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Interview with Justin van Leeuwen of JVL’s specs


Justin van Leeuwen is the photoblogger behind JVL’s specs.


PetaPixel: Could you tell me a little about yourself?

Justin van Leeuwen: Sure, the whole thing? This is where I get to be a self-centred narcissist; so if you’re not interested in a biography or serendipitous romance I suggest you skip to the second question:

I grew up in Toronto Ontario reading comics and playing video games. While I always admired art, I was never able to produce it. I ended up working at a Comic Book store for several years [read: eleven!] called the Silver Snail where I was able to interact with some VERY talented storytellers working in the medium. From there I was able to travel to New York, L.A., and San Diego to various conventions and really get a feel for that industry and know some of the major players in Comic from the past, and a few leading the way to the future. Sadly, eventually, I had to move on from that career and ended up Fundraising at Sunnybrook Hospital, also in Toronto.

Here’s where the story gets a little interesting (to me at least). I got the job at Sunnybrook through a reference by my then room-mate Kari – she and I were high school friends – ALSO through her I got to meet and really enjoy the company of her fantastic group of friends from University. Two of the guys in particular I became pretty good friends with, Aaron and Attila; and they both had digital SLRs.

Like everyone else I had a digital P&S that came out at parties but nothing more thoughtful than that, but after seeing the work Attila was doing, I was blown away, and thought that if I could do a fraction of that maybe I could find my own creative outlet.

Attila and Aaron both blogged, still do, sorta. Attila’s much better known for his remarkable photo-blog thinsite.net, and Aaron’s is aaron.stasis.org. Naturally I wanted to join the group (just a wanna-be) so Aaron helped set me up a photoblog on his server and we were off!

Eventually, almost solely through Thinsite, I picked up some traffic and came to know a few other bloggers, some of them from Canada too. One who we struck up a number of conversations with was Xtina from onvertigo.ca, another gifted photographer. She was out in Ottawa at the time and I was kind of eager to spread my wings a bit, go “somewhere,” so Aaron and I booked a roadtrip to visit Xtina and see what Ottawa had to offer. Apparently what it had to offer, both Aaron and I, was women.

To sum all of this up, because I’m sure your readers aren’t nearly as interested in me as I’m interested in myself; Xtina ended up moving to Toronto and is now engaged to Aaron, I met Xtina’s friend Mel that weekend, who I then knocked up (after months of dating of course) and ended up living with in Ottawa, now we’re engaged too, with our CRAZY CUTE son Quinn, a second boy is on his way for December or so.

While photography has encompassed a small portion of my life, it has certainly influenced the direction I’ve taken it over the past 4 years.

The moral of my story? Photo-blogging makes babies, always keep your lens-hood on!


PP: How did you first get into photography?

JVL: For years it was just based on this point and shoot film camera my mom got me in kindergarten. I took a lot of photos with that and I suppose that’s where my affinity to take photos in general came from. Later I enjoyed composing shots on field trips and making sure to include people in architectural shots (because I couldn’t figure out how to make them interesting on their own). But I never seriously thought about it as a means of expression until I got my first Digital SLR.

Attila at Thinsite.net really was my inspiration to take better photos. He also was my tutor since I knew bunk about it – of course he could never teach me to be artistic, he certainly helped me figure out the groundwork of aperture, shutter speed, exposure and how all those things tie together… I think it got to a point where he wanted me to figure the rest out on my own. But that first bit of help he gave me really propelled me forward and probably helped keep me from giving up on it too fast.

I tend to return that favor now to anyone I meet starting up – reciprocation and teaching others is part of the experience.

After that I basically carried my camera around until some people asked me to take pictures for them (at events or cheque presentations)… once I found out that they liked and used my photos I asked if they’d pay me. I’ve been slowly progressing with this working amateur photography career ever since (better than a non-working pro right?).


PP: What was your first camera?

JVL: My first REAL camera, where I had some control over the photos I took? The Canon Digital Rebel XT. Though right away I opted to stay away from the “kit” lens, on recommendation from friends I had heard the quality doesn’t compare. Since the whole REASON of getting a SLR was for quality, the first lens I got with that camera was the Canon 17-40 f/4L.

Everything before that I can hardly remember; there was this 1 or 2MP Sony camera I used at work – it took floppy disks which I thought was so convenient because everyone had floppy drives! I own 3 computers right now, none of them take floppies!


PP: What equipment do you use now?

JVL: This, my friend, is a slippery slope.

· Canon 1DMKII that I got used off the Fred Miranda forums (probably the best buy-and-sell community I’ve found) a year or so after I got the Rebel XT and felt I had outgrown it’s controls. A huge difference was the ability to change ISO on the fly. With the rebel xt setting ISO was in a menu, so you’d always try to push the one you had selected, often to the detriment of the final image.
· Panasonic DMC-LX3 – a great wide-angle, fast, high-end point and shoot that I’m not convinced I should own (but have gotten some great images with!)
· Canon 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye (a very fun, if limited use, lens)
· Canon 50mm f/1.4 (Always. always-always-always happy with the shots I get with this lens)
· Canon 100mm (got this one at Christmas – slow focusing, eats light, but CRAZY sharp)
· Canon 17-40 f/4 L (my first, now underused and under-appreciated, lens)
· Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L (this is my go-to lens, it’s on my camera first and last – usually. Looking at my Lightroom catalogue, about 60% of all the photos I’ve ever taken have now been with this lens.
· Canon 70-200 f/4.0 L (also a very sharp lens, affordable too since Canon has 4 70-200’s to choose from. Despite it’s weight, I plan on upgrading to the 70-200 f/2.8 L someday)
· Lensbaby 3G (another one of those fun lenses – one that I don’t put on enough – tricky to figure out at first but the results are usually quite rewarding)

Then I got into lights with this whole strobist thing, though the strobist thing is just people wanting to take better photos by learning light really:
· Canon 430ex (first flash, the 430 line is perfect for those wanting to start out)
· 2 Canon 580EXII’s (much more versatile and multi-featured, one can act as command units to fire other speedlights remotely – but within the limitations of Canon’s flash system)
· And before I get into anything else I have sto-fen diffusers for all of these. I basically don’t buy a flash without sticking one of these on top anymore – it’s like there’s no point (since we all know direct flash usually sucks right?).
· I got the Canon CT-E3 battery pack to give me a faster recycle time and help out at long events and the Canon OC-E3 off-camera shoe cord which is sometimes just too short for what I want it to do.
· 2 pocket wizard Type 2 Transceivers (for when the Canon wireless system doesn’t work… and often even if it will)
· 1 pocket wizard mini TT1 (this little guy lets me synch at higher shutter-speeds than I could remotely before, and when if I get the flex TT5’s I’ll have full E-TTL control of the light)

Then I’ve got a wack of modifiers, lots of Honl stuff, the Lumiquest SBIII which is great and portable, probably my favourite single light thing now is the Lastolite EzyBox with hot-shoe adapter; gives me studio quality light wherever I go.

I carry it all in a Pelican 1510 Case or a Think Tank photo Streetwalker Pro HD and a Hakuba PSTC 100 Tripod Case – for a more casual shoot I pop what I can into a Crumpler 6-Million dollar home. I also just got the Think-Tank Skin Belt system and look forward to trying that out at some events and weddings.

Rounding it off I’ve got a Blackrapid R-strap – which totally rocks if you want something to roam around with but keep your camera out ready to shoot – makes me feel like a gunslinger. A lastolite trigrip diffuser for bounce and controlling the harsh sun. For support I have a Manfrotto 190CL and an Acratech GV2 ballhead which is smooth and sweet and, as David DuChemin of PixelatedImage.com told me “makes me hate my tripod less.”

Since it’s digital, of course, there’s my trusty computer. Which is a PC – hate me how you will – it’s what I’ve got running Adobe Photoshop CS3, Lightroom 2.4, Nik Software plugin suite for lightroom (that I’m just starting to use). I have a Wacom Intuos 3 tablet which I don’t work on much anymore; it’s great for Photoshop, I just stay in Lightroom most of the time nowadays except for portrait touch-ups and the like. For locations with some time I bring my Asus V6V which has been a workhorse over the years – for anyone looking for a PC laptop Asus customer service ROCKS and their hardware is rock-solid. I’d buy one again in a heartbeat.

You have a pretty monstrous list of gear… is there anything on your wishlist?
Yeah, there’s always something, different classifications too (I’m very organized). For lenses I dream about getting the Canon 85mm f/1.2 L II – but that thing’s like two mortgage payments for me so forget about it, like I said, someday I’d like to “upgrade” my 70-200 to something faster with IS but there are also advantages to having the one I have (weight… don’t have to spend more cash). A lot of people want the latest camera, but the 1D MKII is still a major player, and there’s no way I could afford a modern equivalent – your money’s usually better spent on glass anyways.

I’ve been focusing a lot on my lighting, so I look to different mods and other gear that’s both effective and portable. I usually shoot solo so I have to be able to carry it, set it up myself, and put it on a light stand for want of an assistant. There’s some really cool “big light” stuff that I’m interested in like the Elinchrome Ranger Quadra – but realistically I have a long way to go with what I got now.

Right now I’m pretty happy, as well I should be, I’ve got more stuff and am doing less good work than MANY people out there. I have the tools, now I need to find the talent.


PP: How would you describe your photography to someone who has never seen it?

JVL: For the most part it’s “found” stuff. If you visit my blog you’ll see more photos that I’ve taken while walking around. I’m pretty Sure Attila put me in my place once when I started calling it art and he said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Art? I’m pretty sure we just walk around and take pictures of shit we find.” Very true. I remind myself of that often to keep me humble.

Lately I’ve been spending more time with portraits, location shoots and environmental portraiture – basically taking a picture of a person, in a place, and trying to do a good job of showcasing both. It seems that’s what I’m better at, and what I’m most interested in – the result of years of retail I suppose – I just really like interacting with people and telling their story through a, or a series of, photos.

What are some tips and/or tricks you’ve learned from buying used gear online?
If it feels like a scam it probably is. I’ve never been burned but I do a bit of due diligence on Fred Miranda there’s a bit of a ranking system so you can see if they’ve done some trades before, and how active they are in the forums (see if they’re real) if I’m getting something shipped from the US or meeting someone in person – no MO’s to Nigeria or anything. The later is always best for any transaction – it’s a lot of cash and if you can see and handle the gear before you pick it up you’re less likely to lose out. Come to think of it, all my used gear I’ve picked up on FM or directly through friends…

I definitely know what I want before I go out and get it though, doing the research on how a piece of equipment is supposed to perform. You usually stand to save at least 20% on what you’re buying when it comes to glass, bodies drop like a rock since they’re usually out-dated in 6-12 months (which is a great way to get your first or better SLR cheap!) First party (Nikon, Canon) lenses usually retain their value more than 3rd party (Sigma, Tamron) so while you may expect to pay more for them, you can also hope to get more back for them should you choose to move along.


PP: What advice do you have for someone just starting to publish his or her photographs on the web?

JVL: Set an obtainable goal for yourself, make it easy, and don’t expect anything in return. I’m not talking a 365 project goal – but those work too – I’m just saying make it your goal to post every weekday for a while, or post your best photo every week, or do a theme, just something to keep you focused, motivated and shooting. The best way to become a better photographer is taking more photos, so if posting online is your “product” then go out there and take photos until you have the best shot you can make at that time. I’d also suggest looking around at other blogs and other people’s photos – what do you like about them? Randomness? their Photoshop technique? the quality of their colours? the flare of their site?

I never worried too much about the look of my site, pixelpost is free and does a good job, I don’t know HTML CSS or all the other stuff so I stick with the templates at hand – that’s what works for me. Some people custom make their sites like Brad from Wastedphotos.com he knows how so, y’know, good for him. Also make sure your blog is RSS friendly, I don’t’ use bookmarks anymore so if I can’t subscribe to your feed I likely won’t ever see you again.

You can’t expect anything from the internet; viewers, comments, nice-ness, praise, scorn – nothing. I think I’ve had some posts practically begging for comments and got nothing, then I say something “controversial” in my own comments and I get a stream of stuff. I find that mostly, people look at your photo, like it or don’t, and move on. In the end I’m taking photos for me – hopefully someone comes across and likes one and I’ll just have to assume that happens sometimes.

There is a great social element to it though, and you can get valuable feedback – know that ANYONE can leave a shitty comment – so don’t take 1 person’s vocal decent as the definitive answer to your creation. If they offer some critique, listen, but you’re free to disagree. I ‘met’ most of my readers through other blogs, my leaving comments (constructive at times, sarcastic and pointless on others) on their photos, and people clicked through to my site. Recently, though, I’ve been getting a lot of site traffic through Twitter and the #photo hashtag.


PP: How often and how much do you shoot?

JVL: Every single day. from 1 – 1,000 photos.

PP: Can you briefly describe your workflow?

JVL: For me it all starts at the camera – it’s a cycle – after a shoot my Camera is reset, zeroed out, with my 24-70, ISO to 200, WB to Auto and usually a battery into the charger. This way, I’m ready to shoot whenever I have to, if it’s last minute, unexpected, or if I’ve just forgotten to properly prep before a shoot. Oh, and I shoot in RAW, almost always… sometimes there’s a reason to not, but I will attribute those times to laziness.

So then when I get home I pop my CF card into a card-reader (this is faster and less prone to screwing up than using the USB cable from your camera), turn on Lightroom (which will prompt me to backup my catalogue from the last time I used it, which I do, onto a separate HD in my computer) and then when that’s done I import the card into Lightroom. I have a copyright metadata template so that’s usually set, and I do some basic key wording here like the location of the shoot or the content if it’s consistent throughout. I tend to have them sampled to 1:1 right there because my PC can’t render large previews on the fly (if you have a decent speced computer you can probably just render standard previews up-front and you’ll be good). I then follow, basically, the proofing and editing method I learned from Scot Kelby’s “Lightroom 2 Book for Digital Photographers” which I won’t go into detail here because, well, it was his idea and you should really just get his book to help you out.

After I’ve done my selects in LR I go through them again and rate them with 1 to 5 stars, I then sort for the 4+ stars and hopefully I’ve got enough there for my client or personal uses… if I don’t I’ll go to the 3 stars and maybe lessen my harsh judgment. Of those photos I’ll finely tweak settings for each one, and maybe drop one into a nik software plugin that could do it justice. I’m still learning a bit about RAW sharpening (included in Nik’s sharpener software) – I’m pretty comfortable with Lightroom’s sharpening.

Lightroom has really spoiled me, I hardly ever go into Photoshop anymore, though when I do my photos get that extra edge that I’m really looking for. Basically I’d say Lightroom can usually bring me 90% of the way there, and then that bit of polish needed to get to your own personal 100% Photoshop supplies.

Once a week I plug in my external Hard-drive and back up all of my music and photo files. I’ve also been using a software program called Backblaze to backup my computer to “the cloud” it takes a looooong time depending on how much you have to backup and how fast your connection is… I’m a little over 50% done (in 6 months!) but once it’s done I’ll know that my stuff is fireproof. It actually just caught up to photos of the day my son was born so that’s huge for me – that peace of mind is worth the cost of the service.


PP: Who are your favorite photographers?

JVL: Sadly I’m not very well educated on the “photography greats” I never went to school for this and have learned through, basically, doing, and the internet! But boy, are there some great guys out there who take some killer photos and just make being a photographer so approachable.

In the category of “people I know” I love Attila at Thinsite.net (can you tell I have a man-crush on him?), Brad at Wastedphotos.com – sadly they’ve both seemed to get out of the blogging game. I also like Jonathan Greenwald‘s style of carefree “snipe from the hip” photography – not what I’m personally into but I have had my fun with it.

For people I don’t know but I should because they’re Canadian (we’re all neighbours) I’ve really been into the blog of Stephen Waterfall at “Watchthisspace.ca” his images are just so clean and colourful – and his Iceland Pano’s put every shot I took on my trip to shame. Mile’s regent of “Mute.rigent.com” is an incredible photographer whose landscape evoke mood that I can barely comprehend. And I’ve recently been very impressed with the compositional elements and processing of Faisal Sultan of FriskyPics.

To round it off some staple photographers whose blogs and images should be on everyone’s list are: Joe McNally; Scott Kelby; David DuChemin; Chase Jarvis; David Nightingale; and David Hobby – what’s great about these guys is that they do take some, arguably, great photos – but what really sets them apart is that they are all teachers. So even if you don’t like their style, they might have some insight into the industry, or how to “do” something to one of YOUR photos that you think needs a bit of a push to get it to 100%.

David DuChemin recently “reviewed” one of my photos on his “within the frame” podcast and I found it a HUGELY rewarding experience. You can see his feedback on my photo here and my follow-up response to his podcast here.


PP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed by PetaPixel?

JVL: Probably my buddy Attila at Thinsite.net, he inspired me so much, likely many others too, and since he’s been absent from photo blogging community I think his fans are ready for something… anything!

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

JVL: Just thanks for taking the time to read all this, hopefully you figured something useful out, if not about me, maybe about yourself. If you’re ever looking for help getting started in photography, I’m more than happy to answer your questions to the best of my ability. I’m probably better at knowing the technical answer to a photography question than figuring out how to take a good photo.

You can visit me on my blog or follow me on twitter @justinvl.