Core Knowledge: Working With Remotes
One, radio can be fickle. This is true whether you are using your time-honored PocketWizards or a brand new Chinese offering.
Two, radio waves -- and success with your remotes -- are all about the physics. So a little knowledge can go a long way toward ensuring good range and reliability.
Some basics that every lighting photographer should know, inside.
I personally use PocketWizard Plus II's, so tI'll use them as an example. They are very reliable, as radios go. But to use them successfully, it really helps to understand how antenna orientation and environmental factors affect range and reliability.
Antenna design -- and the corresponding antenna orientation choices -- is a huge factor in both range and reliability of signal. Because of this, any remote manufacturer worth their salt will give you some explanation of their antenna design and how to use the remotes to best exploit that design.
As an example, the Plus II manual shows that the transmission and reception from this model is concentrated on a path perpendicular to the orientation of the physical antenna.
So I am always going to get better reception if I couple the antennae on my remotes by pointing my receivers and transmitter straight up. PW even provides an idiot-proof diagram:
This stuff really matters for both range and reliability. If you cross-orient the antenna, the range (and/or reliability) will decrease. If the two antennae are pointed right at each other, this is worst possible case. I.e., they pretty much won't work.
Having learned this lesson the hard way, I now orient my receiver antenna at a 45-degree angle, giving me the best compromise for shooting horizontals and verticals with my camera. That avoids the "poor" pairing (seen at 2nd from right) that would happen if I was shooting verticals (where the shooting PW is now horizontal, with a vertical receiver.)
Excessive? Maybe. But a little knowledge and good craft goes a long way in the field.
(To be fair, I do sometimes ask for a LOT as far as range goes, and have even been known to try some pretty wacky range-extending solutions.)
And speaking of mounting the antenna, environmental factors come into play, too. First and foremost, you want your receiver to be off the ground.
For monobloc and speedlight shooters, this is usually not an issue as we tend to hang our remotes from the light stand with the light. But for pack-and-head shooters, this is a big red flag.
For instance, I am pretty sure that's what killed me on this assignment. I was new(-ish) to pack-and-head lighting, and had the PW just sitting on the ground. For all I know the antenna could have been pointed right at the shooting position, too.
Why? Sheer ignorance. And I paid the price that night with an impromptu available light shoot.
Since then I have learned to mount the PWs up near the head. Or, if the head is low to the ground, on its own stand. Fortunately, they use a 1/8" sync port, so getting a long sync cord for stand mounting is a very cheap proposition.
The other big killer for radio waves is water. That includes plants and people, which are … mostly water. Water absorbs radio waves. So if you are trying to remote through woods, going for line of sight between units is your best defense. In a crowd, get that receiver antenna up high. And if the ground is wet, getting your receivers away from the ground will help you avoid a double whammy.
Your Results Will Vary By Model
I am taking PWs as an example here, because that is what I use. But no matter what brand you use, take a moment to dig into your instruction manual and see just what you are dealing with. It'll make a big difference in the range you get out of your units.
As a convenience to readers who use other brands of remotes, I'll be happy to pose links to any online remote instruction manuals that give out antenna and/or orientation information. Just throw them into the comments and I will bring them up here:
:: PocketWizard Plus II manual ::