Spotlight drones are the photography assistants of the future (Wired UK)


To properly light a photo shoot, a photographer needs a lot of
equipment: studio strobes, stand alone flash lights, convertible
photo umbrellas, reflector discs, and power cables to connect it
all. “Once you set everything up, it’s a very fixed location,” says
MIT graduate Manohar Srikanth. “It burdens the creative controls,
so it’s kind of limiting at this point.”

Srikanth is a semi-professional photographer and has a PhD from
MIT in robotics and computational photography, which put him in a
unique position to realise a solution: drones as lighting
assistants. Last year for his postdoc work at MIT (Srikanth is now
a senior researcher at Nokia) he and a team bought an AR Drone
quadricopter off Amazon, and rigged it with lights, a motion
detecting scanner similar to Kinect, and some newly customised
software that would let the drone’s positioning respond to the
photographer’s needs.

As of now, Srikanth’s lighting system only creates rim lighting,
a technique that lights the subject from behind, giving them a
halo-like outline effect. It’s a difficult effect to get right,
making it ideal for proving the drone-as-lighting-assistant proof
of concept. To do that, the MIT team first had to change the
drone’s onboard control software. Twenty times per second, the
photographer’s camera sends images of the subject to the computer
controlling the drone. The algorithm Srikanth and his team created
translates those images into information about how much light is
hitting the subject, and where the drone needs to move to adjust
that light. The photographer can then give the mini helicopter
directions through the computer, and it can do reflexively in
seconds what a person might need an hour to do.


“You don’t want to take artistic control away from the
photographer,” Srikanth says. “For example, you take a photo and
you see the lighting is very harsh, and it’s casting a lot of
shadows. The photographer says I want 50 percent less on the arms
of the body. Cameras already have a lot of dials, so we made a dial
and glued it to the camera. By adjusting the dial, you are
adjusting the percentage of change.”

Drone enthusiasts have found all sorts of ways to put the
automated machines to work — especially in Hollywood. Film and
television studios have started flying them to get inexpensive
aerial footage (and are currently facing scrutiny from the Federal
Aviation Administration for it). Likewise, Srikanth thinks this
lighting system could help push photography forward by capturing
hard-to-reach moments, like rock climbers or cave explorers –
almost like a GoPro for professional studio lighting. That said,
the system isn’t quite cave-ready yet: As of now, the machine’s
battery charge only lasts about 15 or 20 minutes, and because the
drone itself is lightweight, it can only withstand about 200 grams
of equipment.

The drone lighting system will be on display this August, in
Vancouver, at the International Symposium on Computational
Aesthetics in Graphics, Visualisation, and Imaging.

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