Boys Light Up with a Drone
Wave pools may be something of a current preoccupation, but what if you could continue surfing after the sun went down?
Utilizing recent advances in lighting, camera and drone technology, a group of city-beach surfers recently enjoyed a night session at Bondi.
The night surf experiments were the brainchild of photographer, James Stroinovsky, who called on southside lensman, Seb Diaz, to help bring his nocturnal vision to fruition.
Below James outlines what it took to make the sessions happen.
What inspired you to light up a city beach so a bunch of guys could go free-surfing at night?
Ok, so really the means came before the desire - I saw a series of LED lights coming out of a company in The States that promised incredible amounts of light in a portable design, that could be easily hooked up to a drone ... so my immediate thought was, "I know where this would come in handy." What followed was the ins and outs of making that happen.
Essentially this project was a ‘test of concept’; I just wanted to see what it would look like.
What sort of equipment are we talking about? Is this type of lighting improving dramatically?
Drone-mounted lighting is already promising to be the next big thing in drone tech - imagine film crews rocking up to shoot a scene and deploying a series of drones with lights and cameras on all of them and that's the future as I see it in videography. But where this is really exciting is in the capturing of inaccessible places ... like the surf.
So, surfing at night, that's easy. Surfing at night and taking photos of it ....
The key here is the amount of light and how close you can get it and the camera to the surfer.
What scale of equipment do you need to light up a major area?
The drone-light at full power was lighting up somewhere between a tennis court through to a football field sized patch of ground, bright enough to take photos with regular exposure and no flash required. This area and its brightness varies massively depending on how high the drone was flying and one major problem we encountered was choosing how to aim it - a few times the lighting drone would give the boys enough light to see the first wave of the set coming, follow the first surfer in for maximum effect as he did his thing, but then leave the other lads literally sitting in the dark, blind to the rest of the incoming set that was about to land on their heads.
Is it expensive? What time frame can you realistically operate the lights for?
The drone light was a couple of hundred bucks per unit, and we had two units hooked up to a remote control and attached to a big professional cinematography-grade Octocopter. It was run off a series of 6S drone batteries (the equivalent to 2 car batteries in volts) and with all that, plus the drone’s own power supply, we were landing and swapping out batteries every 12-20 minutes. Logistically it's a challenge but essentially the shoot was conducted over a series of drone runs, with the boys sitting out in the break in pitch black waiting for waves and then paddling into catch something as it loomed out of the darkness. We had very little warning when a wave was coming and could only roughly guess how much longer the drone would be hanging around our heads, making it rather hectic.
On top of this the safety team - made up of a couple of the lads from Bondi Rescue - were on hand on shore, keeping an eye on us with some HID spotlights. Those things produce powerful, single beams of light with very little spread and they could just light us up out in the break, but those alone weren't enough to shoot with.
What was the feedback from surfers?
If the drone-light wasn't on and the spotlights weren't on you though, it was dark... like really dark. Despite that the surfers were absolutely frothing, general consensus was that it was unlike anything any of them had done before. And before anyone get's the inevitable shark-bait comments in - I will mention we had a number of sharkshields in the water. Not a single shark was spotted despite the drone pilot having a clear view through the water the entire time.
What did you learn? Were you happy with the results?
The result was surreal, unlike anything else that I've seen before. Depending on the setup (which we were modifying on the fly) changing the number of lights, how they were switched on/off and the height and angle at which they were run) we got varying results, ranging from green crystal clear water that you could see the bottom through, to a harsh side light that brought out the blues of the waves and made the whitewash pop - add to this the different angles; from the 2nd camera drone, myself and Seb Diaz in the water with dive cameras and strobes, through to the boys on shore with long lenses - and you've got endless possibilities, as many different angles and looks again as you would get shooting daytime, but all of it looking rather different to the same angle shot under sunlight.
I also tried the cliche LED strips on the surfboards and that worked - but on the night we scrapped those two boards largely for safety reasons ... the wires having been damaged in testing didn't fill me with confidence. To be honest this didn't matter one bit - the light from that drone light alone would have made the LED's pointless - that's how bright it is.
Setting it all up wasn't easy I won't lie. You can't just fly a drone at night, for a large number of reasons but mostly, CASA won't allow it unless you have the right permits. Then, once you have CASA's permission to fly at night, just try asking your local council if you can fly a UFO looking thing over a bunch of your mates while you go swimming at night and see what they say...
Yeah not easy at all, but not impossible.
And you don't need a drone necessarily - on two of our test shoots we ran it successfully from the sand and from the cliffs looking over a shore break and that worked very nicely – a lot easier to power as well. So you don't have to get too fancy.
Wave pools have captured the popular imagination, but is night surfing a realistic part of surfing’s future?
Moving forwards I see run times on drones and lights going up easily, I see the cost of it all going down and the ability of smaller drones to fly a smaller more practical setup making shoots like this a lot more common.
The sky is the limit here; who knows what creative angles people will capture with this now.