Why Profoto? -- The Deciding Factors
I've been shooting with Paul C Buff Einsteins for the last 5 years since their release and have been extremely happy with their price and performance. They've served me well through the years and have been more durable than most give them credit for. Of all my PCB gear, only one PCB unit has gone in for service in the last 5 years -- and that's because a stand tipped over and broke the mount -- the flash still worked, but I could no longer put it on a stand, so it had to go in. They took care of it very quickly and had it back in my hands within a week.
I've been trying to pack lighter for shoots lately. I keep my gear well-protected, and packing a giant Pelican Storm iM2950 to transport 4 Einstein heads and 2 VML Battery packs has become a real pain. It's HUGE, it's heavy, and often, I don't even need all the gear. I could easily pack appropriately, but I like having backups, so I usually take EVERYTHING with me.
Last week, I ordered the Profoto B2 Location Kit. The decision came mostly from some recent shoots I've had where mobility was paramount -- I've almost never shot my Einsteins at full power unless I'm shooting Hypersync (I trigger my Einsteins with PowerMC2s and a MiniTT1), so I felt that 250w/s would be more than adequate, especially since I've been shooting more HSS/HyperSync with speedlights and a FlexTT5 on location shoots where I've had to be more mobile.
While an Einstein and a VML isn't a the heaviest setup, it's still rather unwieldy and gets heavy quick (even for an assistant) when you're trekking around the city trying to get different textures for your backdrop. I've gotten spoiled on shoots like this running speedlights on a monopod and being able to run and gun very quickly, allowing for an assistant to quickly and easily place the light where I want it, like being able to boom the light on a stick -- without having to setup an actual boom, or without tearing their arms out of their socket trying to do it with a monobloc and a light stand or boom arm. Having the extra flash power compared to a speedlight, along with the TTL, remote power control and HSS/HyperSync I'd grown accustomed to via the PocketWizard TT1/TT5 system was really the main deciding factor in moving to the B2 system -- I'd get to keep all those neat features.
Another deciding factor was previous experience I'd had with the Profoto B1's with a fellow photographer -- Ezra Zuniga. I've worked with Ezra on a handful of projects for VAPE Magazine, and the B1's have been rock-solid so far. Having experienced great support from PCB, I wanted something with equally great support and service and I've heard Profoto has top-notch service. Ezra had owned some Elinchrom gear in the past and had mentioned how it was difficult to get them serviced as parts (for his particular pack) were scarce, and service often took forever -- This may have changed, but I didn't want to risk that being the case since I can't afford backups for such an expensive system. Further, many rental houses and studios in CA rent and run Profoto, so I knew I'd have an easy time finding something to borrow in a pinch. Score one for Profoto.
Having been satisfied with my current lighting setup for so long, I was hesitant on investing in a new system, especially when the price of admission is quite high -- That meant new modifiers (or at least new speedrings), and since you need the (expensive) Profoto Air Remote transmitter to be able to take full advantage of the OCF systems, a new transmitter as well. The Profoto OCF units are NOT cheap -- The B2 2-head Location Kit runs about $2995 (10/3/2015: Currently with a $400 discount at $2595 at time of writing) and includes:
- 1x Profoto B2 AirTTL 250w/s Pack
- 2x Profoto B2 Li-ion Batteries
- 2x B2 OCF Heads
- 1x Charger (2.8A)
- 1x Location Bag, 1x Pack Carrying Bag w/ Strap
Alternatively, Profoto offers a B2 To-Go 1-head Kit for $2195 (10/3/2015: Currently with a $300 discount for a price of $1895 at time of writing) which offers all of the above, except with one less flash head and one less battery. An extra B2 flash head will run you $695, while an extra battery pack runs $229. At the current pricing, that means you essentially get the extra battery for free if you go with the Location Kit. The deal gets even better at the "normal" pricing.
If you think you might ever need or want another flash head (you will), do yourself a favor and go with the Location Kit.
Upon unboxing the kit, i took a quick stock and made sure everything was present. I then proceeded to update to the newest B2 and Air Remote firmware (Air Remote firmware B6 and B2 firmware A3, made available 9/30/2015). The upgrade process for the Air Remote went flawlessly, but for some reason the B2 pack would not update on my PC (I'm running Windows 10). I'd tried different cables, different ports, and even trying to update on my Surface Pro 3 (Running Windows 8.1), but to no avail. My B2 came installed with firmware A1. Abandoning the update, I charged a battery, and began to take a look at the rest of the kit. (UPDATE: I was able to update from a PC running Windows 7)
Overview, Design & First Impressions
The fit and finish of each component in the kit is top-notch. I'm a big fan of aesthetic and form, and I've always loved the clean, minimalist design of Profoto equipment. The industrial design of the B2 is sexy. The heads are very small at about 4" x 4" x 4" in dimension, and weigh barely more than a flagship speedlight such as an SB-910/600EX-RT at 1.5lbs (0.68kg).
The pack, with battery attached, comes in at a claimed 2.2lbs and with dimensions of 6.3" x 3.1" x 6.7". The control panel is about the size of an iPhone 6+, and with battery attached, about as tall, too. It's tiny, and the pack weight is almost inconsequential since it'll be hanging off a stand, a shoulder, or a belt loop. So really, you (or your assistant) are looking at only swinging around 1.5lbs, plus the weight of any modifiers. Comparatively, a B1 is nearly twice the weight for the entire B2 setup at 6.6lbs (3kg), with a battery attached. The B1's are much more portable than a pack-and-head system or a monobloc and battery pack due to the absence of any cables and being completely self-contained, but it's still quite heavy to maneuver with a light stand, or for an assistant to boom. This isn't a knock on the B1's however -- far from it -- I've already ordered a pair of B1's to round out my lighting kit for studio work, or when I need the extra power to tame the sun, when using larger modifiers, or when working from longer distances.
The B2 is a 250w/s asymmetric pack -- with one head connected, you can allocate up to 250w/s across a 9-stop range in 1/10th stop increments. With two heads the power of each head is cut in half to 125w/s. Since the pack is totally asymmetric, you can dial each head independently across the same 9-stop range for each head in 1/10th stop increments.
The pack features simple, dedicated physical controls for each function. Two dials on the right control the power to each head, and act sort of like an iphone or smartphone "flick" -- the faster you turn the dial, the faster the adjustments will be. Slow down, and you can adjust it in 10th stops. A quick, simple flick will bring it from the lowest power, to the highest. The four buttons on the right control modeling lamps for each head, Pack mode (Normal or Freeze, which enables slightly faster flash durations for action shots), and ready state (beep/silent/dim or any combination thereof). Three bottom buttons control power on/off, sync mode (air, or built-in optical slave) and "set" which controls a settings menu to set the channel of the pack, along with an auto-off timer, adjustable from 1 to 30 minutes where the pack will shut off after that amount of inactivity. The white button atop the control panel functions as a test button.
The side of the pack features a 1/8" sync port, so you can use any existing triggers you may have, although you will not be able to take advantage of any of the TTL or remote power control functions.
The included 2.8A charger will charge a B2 battery within one hour. The battery is rated at 1500 mAh (1.5Ah) and provides about 215-220 full-power flashes from a full charge. The pack may be used with the battery and charger attached to trickle charge the battery while you shoot, greatly increasing your shooting time if you're near an outlet. It does not, however, power the pack directly via AC, so if you are shooting at full-power, the battery will eventually run down. Profoto does not recommend using the 4.5A fast charger with the B2, as the battery is rated at a max 4A charge current. The B2 Location Kit comes with 2 batteries, providing you with plenty of power for a shoot, even if you're shooting full-power every time. Additional batteries are available for $229.
Profoto Air Remote TTL-C/TTL-N
To take full advantage of the B2's, I also picked up the new Air Remote TTL-C for Canon cameras along with my kit (There is a TTL-N Air Remote available for Nikon cameras). The TTL remotes are specifically designed for the new OCF series of flashes by Profoto, as it offers TTL information to be transmitted to the B1 and B2 units. Interestingly, the OCF units do not have anything special inside and are not manufacturer-specific, but the controllers are. This means that in the future, Profoto can potentially release TTL controllers for other manufacturers and make them compatible with existing B1 and B2 units through a firmware upgrade.
The B2 pack, nor the B1 heads, for that matter, care which controller you're using, although the B1's need to be configured for Canon or Nikon). The Air Remote allows full control of the B2 pack or B1 heads from the camera position -- You can adjust lighting ratios in TTL mode, power in manual mode, switch between first/second curtain and hi-speed sync, turn on/off the modeling lamp, and change the channel the remote is operating on. The remote can control up to 3 groups with according to Profoto -- an unlimited number of lights per group. The display and controls are well laid out. It's bright, contrasty, backlit, and makes it very easy to see all the information you need. It runs on two 'AAA' batteries.
In testing and real-world use, the range and reliablity is impressive. It has been much more reliable than my Pocketwizard TT1/TT5/MC2's, which I have had issues with both range and reliablity (often misfires or doesn't fire at all). I've so far experienced none of this with the Profoto system -- it fires every time, and in testing, the claimed range of 1000' (300m) in normal trigger-only mode, and 300' (100m) in TTL mode appears to be accurate. I almost never have to worry about this, but it's good to know.
Also, the remote is user-upgradeable through firmware from Profoto, and it appears there have already been a handful of usability and feature-adding firmware updates since this system has been released.
The Profoto Air Remotes work very well and are incredibly reliable, offering complete control of everything on the B2 heads from modeling lamps, to power adjustment. If I had to pick one thing that bothered me about the remote it's that when switching to Manual, I wish there were an option to display the actual power for each particular head instead of trying to remember what it was set at. this isn't a huge deal though, since the display of the B2 pack is easily visible. It's a bit more of an issue for the B1's where if the head is boomed up high or pointed straight down (or both), and you can't see the display, you can't easily tell what the strobe's power is. For TTL, the lighting ratio display is fine, since settings are constantly changing. It would be nice, if, through a firmware update, you could see the absolute setting of the pack or strobe you are adjusting, and maybe a way to cycle between different packs/strobes within a group, and see their settings as well.
The Profoto B2's and B1's work with the entire Profoto light shaping catalog, or any existing modifier you may already have, provided you own the correct speedring or adapter. I have a ton of other modifiers with Balcar/PCB speedrings, and it's nice to know I won't have to make yet another large investment in new modifiers. Along with the B2 Location kit, I also ordered some of the new OCF modifiers from Profoto. Along with the kit, I picked up:
- 2' OCF Octabox & Grid
- 1' x 3' OCF Strip Bank & Grid
- 2x OCF Speedring.
- OCF Grid Kit
- OCF Snoot
- OCF Barndoors
Octas, beauty dishes and stripbanks are my most used modifiers (As i'm sure they are for many people), so it's good to see that these new lightweight modifiers specifically designed for the new systems support most users' needs. Since Profoto prides themselves on being "The Light Shaping Company", I'm sure we'll see more OCF-series modifiers in the future.
I plan to cover the modifiers in a separate post, so I won't talk about them much here. I will say that the OCF speedring and modifiers are quick to setup, well-built, and appear to be pretty durable.
I shoot almost everything with flash. I wanted to test the B2's in setups and situations as I'd be using them in real-world use to evaluate if the B2's will serve my needs, or if I'd be better off going with a pair of B2's. My tests consisted of the following:
- Outdoor fill
- Outdoor key/backlit
- Indoor Studio: Portrait & Product
I recently was given an assignment to shoot some quick portraits for about 25 student interns over two days -- I'd have to pull them away from their work, on top of not being able to do my own work, so I only had about 5 minutes with each student. The B2's did exceptionally well, and TTL helped incredibly when moving to different locations with different lighting -- I often only had to take 3-5 frames before we had a winner. My assistant commented on the lightness of the pack and maneuverability of the heads, which helped my confidence in believing that the B2's were perfect for most of my work.
In this shot, The flash fired at about "7.0" power (which is something around 32w/s or about 1/2 power on a bigger speedlight) through the 2' OCF Octa high, so I had plenty of power left. It was overcast that day, so that helped quite a bit, but I have no doubts that I would be able to shoot with the B2's and have enough light on a much brighter day.
It was a bit brighter during this shot -- She was in direct sunlight and I needed some fill to lighten some of the harsh shadows across the face -- I still used the 2' Octa for this shot from about 5-6' away -- this was the first shot we took, and the B2's did pretty well here -- It was firing at about "8.6" (TTL), which would be somewhere around 80 w/s, or beyond full power on a bigger speedlight. Recycle times on these shots were instant, as the B2's still recycle very fast at about 1.3 seconds when shooting them at full power.
Above: Placing the subject in the shade makes it easy to fill, and 250w/s is more than enough power in these situations.
This shot was in direct sunlight, effectively overpowering the sun. The shot was bare-bulb to get the most power out of the flash and fired at nearly full power.
Outdoors on location is where the convenience of TTL shines. While I've never actually shot TTL for anything EVER -- I always found TTL to be a little finnicky both on-camera with my Canon flashes and off-camera with the Pocketwizard TT1/TT5 system -- In my experience with the B1's and now the B2's, TTL on the Profoto system works extremely well in nearly all cases. The speed and accuracy with which TTL works on the B1 and B2 strobes really helps in achieving a baseline exposure when shooting on location. From there, I can switch over to manual mode from the Air Remote -- keeping the TTL settings locked in -- and adjust accordingly, or use FEC from the back of the camera. This really speeds up the shoot and something I've found invaluable when shooting on location and moving around a lot with changing light conditions, allowing me to focus more on the shoot.
In the right conditions, 250w/s is enough to compete with the sun, however you'll likely need to shoot the B2 head bare, or with Profoto's Magnum Reflector to be able to get enough power out of the B2 if you often shoot under the harsh midday sun. The moment you put something in front of the light or increase the distance of your light from your subject, you'll start having some issues, but HSS & Hypersync can help here, along with opening up your aperture. The above photo was captured with a B2, Bare, at just under full power -- With a reflector that amplifies the light, i'm sure you could overpower the sun quite easily.
HSS & Hypersync really help with taming the sun when shooting outdoors -- Hypersync also opens up many more creative options when shooting on location by allowing you to shoot at large apertures to achieve a thin depth of field. Since most modern cameras have a Focal-plane shutter as opposed to a leaf [or other] shutter, you're usually limited to anywhere between 1/160th and 1/250th X-sync, making it difficult to shoot outdoors with a large aperture unless you use an ND filter, which cuts down ALL light, so you'll be dialing your flashes up to compensate (being able to sync at nearly any shutter speed with flash is part of why I miss my Fuji X100s so much, due to its leaf shutter).
Admittedly, I pushed the limits when testing this, as I wanted to find what 250w/s was capable of -- And surprisingly (or not so, depending on how you may have judged the B2 when it was announced), the answer is -- quite a lot. In open shade, I was easily able to shoot wide open and underexpose the background by 2-3 stops, syncing at up to 1/4000 @ f/1.4 or even above without any issues or not having enough light. TTL does a great job here as well -- The above shot was shot using TTL.
250w/s is plenty for small studio or work unless you're using gigantic modifiers. I found the power to be sufficient for my product photography -- I normally shot my Einsteins at between 1/4 and 1/8 power power (80-160w/s), so splitting 250w/s between 2 heads at 125w/s each is enough to shoot through the modifiers I use and provide me proper exposure at f/11 and above.
I have not yet had a chance to shoot studio portraits with the B2's yet, but as soon as I do, I'll update this post. By most accounts, if you only use one head on the pack, 250w/s through something like a 3' Octa should be enough, depending on the look you're going for. However, the B2's aren't REALLY a studio solution or replacement for a larger pack-and-head system or even the B1's or D1's, so it's not really fair to expect it to do something that much larger/more powerful lights are designed to do. I plan to use the B2's as accent lights or background lights in studio paired with my B1's and D1's.
From a purely monetary standpoint, do I think the Profoto B2 is worth the cost? For most people -- in short, no. If price is paramount to your buying decision, then there are plenty of other options available -- after all,light is light. For a working photographer, or anyone who can afford the luxury to try out, switch to, or purchase the Profoto OCF system I believe the value is in the intangibles:
- Being able to control every head from your camera position: This is invaluable if you are working on a large set, on location or at an event where lights may be placed out of reach or in awkward positions so as to not make the controls easy to reach or the displays easy to see. Yes, this can be done on many other systems including PocketWizard's TT1/TT5 triggers with an AC3 ZoneControlleror a compatible Sekonic meter -- but only with compatible Paul C Buff, Elinchrom, and speedlights from manufacturers like Canon and Nikon.
- TTL: See above. This is available in some capacity from some lighting kits, or with Pocketwizard TT1/TT5 and certain speedlights. Not a huge thing for those that know what they're doing, but having TTL allows you to worry much less about continuous testing out on location. You take your first shot in TTL, and adjust from there to suit your creative taste -- which leads me to...
- Profoto's "Hybrid" mode: You can use TTL to achieve a baseline for your flash and then switch to manual. The greatly speeds up a shoot because you can set up your lights, take a shot, and adjust accordingly. I've nailed shots in the first 2 or 3 frames and moved on because the TTL is just that good at getting it right. If there were one thing I could fix about this, it would be to see the actual unit's (absolute) power setting on the Air Remote. Currently it displays a relative reading, but i'd like to be able to see what each head is set at, as an absolute value.
- HSS/Hypersync: Again, available in some form with certain systems or the PocketWizard TT1/TT5 system. However, with those, it does not work nearly as well as it does in the Profoto OCF system.
- Color Temperature consistency across the power range: The quality of light from Profoto lights is awesome. I've had the opportunity to shoot with some of their Acute pack systems previously, and more recently with a friend's B1's, and now my own B2's -- I had always noticed my Einsteins were actually very warm even in "color" mode, despite the claims from PCB of accurate color temperature. Normally this didn't bother me as I usually edit warm especially for portraits, but for product work, it became annoying to have to constantly adjust white balance or make tonal adjustments. Shooting with the Profotos has been much more consistent and my workflow has been sped up because I don't have to deal with inconsistencies nearly as often.
- Mobility: As I mentioned in the opening of this review, Mobility for most of my work was what drove me to the B2 versus the B1. It's lighter, and the heads are smaller and more easily maneuverable by an assistant if on a painter's pole or monopod, even with a modifier attached. Sure, there are cords versus the completely cordless B1, but I believe each product fulfills a different purpose, and The B2 seemed to fit more with what I was looking for at the time (although at the time of this writing I've already purchased a pair of B1's to round out my kit).
- Support: As I mentioned in the beginning, I wanted a system with great support to match the awesome support I've received from Paul C Buff over the years -- Profoto appears to be the most common and most easily serviceable in the US due to many rental houses and studios renting and running Profoto and the fact that these businesses run Profoto is a testament to the abuse they're capable of taking. The build quality is incredible compared to what I'm used to.
I did find 250w/s lacking in some situations when shooting outdoors and competing with a bright backlight and with a modifier attached, as it robs the flash of some power. A bare-head would provide enough power in most cases, but you lose the ability to shape the light. Since, in my quick testing I found the power slightly lacking, I've already ordered a pair of B1's to augment my location kit.
This isn't to say that the B2's aren't good -- they are very good -- it's more to say that the B1's and B2's serve totally different purposes and I'll be using both equally, depending on what the assignment or situation calls for. The B2's shine for event or location photography where locations change frequently, due to its smaller size and much lighter weight -- wedding and location portrait photographers will love the mobility of the kit, and their assistants will be able to place the light where you want it much easier. The B1's are a good all-around solution and are slightly quicker to setup due to being entirely self contained, along with having more power when using larger modifiers or working from greater distances. The tradeoff is requiring proper grip equipment since the heads are heavier, so they are not quite as mobile (yet still much more so, and much less intrusive than a pack and head or monobloc with a battery pack or generator).
My decision to purchase the Profoto B2 was entirely about convenience and mobility. I see it as a replacement for speedlights -- the extra power affords you a ton of extra versatility with almost no sacrifices -- you can quite easily boom a head and a modifier by hand (even as a one-man show if you have to), and this makes the B2 a perfect light kit for engagement sessions, weddings, and on-location portraiture. After plenty of research and some hands-on testing with the B1's in the past, I had already made the decision to switch up my lighting system due to the advantages outlined above, so cost was not as big of a factor as I looked at it as more of a long-term investment -- especially since I would need to make additional investments into new speedrings or adapters and even new modifiers altogether -- and because I would eventually pick up some other Profoto lights (B1's, D1's) to complete the transition. Taking all of the above into consideration, the difference in price between the Profoto OCF flashes and a competing system isn't all that much if things like speed, ease of use, mobility, and serviceability are important to you.
If this review helped you in any way and you're interested in purchasing the B2 or any other products, please use any of the links on this page, or the link below to purchase via amazon. It helps me out a little, and costs you nothing extra. Also, I plan on reviewing, or at least doing a short review on the B1's and how they differ from the B2's in real-world use. Stay tuned!
NOTE: This Article was originally posted on Bryan's blog on 09/30/2015.