Believing that you’ve seen strange lights in the sky in the American Southwest isn’t a particularly unusual experience. But if you think you saw a buzzing, glowing craft over the Valley of the Gods in Utah recently, there’s a chance you really were witnessing an unidentified flying object–though one piloted not by aliens, but by Reuben Wu.
The photographer–who is based in Chicago but has shot some of the most remote locations on Earth–has spent the last year shooting with a rig that lets him photograph landscapes in a completely new way. Using a conventional $800 3DR Solo drone, Wu attaches an LED light source to the quadcopter and carefully choreographs its flight as he shoots a long, low-light exposure of the darkened landscape.
The resulting project, entitled Lux Noctis–Latin for “light night”–is haunting and lonely. The photographs look like 3-D scans, floating on a black plane as if they were cloaked in the darkness of a digital model. Wu describes them as chiaroscuro, the technique developed by Renaissance painters who began with a dark background rather than a white canvas. “I wanted to show natural formations and the idea of geological time,” he writes over email.
Wu chose some of the most-photographed locations in the American West to test the technique, including Utah’s Valley of the Gods and Goosenecks State Park, as well as lesser-known locations that required hiking and camping gear. “We are overwhelmed everyday by beautiful images of the familiar,” he writes in his project statement. “I imagine these scenes transformed into undiscovered landscapes, which renew our perceptions of our world.”
Though Wu began the project with a DIY rig he built on his 3DR Solo, he now uses a forthcoming lighting system. 3DR runs a program called Made For Solo that develops third-party accessories for its quadcopters. One of its third-party partners, the lighting company Fiilex, is releasing a lighting system called AL250 that’s designed specifically for drones. It lets a photographer control a powerful ring of LED lights while the craft is in flight, like a massive spotlight hovering overhead. “This technique allowed me to create quite an intricately lit scene using just a single drone and light,” Wu explains. The idea is to replicate expensive, unwieldy professional lighting rigs with a programmable light source that can be bought at a fraction of the cost ($250). At CES this year, the company released a short action film shot entirely with the system as a proof of concept.
For many landscape photographers, artificial lighting–much less drones–is a political topic; using technology to alter a landscape, for some, is taboo. That stance is changing, though. For Wu and many of his contemporaries, it is just another a tool in a toolbox, a way of bringing the natural world into sharper focus.