Justin Van Leeuwen’s Distance Test Shoot

Photographer Justin Van Leeuwen of Ottawa, Ontario shoots some great commercial interiors, but his true passion is people. Environmental portraiture is where he really shines, doing his best to catch an individual’s entire personality in just one frame. Here’s his account of an exciting outdoor photo test he undertook.

©Justin Van Leeuwen

©Justin Van Leeuwen

Sometimes we take photos just because we can.

I was walking around the Ottawa River with the Canon 200-400mm f/4 L IS 1.4x Extender, testing it for my review on canonrumors.com. With such a long telephoto reach, one that I’m not typically used to, I started looking, and seeing, things in areas I hadn’t before. This included a really cool cliff opposite Ottawa’s Parliament on the Quebec side. It was covered in graffitti, which meant it was also accessible. It gave me the idea to try to take a really cool and unique shot; a portrait from across the river from Ottawa to Hull, Ontario to Quebec — an interprovincial photo shoot.

I went home to brainstorm the logistics of the shoot. I knew the lighting would be contrasty and unflattering during the day (as it is) which would move the shoot closer to dusk and sunset. I had never been to the cliffs either, and since I would be on one side of the river to take the shots, whoever I would send out there would be on their own. That didn’t sit well with me, so I knew I would have to enlist one or two volunteers as assistants as added security. I also knew I wanted to light it, because taking a photo from 1600 feet away isn’t hard enough, I wanted to do something different and make the image pop.

How are we going to light someone that far away? I know my Canon ST-E3-RT system can’t go that far, neither can my Elinchrom Skyports. I had just read about PocketWizard radios new Plus III Transceiver’s, that not only had a “long range” option, but also offered a relay mode to piggy-back the signal from one PocketWizard radio to the next. I did a little Google Map math, and figured the direct line from camera to location (about 1600 feet) was a bit too close to push the max range on a set of transceivers, which is rated at 1600 feet. Adding a relay point on a conveniently placed island would cut that distance in half and should assure us a successful flash trigger.

©Justin Van Leeuwen

©Justin Van Leeuwen

The only PocketWizards I currently own are the MiniTT1 and two FlexTT5‘s – I use them to get Hypersync® on my flashes for mid-day shooting — but they don’t have the range of the Plus III’s. Thankfully, my friend and colleague John Rathwell does, and he was gracious enough to loan them to us for that night.

I put a general call out on twitter to get some people on-hand for the shoot. I wanted a “model” (as in not a paid model, but a real-life human person), a first and second assistant on the other side of the river to hold lights, keep the peace if there was any trouble, and communicate via walkie-talkie. I also needed someone to man the relay point, since I didn’t trust a lone PocketWizard on an island on a light stand… I suppose I could have just attached it to a tree, but that seems complicated.

Twitter delivers: Toosje was more model than I could have possibly hoped for – she was fun, beautiful, and perfect. Too bad she was going to be kind of tiny on the other side of the river. Bryan and David were on board for lighting, David having assisted me in the past, was familiar with the gear. Jamie took point on relay and, as you can see, he had a great time.

©Justin Van Leeuwen

©Justin Van Leeuwen

In the distance, we could hear Weezer come on stage as they started their set at Ottawa’s Bluesfest.

I instructed everyone on what they had to do as soon as we met, if the radios didn’t end up working, I wanted to be able to at least attempt the shot without having to run around and across the river just to communicate. Also, since it was sunset, we were losing light fast. I watched through the glass as my team arrived on the rocks. There were a number of youth *shakes fist at air* hanging out, swimming, drinking, smoking, but they didn’t seem bothered by more people dropping by. Bryan and David set up the light, plugged in the PocketWizard (we had it set to “LR” to get whatever distance we could to the relay), I turned it on, on my end and “POP” the light went off!

©Justin Van Leeuwen

©Justin Van Leeuwen

I found 560mm (the lens at 400mm with the internal 1.4 teleconverter engaged) was still too far out from where I wanted to be to properly frame the image. I took a slight hit on the image quality by adding my own 1.4 extender to get the lens to a 392mm-784mm zoom. The next tricky part was communicating by walkie talkie, trying to direct our model into the right position, get them to hold the light just-so, and to dial in the right power output. The color temperature wasn’t right and it all seemed to flat for me. The sun ducked behind some office buildings then, and we were shooting in the blue, it was getting dark and I didn’t have my shot. I shifted my white balance, radio’d accross the river to get them to add a CTS gel to warm up the light and I took the last few photos I could, all while pushing my ISO and especially my shutter farther than one should on such unstable footing (note: while I have a tripod, and used it for this shoot, it and the ball head are not equipped for a level of this size and weight).

All the extenders brought my minimum aperture to f/8 and I ended up shooting the last few images at f/9, ISO 1250, 1/40th of a second at 784mm — definitely not an ideal shutter/focal length combo, and softness in my final image definitely shows it. That said, this is just shy of the “rated” 4 stops of IS on the lens, and it performed pretty well even if my own technique didn’t.

©Justin Van Leeuwen

©Justin Van Leeuwen

Aside from moving my subject, there wasn’t much else I could do to change the composition of my shot. So after I got what I hoped was good enough I told them to start shooting and I’d head over.

Luck favors the prepared. I had set David up with his own trigger for the lights so that he could use the location and take some portraits of his own while there was still light.

I was crossing the provincial border to try and get some more photos. Weezer is still playing in the background, their music carrying over the water and bouncing off the cliff we were working on.

I show up and it’s getting pretty dark. The sun has mostly set and we’re in full blue-hour. I decide to switch-up our lighting design and use an additional light, and a few colored gels to really bring out some color. Jamie is now holding a light off to the side, Bryan is holding up the battery and main light, and David is taking behind-the-scenes photos because I always forget. My buddy Quinn is there too, he came to help, and now he’s holding a flashlight up to Toosje’s face so I can lock focus. I’m in the bushes… because 200-400mm means I need to back up. Weezer wrapped up their set and so did we.

©Justin Van Leeuwen

©Justin Van Leeuwen

Everything and everyone really came together for this shoot. With one small exception: Jamie had never turned on the relay.

Yes, a slight miscommunication meant Jamie was on an island, with no walkie, “waiting for our signal.” What impresses me though, is that those PocketWizard’s made it from transmitter on the camera to receiver 1600 ft away, over a moving river, up to a cliff, and set off my Elinchrom Quadra pack reliably and consistently. Wow. I highly recommend these if you ever need to shoot between provinces or states.

Huge thanks to Toosje, Bryan, Jamie, Quinn and David Johnson for working on-site that night. Huge thanks to John Rathwell, and special thanks to lensrentalscanada.com for sending me that lens to frivolously play with that week.


Get more of Justin Van Leeuwen on his site, Facebook, and Twitter.


All images and quotes in this post are used with permission and ©Justin Van Leeuwen, all rights reserved; story is ©PocketWizard. Please respect and support photographers’ rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or repost elsewhere without written permission.

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4 Responses to “Justin Van Leeuwen’s Distance Test Shoot”

  1. Christian says:

    Justin is brilliant! Now I have something to add to my Christmas list.

  2. Ray says:

    Nice ‘Adventure’…. amusing, but successful! I have a Canon remote that is what I call the world’s strongest TV Remote… while it Is effective up to a reasonable distance – not 1,600 feet! I have ‘ideas’ from time to time that would require lighting some distance away and other triggers but they fade from my mental idea board without a means for long distance triggering. I am familiar with products of ‘Pocketwizard’ but not ‘Plus III’ until now. Christmas is coming !! r

  3. […] to some of my friends, we were able to put to the test. I have a post on this shoot over on the Pocket Wizard blog. You can also check out my review of the Plus III’s little sister the “Plus X.” […]