Profoto B1 camera flash product review

Product Review: Profoto B1


APRIL 03, 2014

By Dan Havlik

When I included the trend “portable lighting power” in a story I wrote for the January issue of PDN called “5 Tech Trends That Are Changing the Photo Industry,” one of the products I had in mind was the Profoto B1. The B1 had just been introduced at the time, but based on the concept alone—a powerful, cordless, battery-operated monolight with TTL functionality—it seemed part of a movement to make studio-style lighting more portable for outdoor photo shoots.
Prior to the debut of the B1, Profoto rival Broncolor introduced its Move Outdoor Kit 2, which is similar to a product I reviewed favorably in PDN last May. Influenced, perhaps, by the trend of photographers using clusters of small strobe units off-camera to simulate studio lighting in the field, lighting manufacturers seemed to be saying: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

The difference, of course, between products like the B1 or Broncolor’s portable lighting pack and Speedlite/Speedlight flashes is that these studio-style products offer considerably more lighting power than small strobes. 

For some folks, all that illumination might be overkill; others might balk at the price tags of this high-end lighting gear. A single Profoto B1 light sells for $1,995, and that doesn’t include the necessary Air Remote TTL-C device, which sells for an additional $395. Meanwhile, the Broncolor Move Outdoor Kit 2, which is a more comprehensive setup that includes a power pack and a collection of lighting modifiers and radio transmitters, goes for $7,195.

Are these powerful, portable lighting rigs worth it? Back in May we gave a thumbs up to the Broncolor kit. More recently I got a chance to put a pair of B1 lights to the test with a photographer friend of mine. Here’s how this portable Profoto product stacks up.

Background
The B1 is not a Speedlight nor a traditional monolight, but a new lighting device that combines some of the attributes of the two. Along with its cordless portability, the B1 gives you TTL control via a patent-pending invention from Profoto designed to integrate the flash with your camera. It works by attaching Profoto’s Air Remote TTL-C to the hot shoe of your camera. When you photograph your subject, the B1 automatically adjusts the blast of light to optimize exposure. If you want more control, you can switch to manual mode with the press of a button on the B1.

The Air Remote slides onto your hot shoe and creates a wireless link between your camera and the B1 flash. It supports manual and TTL control of B1 lights in up to three groups. The Air Remote TTL-C for Canon cameras with E-TTL II support launched with the B1 last year. At press time, Nikon users were still waiting for the Air Remote TTL-N with i-TTL support to come out. 

Despite its portable, battery-powered design, the B1 is a powerful flash system producing up to 500Ws of light, which is ten times more powerful than a Speedlight. The battery provides up to 220 full-power flashes and the B1 takes less than two seconds to recharge, according to Profoto. A Quick Burst feature lets you shoot up to 20 flashes per second at the B1’s lower power setting. Light output can be controlled in 1/10 f-stop steps over the entire nine f-stop power range. In short, the B1 is as sophisticated as a traditional studio lighting setup but in a highly portable package.

Setup
I tested out the B1 with my photographer friend David Dupuy, who shoots headshots, events and weddings. Since most of Dupuy’s work is done outside the studio in what can be challenging lighting conditions, he typically brings along severalCanon Speedlite 600EX-RT flashes, which he wirelessly syncs to his camera via their built-in radio transmitters. But there are times when he needs something more powerful, which is why the B1 is a good lighting product for him to try out.

Profoto loaned us a two-light setup to test along with an Air Remote TTL-C and the Backpack M. When everything was stuffed into the pack, it was a bit on the heavy side but very manageable.

“It travels really well,” Dupuy says. “I just took the backpack and a few other pieces of lighting gear, including stands and umbrellas, and brought the whole setup to a job across town.”

The job was to shoot corporate headshots for a major real estate company in New York City in a 1,000-square-foot office. Neither of us is too keen on reading manuals and I often like to see how intuitively I can figure out a product as part of the test, since ease-of-use can be as important as functionality. 

Once Dupuy was on location, he was easily able to pop the two B1 lights onto the stands and intuitively figure out how they worked while the client was there. He describes using the Air Remote, which slid onto the hot shoe of his Canon EOS 5D Mark III to trigger the lights wirelessly, as a “perfect integration.”

The LED screen on the back of the lights was crisp and easy to read when checking and adjusting settings. The batteries were also easy to plug in, and the monolight design was familiar and user-friendly. 

Each B1 weighs just over 6.5 pounds with the battery loaded. While not nearly as light as Dupuy’s Speedlites, they’re fine for just about any light stand, and I’ve even seen them mounted on those small, flexible GorillaPod-style tripods. The B1’s design makes it fairly adaptable, letting you set it up in tricky locations you probably wouldn’t attempt with traditional studio lighting. And, of course, the integrated battery and cord-free setup make the B1 extremely unobtrusive to use. This is key for location shoots where bystanders are always milling around and, potentially, tripping over your gear.

Performance

We shot with the lights in both the no-brainer TTL mode—where the lights automatically adjust output based on through the lens (aka TTL) metering of your camera—and by manually setting them. Because manual mode is not hard and offers more creative control than automatic TTL, most photographers will probably go this route.

But TTL is there when you need it and if you’re in a hurry and just want to fire away without too much fuss, it’s good in a pinch. We had no problem adjusting power via the dial on the back and, after you fire off a shot, recycle time is almost instantaneous.
“I don’t think I was ever waiting for them to power up so I could get a shot again,” Dupuy says. “They were really consistent.”

The only annoying thing about using the Air Remote was that it defaults to TTL mode when you turn it off and turn it back on again, rather than sticking with the settings we had manually dialed in. We also would have liked some way to plug the B1 lights into the wall, if you want to use them in the studio like traditional moonlights.

For Dupuy’s headshots in the large office space, the two B1 lights provided more than enough output. He set one of the lights to the left of his subjects and another behind them, as a kind of rim light. The maximum output setting is 10 but Dupuy didn’t need to go above 7 for most of his shots. Along with the impressive light output, which was consistently color-balanced with every shot, the snazzy Profoto lights themselves impressed the client, which, it cannot be overstated, is important to a pro photographer’s reputation.

“The B1s are really slick. They look really serious and sophisticated,” Dupuy says. “The client was a techie guy, so he was really interested in the lights, and they made a very positive impression on him.”

Battery life was excellent. After shooting over 300 headshots during a day-long session using the lights, there was still half a charge of battery life remaining.

If we had one complaint about the B1, it would be somewhat of a minor one. The strobe source sits flush along the metal container of the B1 rather than jutting out slightly. While this helps direct the light on your subject and, ostensibly, prevents the light source from getting damaged during transport or while on location, it also prevents you from wrapping the light around a subject, such as when putting a softbox on them. This can be somewhat limiting, if for instance, you want the light to spread over a whole scene you’re shooting, rather than focusing it on one subject.

The Bottom Line
So, as you probably gathered from the review, aside from a few minor things, we liked the Profoto B1 lights quite a bit. The real question though is cost. At $2,000 a pop, these portable lights aren’t cheap and, believe us, you won’t want to buy just one B1. You’ll also need to purchase an Air Remote for an extra $400. While that adds up, once you make the investment, you’re ready to light up just about any assignment. The fact that you can use the B1 with all of Profoto’s light-shaping tools is also a big plus, further expanding the creative possibilities of the setup. If you’re worried about the cost versus just sticking with your old Speedlites/Speedlights, think of it this way: Just one or two big jobs—and considering the B1’s firepower, we do mean big jobs—and this kit will pay for itself. You’ll also look a lot more professional using these serious monolight-style rigs than you would strapping a bunch of small flashes to stands and trying to light up a scene. 


Pros: Great, cordless, battery-powered design; very portable; handy no-brainer TTL mode; excellent battery life; extremely fast recycle time; professional, sophisticated look

Cons: Relatively expensive compared to small strobe flashes; more lighting power than you might need; Air Remote defaults to TTL mode when you turn it on; light source doesn’t project out to spread illumination

Prices: 
$1,995 for each B1; $395 for Air Remote TTL-C (for Canon cameras); www.profoto.com

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