MIT has created a new lighting system that uses drones

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Models, you’ll never have to fear being photographed in bad lighting again. Researchers at MIT and Cornell University are looking to give modern photographers a helping hand by designing a series of autonomous drones that can help light photo shoots. The helicopter robots are equipped with a continuous-light source that produces an effect called “rim lighting”, a difficult technique in which only the edges of a photographer’s subject are lit very well. Through the use of a camera-mounted interface, the photographer can indicate the direction from which the rim lighting should come, as well as the specific width of the lit border. The helicopter then files to the position it needs to be and adjusts its lighting accordingly. The drone can even maintain its rim width if the subject moves during the shoot.

Lighting is crucial to the art of photography. But lights are cumbersome and time-consuming to set up, and outside the studio, it can be prohibitively difficult to position them where, ideally, they ought to go. Researchers at MIT and Cornell University hope to change that by providing photographers with squadrons of small, light-equipped autonomous robots that automatically assume the positions necessary to produce lighting effects specified through a simple, intuitive, camera-mounted interface. At the International Symposium on Computational Aesthetics in Graphics, Visualization, and Imaging in August, they take the first step toward realizing this vision, presenting a prototype system that uses an autonomous helicopter to produce a difficult effect called “rim lighting,” in which only the edge of the photographer’s subject is strongly lit. According to Manohar Srikanth, who worked on the system as a graduate student and postdoc at MIT and is now a senior researcher at Nokia, he and his coauthors —MIT professor of computer science and engineering Frédo Durand and Cornell’s Kavita Bala, who also did her PhD at MIT — chose rim lighting for their initial experiments precisely because it’s a difficult effect. “It’s very sensitive to the position of the light,” Srikanth says. “If you move the light, say, by a foot, your appearance changes dramatically.”

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