drone. “From the beginning, we’ve made Solo not only an open software platform but also an open hardware platform,” says 3DR Editorial Director Roger Sollenberger.

For the moment, shooters looking for both more power and features like adjustable brightness, a strobe mode, and compatible modifiers can turn to the Stella Pro 5000d, which requires a drone that can carry its 1.7-pound weight and run the light from the flight battery. Using a separate battery for a higher-powered light adds too much weight, and most powerful drones can’t provide the juice required for more than 5000 lumens.

As Light & Motion New Business Development Manager Heidi Hall explains, “One of the limiting factors isn’t power output. It’s having an onboard battery.” That’s a problem that may be solved soon by power tethers from Hoverfly, which would limit a drone’s range but allow it to run a high-powered light indefinitely.

Other features that may be coming to market soon run the gamut from remote control over power, brightness, and color temperature, to full integration of the light into a drone. Both drone and lighting makers say that the technology for implementing a wide range of lighting features is ready to respond to what the market demands. “We’re trying to keep our finger on the pulse and find out what’s needed out there,” says Hall.

One of the first photographers to shoot with the Fiilex AL250 on a 3DR Solo drone is Reuben Wu, who has used it to bring a striking new approach to landscape photography in his ongoing “Lux Noctis” series. “With landscape photography, we’re very much governed by natural lighting and whatever the sun or moon is doing,” he explains. He set out to break the Magic Hour mold and treat landscapes more like portrait subjects, tailoring his lighting to the features of each scene.

To achieve that, Wu shoots after the sun has gone down, capturing eight to 15 frames of a scene with the lighting drone positioned to illuminate a different element in each one. He then composites the frames and adjusts the brightness of the illuminated areas to seamlessly light the subject. Wu shoots with a Phase One XF camera on a tripod to resolve plenty of detail and align multiple frames perfectly.

Using a drone allows Wu to light areas that he wouldn’t be able to reach on foot in the remote areas where he shoots, although the ability to light distant areas has to be balanced with the disadvantage of using the drone’s limited flight time to get there. While a 3DR Solo drone battery can provide about 20 minutes of flight time with an AL250 mounted, environmental factors often cut that in half where Wu is shooting. “The colder you get, the shorter flight time you have, and the higher you are in terms of altitude, the shorter flight times you have as well,” he explains.

Nevertheless, he’s used his lighting drone as far as half a mile away from the camera and about 150 feet above his subject. Wu keeps his settings around f/8 and ISO 800 to capture clean and consistent images, so he has to increase exposure times when he’s lighting from a greater distance. “The good thing about using the drone is that it’s GPS controlled,” he says, “so I can just put it into position and just leave it and wait for the long exposure.”

Using a drone-mounted light on distant subjects requires careful planning, both to ensure that the shot can be completed within the available flying time and to get the exposure right. “There’s a lot of previsualization, especially when I’m scouting,” says Wu. “The challenge is to have that vision of what it might look like under this light.”

But just being able to place a light where you couldn’t before can lead to serendipitous developments, like the surprising palette of colors Wu’s lighting drone revealed when he photographed Mono Lake spires that had looked bleached and monochromatic by daylight. Exploring innovative ways to light with this new technology may require a lot of careful planning, but as with the image making tools that have come before it, fortune favors the prepared.

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