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Profoto B1 Review – 6 Months in

When it was first announced, I thought the Profoto B1 was a bit of a gimmick – why on earth would you want TTL in a monobloc?  If you’re going to the effort of setting the lighting up properly, why would you ever use anything other than manual?  Why control as much as you possibly can, and then leave a huge great chunk of your shot in the hands of some algorithm designed in a lab in Japan, rather than your own experience and choice on the day?  This isn’t a new complaint of mine by the way, I’ve always been mystified why a certain someone someone seems to create elaborate lighting setups, then insist on shooting in aperture priority mode and TTL flash, rather than manual, but I digress.

So anyway, when they came out, I thought to myself “well, that’s very clever, but it’s very expensive, and why would I want that anyway.”  I already own 5 Bowens Gemini Pro Monoblocs (2 x 500ws, 2 x 750ws, 1 x 1500ws) all of which can run off both mains power and the Travelpak battery, along with 5 Nikon flashguns, 3 of which can run off CLS should the fancy ever take me (it rarely does….).  However, in late 2014 when they announced that the B1’s could now sync at any speed, I started paying attention.  Given how much action stuff I shoot, along with how many times I’m fighting to get past that 1/250s limit (in practical terms with Bowens, more like 1/160s) sync, I began to look a bit more closely.

Lee Westwood BTS - Shooting with the Profoto B1
Lee Westwood about to let one fly down the fairway. 1x B1 through Beauty dish left, 1x B1 with zoom reflector back right.

After some extensive reading of online manuals, going right into the fine details of how you can sync at any speed (important point – they work like flashguns do, by pulsing light over the duration of the exposure, and you need the pricey TTL trigger too) I rented a pair, plus the trigger, for a location/studio shoot for a Women’s Health advertorial.  I took all my own gear along as well, just in case the profoto’s turned out to be bunnies.

The shoot involved producing about 8 finished images, 6 of which were out on the streets of Soho – woman shopping, walking around etc, and 2 of which were in a professional kitchen of her preparing and cooking food.  The B1’s were pretty easy to get the hang of, and my assistant and I spent half an hour or so whilst hair and make-up was being done trying out the settings and checking if high-speed sync did work (it does).  We then shot with them all day long, and were still OK for battery at the end of the day, some 600+ shots later.  We chucked the batteries on for charge over lunch, and they probably got 20 minutes or so each. The outdoor stuff involved my assistant handholding one of the B1’s with a softbox attached, and tracking with the model (we didn’t have permits, naughty us, so putting light stands down on the streets of Central London is never a great idea), and the indoor stuff was a fairly straightforward studio setup, with the key light through a 7ft parabolic brolly, and the back light bounced off the white wall.

Scholl - Shooting with the Profoto B1
Left – Daylight balanced with B1 through softbox, handheld by assistant, Right, 1 x B1 through 7ft Parabolic camera left, 1 x B1 into back white wall.

Needless to say, you know where this is going, after trialing them for a day, I dug deep and went out and bought a pair, plus the trigger, less than a week later.  As a small bonus, I got half the rental fee back from Calumet for doing so – nice!  I’ve now shot lots more jobs with them, and here’s what I think so far:

Pros:

  • They’re totally self-contained, location lights.  This is something that’s overlooked in all the high-tech TTL/high speed sync bumf, and to me is the most crucial advantage of them.  I just put them on a stand, turn them on, and that’s that.  With the trigger attached to the camera I can adjust them from where I’m shooting.  I don’t need to attach an external battery (as I did with my Bowens, or my briefly owned Genesis GF400 – which is now in pieces due to some strong wind) nor do I need to attach a trigger of any sort, as it’s all built in.  This alone is almost worth the price, as it speeds up my workflow SO much it’s almost beyond price.  Even flashguns take longer to rig up, as they always need some sort of mount attaching to them before they go on a stand, and/or a trigger, then often some sort of modifier.  The B1’s are by far the quickest lights to setup I’ve ever owned, and since I do so much stuff on location, in a hurry, often on my own, this is a deal-breaker!
  • The batteries are very good indeed, and last at least as long as they claim to.  They also recharge pretty quickly too.
  • They genuinely do sync at any speed, once you update the firmware, and use the TTL-N trigger.  They do this the same way as flashguns by pulsing out light over a longer period than usual, so that there’s a decent coverage as the open shutter blades pass.  This does mean they “lose” power as you increase your shutter speed, but I’ve shot with none of the usual banding at 1/8000 second.  Very happy with this indeed.
  • They take the standard Profoto adapter, so you can start building a collection of the world’s best modifiers.  If, like me, you’ve got a decent collection of pre-existing modifiers, just buy a Profoto speedring adapter for about £25, and swap them out.
  • Being “Air” the output can be controlled from the camera.  I realise that by 2015 this is no longer quite the revolution it was 5 years ago, but for me it’s a big step up.  I could do that with the Nikon flashes – as long as they were using CLS, or my Pocket Wizard Flex TT5’s, but not with my Bowens, as the only remote they have is the dinky little Infra-red one.  It’s OK, and handy when you’ve rigged a light in the ceiling or something, but nowhere near as handy as just adjusting things from the top of the camera.
Profoto B1 on pull-up bar
B1 rigged to a pull-up bar in a Crossfit box – the ability to adjust the power from the camera is VERY handy when lights are rigged out of reach!
  • The unit’s are pretty compact, and have a decent power output for their size.  Obviously, I’d love more power, but 500w/s is very useful, and these are significantly smaller than my Bowens.  The power range is superb too, going WAY down low if needed.
  • The flash duration, in “freeze” mode, and as you turn the power down, is incredibly short, and superb for freezing action.  Obviously there are issues as you take power out, but if you’re in a studio and trying to capture motion, these will do as good a job as some of the most expensive heads on the market.  At minimum power their duration is around 1/20 000 of a second, and it’s not much more a couple of stops higher up the scale.  Very handy for us action types!
  • Bit of a silly one this, but if you buy the Location Kit, as I did, the rucsac that comes with it is actually pretty decent.  Usually when I see a deal and it says something like “free bag”, my first thought is “Charity Shop”, as they tend to be cheap and nasty, but this one’s really well built, and really well thought out.  It’s not quite big enough though – adding things like speedrings and reflectors is beyond it, so they’ve ended up in a rolling case after all.

Cons

  • The biggest problem by far, and the one that kept me from buying them for quite a while, is the fact that they are battery only.  Now I know that’s the entire point, but for someone like me who does such a mix of location and studio work, the big plus to the Bowens Gemini’s was the fact that they were mains/battery, and if I was in the studio all day doing HUNDREDS of shots, I wouldn’t think twice about battery power.  As it stands, on shoots like this, I’m going to have to get into the habit of charging stuff during breaks, as well as investing in more batteries.
  • The other big problem is the price, but let’s be honest, it’s Profoto and you don’t expect it to be cheap.  I’ll admit I thought long and hard about making this purchase, but once I’d rented them and used them it was obvious to me that the benefits they would bring in convenience would be well worth the money.
B1 + D1
A B1 and a D1 set up inside Speedo’s swimming pool. Note design similarities, and the fact that at this stage I was too cheap to buy more than 2 Zoom reflectors….
  • Lastly, like all monoblocs, they’re quite heavy things to be putting on top of lighting stands, as opposed to packs and heads.  The actual spur to buying these was when my 6 month old Genesis GF400 came smashing down some concrete steps on a shoot and exploded.  Yes, it had lots of ballast on it, and yes, it was on a decent stand, but it still got blown over.  There’s no real solution to this other than just being conscientious and careful, nor do I see how Profoto could do anything about this without making a pack and head system (which of course they’ve just done with the B2’s).  Just mentioning it as a potential downside, and something to watch for.

So far, nearly 6 months in, I’m incredibly happy with them so much so that not only have I since gone out and added 2 D1 1000’s to my set up, but I honestly can’t imagine how I managed without them.  The ease of set up, the air system, and their portability make them very useful assets indeed.  Well worth the cash, just don’t expect to have a holiday in the same financial year……

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