How the spirit of ancient Stonehenge was captured with a 21st century drone

Ruben Wua Chicago-based British photographer and visual artist, first discovered National geographic like most people: When he was a child, he liked to look at the magazines his father had subscribed to for decades.

He dreamed of seeing his photographs in the same magazine – and even on the cover. So when National geographic asked him to photograph an iconic monument he knows well, he was ready to work.

Last summer, Wu experienced a stark contrast between modern and prehistoric, as he used drones and artificial light to photograph Stonehenge, one of the best-known prehistoric monuments, while hearing horns go by. The site in Wiltshire, England, is crossed by the A303 – a major road that could soon find itself in a tunnel if a 2020 proposal becomes a reality – meaning motorists may have seen Wu’s photoshoot and illuminated drones.

Wu says he is grateful National geographic Photo editors linked his composite work to new research – thanks to modern technology – on Stonehenge after speaking at the 2020 Storytellers Summit. The annual convention held at National geographic The headquarters brings together photographers, writers, filmmakers and journalists to celebrate storytelling.

We spoke to Wu about his first cover—National geographic‘s August issue – which he says has still not been understood.

What’s the story behind the cover?

Stonehenge is an iconic archaeological site; the stone circle has stood for over 4,500 years on Salisbury Plain, just 90 miles southwest of London. The mysterious past of the prehistoric monument has inspired many theories about its creation. Throughout the ages, millions of travelers have been drawn to the site each year, and the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset attract thousands.

There is a strong attachment to Stonehenge because it is a household name, Wu says, especially for those in the UK who take school trips there, as Wu himself did growing up in England.

“You can obviously go there later, and it can take on a different meaning as you grow up,” Wu says. “You’ve seen so many pictures of it that it just seems ordinary.”

He says this project was an opportunity to make the monument look extraordinary by capturing images that truly speak to the timelessness of Stonehenge.

Photographing this landmark presented new challenges, especially the use of drone piloting, which is not usually allowed at Stonehenge without complicated approvals, and the task of showing such a familiar site through a new lens. Wu says there were several hurdles to overcome, including the sadly unpredictable UK weather, a UK drone review and the advance appeal for clearance from English Heritage, which maintains Stonehenge, and the Royal Air Force whenever the drone was launched.

The drone also couldn’t fly directly over the stones, so Wu had to improvise. He attached a Bluetooth-controlled LED light to the top of a 50-foot telescopic pole, which his assistant held above the stones to illuminate them. To ensure the moon wouldn’t be too bright and interfere with the drone’s lighting, the timing of the trip and photo shoot centered around the moon’s cycle and hopes for a clear sky. clouds.

Wu’s intention behind his photography is to make people think about a thing or place in a different way and to bring out new perceptions through his work.

“A lot of the work I do is based on this idea of ​​showing the familiar in an unfamiliar light,” he says.

Using artificial light in natural environments helps, says Wu. “There’s this jarring landscape where you wouldn’t expect that kind of lighting, and it shows you something that you may have seen all of days in a completely different light.”

He wanted to reinvent classic Stonehenge landscape photography and force viewers to really think about the grand structure. He argues that since it’s so familiar to most people, they tend to dismiss it as something ordinary.

Wu hopes readers can take away a renewed perception of Stonehenge through his photographs.

What’s on the cover?

Wu created his composition – several images taken throughout an evening at Stonehenge – using both a very small drone and a pole to illuminate the stones in precise detail. Wu usually controls the drones himself or works closely with an assistant to keep control of the lighting.

Wu approached the shoot with some things already determined in his mind: He wanted to shoot a symmetrical composition in a portrait orientation to fit perfectly on the cover; he had to seize all the well-lit stones; and the sunset must have been in the background. The result is “a very beautiful marriage of the colors of the sunset combined with the otherworldly coloring of the stones themselves,” says Wu.

In the end, the composition he envisioned on the cover, and which he spent the most time getting right, ended up on the cover.

It took about three hours to shoot the cover image, from the time the sun was setting so Wu could capture the fading light, and throughout the night. Some may think that taking a landscape shot when the natural light fades might be too difficult, but Wu takes pride in capturing a location in perfect light angles.

“Perhaps more conventionally you’d wait for a sunset, or some sort of really perfect angle of light from the sun, in order to capture something at its best, but for me, I try to create that perfect angle of light using the drone,” says Wu.

His lighting techniques are inspired by chiaroscuro in painting, which uses bold contrasts between light and dark.

Shortly after the photo shoot, Wu came across an article featuring brightly lit images of Stonehenge by Harold Edgerton, a famous photographer known for projects such as a freeze frame of a bullet going through an apple.

Edgerton had been invited by the British Army after World War II to experiment with aerial reconnaissance at night. In one of his images, he lit up Stonehenge from above by attaching a high-powered strobe light, or flash gun, to the bottom of a bomber and flying it over the stones, eerily similar to the techniques of Wu drone.

Wu says he was scared: “I felt like I was tapped on the shoulder by a ghost.”

He felt that conversations were going on between photographers and artists over the generations without them knowing it.

“It makes me think that whatever you do, no matter how new you think it may be, always be aware that there is someone who might have done it in the past.”

What’s next for Reuben Wu?

Wu says her year has been filled with lots of travel, and one of her upcoming projects will feature even more.

“It’s kind of the perfect hobby, traveling and taking pictures.”