To be sure, I am not the first photography writer to provide a review on the Profoto B1 Air off camera flash system. However, I think I am the first fine art photography instructor/writer to tell you this system can, and should, become as important to your workflow as your camera, lens, and postproduction software. There are numerous technical reviews of this product and accolades from various writers, which you can review at Profoto’s web site at http://bit.ly/1sOKm93. So go there and enjoy the tech data and first hand experiences, but for this post, I am focusing on this beautiful, powerful, highly portable light that we explored at the California Center for Digital Arts during our Profoto Day.
We invited Dan Cuny from Profoto, and our own Director of the Fashion Photography curriculum, Nick Lovell, to put this incredible light system through its paces, with the help of 30 other students and professional photographers who attended our Profoto Day. We worked with several Profoto systems in the studio, but outside is where we put the B1 Air through its paces. As a writer, I shy from terms such as ‘game changer,’ ‘blown away’, and other popular clichés, but in the case of the B1, they actually understate the ‘wow’ factor of this system.
Setting up this “off-camera flash” system is identical to using speed lights. No cords, no battery packs, just put the lights on stands, the Air Remote TTL-C onto a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and fire a test shot. I guarantee the first frame will be exceptional. There is a simple ‘back of the head’ display that you can read even in bright sun that displays flash power, (220 shots at full power) and remaining battery life (full recharge in in 1 hour with accessory charger). The built in modeling light shines at a consistent 3,000K and has an easy-to-use control knob. You adjust flash output through the remote that mounts in the camera’s hot shoe with modes: full manual, full automatic (TTL), and one that uses TTL for the first frame for a baseline exposure, then switches to manual for fine tuning. Unlike the confusing command structure of my Canon flash heads, the manual controls, if you choose them, are novice ready. But it is the TTL that simply blows me away with its incredible ability to work outside in rapidly changing ambient light.
Another thing I noticed, as I came to know Dan Cuny, is that you can judge the quality of a company by the quality of the people who represent the company. If you have the opportunity to meet Dan, you will find his relaxed manner impressive, his step-by-step teaching easy to grasp, and his answers straight from the shoulder honest. And Dan knows the photography business, a rarity among reps these days, as he has worked in several genres; his favorite is his days of shooting many of the rock stars of the 80’s who are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So then, here are our thoughts from the photographic genres that our Curriculum Directors practice.
There are numerous off-camera flash options available. I love my Canon 600 EX speed lights, which I employ frequently. I can use ETTL or I can choose manual, which gives me great creative control. They are great and I use one to four units depending upon the assignment and/or the effects I need to create. I also have to take studio strobes on location too when we need more light and, while these and other systems work to varying degrees, they have significant limitations that require compensation on the part of the photographer and his assistants. It seems we are constantly dealing with, and overcoming issues with cords, short life batteries, bulk, weight, insufficient light, or the inability to shape the light. For my fine art and commercial projects, I often overcome these restrictions with preplanned postproduction workflows, and that works. Nevertheless, in the back of my mind, I dream of a system that is simpler, lighter, more powerful, and smarter than I am.
That dream has finally come true with the Profoto B1 Air. Here in my hands is the sun delivered.
This is a portable light with so much power that it can overcome the natural sun. We mounted units on light stands, hand held them, did outdoor studio setups, and editorial poses of models walking from sunlight to shade, and back again and the TTL adjustments were dead on from click to click.
For example, here I am walking in from light to shadow with one open light. The TTL computer continuously adjusted the light for the changes with the camera in the “P” mode. In fact, the light is faster than the camera focus even in A1 servo mode.
Dave captured his wife, Julie, again in the P mode. Note the incredible light balance against the backlit daylight; see the natural tonal range as the subject and background seamlessly blend.
As soon as I began to work with the B1 lights, I mentally reframed my fine art workflow. Like most thematic image-makers, I may be producing studio projects, such as staged art or still life compositions, or I may be on location. My light needs change almost by the day and the B1 Air covers everything I can imagine shooting. Here is a system that allows me to fill shadows for my Past Gas project, create a studio light situation when shooting editorial location portraits for my medical/dental clients, and I’ve always wanted to fill in those foreground shadows when shooting landscape, and now I can with the B1 Air.
I’ve used many different brands of strobes, but Profoto is the brand that I keep coming back to and recommend to my fashion students.
If you want to get into fashion photography, Profoto is the brand to know and use. Look at behind-the-scenes videos from top magazines and fashion brands, even episodes of America’s Next Top Model, and you’ll consistently see Profoto equipment. If you’re hoping to assist a fashion photographer, it’s imperative that you know the equipment he or she will be using, and it’s a safe bet it’ll be Profoto.
In the fashion world, appearances matter just as much behind the camera as they do in front of the lens. If a high-end client walks on set and sees cheap lights, it usually reflects badly on the photographer. “Light is light,” but fashion is definitely an industry where you can’t risk looking even the least bit unprofessional. Moreover, in the fashion industry, light consistency is critical. Designers, art directors, stylists, and the photographer need to be on same page with light temperature, and light shaping. All of these creative professionals want to concentrate on creative approaches to fashion display and thus the need for consistent light quality.
The B1 adds incredible flexibility to the fashion workflow because of its cordless portability and the TTL system provides me with an opportunity to nail the first frame and then move onto additional creative interpretations.
I made a simple studio shot with Dan Cuny hand-holding the light in TTL mode and my jaw dropped. Next, we mounted the light with a beauty dish on a stand and added a second unit as a hair light. I squeezed the shutter in TTL and I knew immediately that the world of light had changed, and that I needed to change how I teach lighting.
In terms of portraiture, whether it be in the studio or on location, the TTL system automates so much of the work that you almost feel like you are cheating. But, in reality, what this light system does is free you to go further with creative approaches. Instead of constantly shifting power cords, adjusting power settings, I can simply move a light to create a new interpretation of my subject, or I can change my power settings with the hot shoe mounted TTL C on the camera.
The workflow simplicity pays for the lights on day one, but the quality of light and the ease of putting light where you want it and how you want it with automation opens creative opportunities that give me, or any photographer, incredible opportunities to create new looks and extend the emotional range of image interpretation.
I had the privilege of being invited to experiment with some new Profoto lights at The Orange County Photography Center. This is the result. (Light setup by David LaNeve and his business partner Nick Lovell, experimentation and photos by me.)
In summary, the Profoto B1 Air is the crème de le crème of professional lights. These lights exceed the cost of your Canon 5D and several lenses, but they deliver a value that dramatically increases your creative range and thus your professional or semi-professional income. This is a lifetime investment, one with downstream residual value; and the lights are so good that several lease/finance companies will step up and fund them. Our research says one could own a three light set, batteries, and some other goodies for $150.00 to a $200.00 a month.
When we look at the image results, the portability, durability, reliability, and creative capability, then this is money well spent.
We are not Profoto sales reps and we receive no compensation from them. However, we are enthusiastic believers and thus we recommend them because we feel they provide the best professional light workflow for our fellow photographers and our emerging growth students.
Profoto B1 Air systems are readily available from most photographic distributors, but if you want concierge service, great pricing, and attention to your needs, then we recommend calling Christy Jewell at Film Tools (818.845.8066818.845.8066 ext.128). She takes great care of our students and I’m sure she will make your acquisition of Profoto and other equipment a personal and enjoyable experience.