Review : The Profoto B1 500 AirTTL System

Profoto B1

When I first saw the announcement of this system in late 2013,  I was really excited.  Consider the following;

  • A fully self contained studio grade flash with 500ws output
  • A fully self contained power source in the form of a Lithium Ion battery
  • Complete remote control including power, modelling light and test from the hotshoe of my camera
  • Full e-TTL II integration with my Canon DSLRs
  • Full remote manual control to use with any other camera such as my Hasselblads or Leicas
  • A light weight, highly portable flash head that only needs a stand
  • Ability to use all of Profoto's light shaping modifiers

If all this sounds pretty cool to you too, read on to learn how it all worksI have not been a Profoto customer so far.  I own Bowens lights and Elinchrom lights and think that they are both great.  Bowens are built tough but are heavy and the battery system accessory is not inexpensive.  Elinchroms are lightweight, have a brilliant collapsing soft box system, include a wonderful remote that works without fail but the heads are mostly plastic and don't handle a beating all that well.  My Elinchroms for battery based use are a completely different set of lights, lightweight and convenient but needing adapters to use existing light modifiers.  None of the studio strobes I own or have used up until now have TTL flash support.

The other issue is that Profoto kit is expensive.  Like about double what its competition is except for the reflectors which are ridiculous money.  Profoto has a wonderful reputation for great light and great tools to be sure, but having witnessed Joe McNally make beautiful light with a match and a piece of cardboard I believe that beautiful light is as much talent as tech.

But to have really good TTL in a super powerful head that was portable and could use all kinds of modifiers, would be so nice wouldn't it?

With thanks, as usual, to Chris Atkinson of Henry's Newmarket, I have for a short evaluation period a B1 500 AirTTL light and Air Remote TTL-C controller.

Starting Up

Profoto B1
Profoto B1

It seems that some organizations are overdoing the beautiful packaging thing.  I recently went through the unboxing of a Wacom Cintiq 13HD (review coming).  Took forever to get it properly unboxed.  Not so with Profoto.  Simple packaging without pounds of heavy black cardboard.  The light comes with all the necessary cables in what I would call a "gig bag" a soft well padded case with dividers to hold the light.  An immediate message that the thing is designed to be portable.  There's even a slot for the Air controller which is a separate purchase.

Profoto B1 Kit
Profoto B1 Kit

The battery came with a minor charge in it.  The charger is the typical block AC thing with a power connector that plugs directly into the battery.  The battery is charged removed from the body of the unit.  It actually reminded me of the Hasselblad mode of addressing.  Probably a coincidence.  It took about an hour to bring the battery up to power.

I like well written manuals but I also like intuitive UI design so I can get to work without having to crack the manual.  Here's how it went.

  1. Put the battery on charge
  2. Put 2 AAA batteries in the Air Remote TTL-C
  3. Put the B1 on a light stand with a boom
  4. Put the Air Remote TTL-C on the 1Dx
  5. Click the B1 battery into place
  6. Turn the B1 on by holding the on button and waiting for it to cycle up
  7. Turn on the Air Remote TTL-C and the 1Dx
  8. Aim light at model
  9. Shoot
  10. BANG!  Perfect exposure, beautiful, if very direct light (unit comes with an integrated reflector/ diffuser but no light shapers)

Darn, everything should work this easily.

Looking Deeper

Air-Remote-TTL-C-front
Air-Remote-TTL-C-front

The piece that really makes the kit special is the TTL support.  Currently the only option is the Air Remote TTL-C for Canon but I understand that a Nikon version is coming.  Both the flash head and the remote have USB ports so the firmware is updateable over time.  The unit has three groups via buttons on the front but I've heard rumours that future firmware will support more groups.

The energy buttons allow you to control Flash Exposure Compensation in TTL mode, and basic output power control when not in TTL mode.  Power control can be managed independently across Groups A, B and C.  There are multiple channels available for radio communication with a range of over 100m in TTL mode.  There is no documented limit to the number of heads per group.  Canon's unit says a maximum of 15 600 EX-RTs can be controlled from their offering.

This is sort of amusing since you would need nearly ten 600 EX-RT units to match the max output of a single B1 Air.

The Model button turns the LED modelling lamp on and off and the Head button allows you to control which head you are working with if needs be.

The remote feels comprehensive not like it will fly apart in a strong wind.  There's a sense of "pro" gear therein.  The display is nice and bright and easy to read.  I was also very pleased to discover that you can also make all your TTL group and FE comp settings from within the camera and they pass properly to the Remote Air TTL-C and then onto the head.  Yes, I know this shouldn't be a surprise, but let's say other TTL radio options (like oh say PocketWizard) have been far below expectation.  Some folks believe that the Remote Air TTL-C is overpriced.  It certainly carries the Profoto premium ticket price, but take a look at the cost of Canon's own ST-E3-RT, a good device but more of a pain than the Profoto and like the Profoto it is a proprietary and closed system.

I also very much appreciated that I could set the flash(es) to either 2nd curtain sync or High-speed sync right from the Air TTL-C.  Older reviews griped about the lack of HSS but I suppose the one I got had the newer firmware that added HSS support.  So in that vane, the unit is fully firmware upgradeable via USB.

Moving on to the B1 head itself, again you feel the quality when you pick it up.  Mounts are solid and lock up properly.  The battery clips in properly and securely.  The handgrip makes handling the head very easy.   The head comes with a protective cap that when removed reveals the diffuser cover over the flash tube.  This is the first strobe head I have every used with a basic integrated reflector and diffuser.  It feels more robust to me than an exposed tube and modelling lamp.

Profoto uses a rubber ring with a clamp lock for their light shaping tools.  Profoto tools are a lot more expensive than competitors.  One thing that makes them different is that the external reflectors come in what Profoto calls zoom capable.  This simply means that you slide the reflector mount to the degree coverage marker you desire on the barrel of the head.  This could mean you need to purchase fewer reflectors in the long run.  Profoto also uses their own mount on a speedring for soft boxes.  It looks (on the web) like everyone else's speedring, with the exception that you have more control over how deeply into the soft box the nose of the head goes.

Many photographers don't start with Profoto gear and so may have an investment in other vendors light modifiers.  I was not able to find an adapter to mount Bowens reflectors or speed rings on the Profoto.  Elinchrom makes a Profoto mount for their collapsible soft boxes, and also make a mount converter to accept Elinchrom reflectors etc on the front while mounting to the Profoto head.  I bought two of the Elinchrom to Profoto converters and they work just fine.  I already have a mount converter from Bowens to Elinchrom so I will try that on top of Elinchrom's converter.  It's not quite so elegant as a Profoto Beauty Disk or Magnum reflector but it costs considerably less than having to buy new Profoto light shapers.  It works.  It's not elegant and does change the angle of coverage slightly but it will do until I can justify Profoto branded light shapers

There are also numerous off shore light modifiers available with mounts to fit Profoto.  In checking a variety of sources, reviews are uniformly poor citing low quality, poor fit, no fit, unreliable locking and other problems.  The photographer who elects to go Profoto is best advised to sell off older kit if possible and replace it with the best he or she can afford.  I did purchase the Fotodiox Profoto adapter for Bowens speedrings.  It looks and is sized identically to the Bowens brand, and works just fine.  I was also pleased to discover that the same adapter can be used with my Lastolite Hot style softboxes for shoe mount flash.  Lastolite makes their own adapter but delivery was going to be a while and the price is ridiculously high.

Conclusion

The real question is "is this thing worth the price premium?"

When I first bought my Bowens, I did so because their light shapers were myriad, reasonably priced and their heads well built.  I quickly became frustrated by their poor remote control option which is infrared line of sight requiring a blood sacrifice with every use and that I had to pay a lot more to get radio remote.  Now of course, the PW cards are gone and Bowens offers their own proprietary radio control in most kits.  Still no remote power setting or similar useful features.  Because of this, and the absolute pain in the arse that setting up Bowens softboxes turned out to be, I went with Elinchrom BRX heads.  Very light and a wonderful radio control system.  But they don't handle abuse well and I am not nuts about the mounting system.  Still they became my go to heads.  And then I needed battery power.  So I bought a set of Elinchrom Ranger Quadras, partly because my flash mentor, the inestimable Joe McNally recommended them as lightweight, reliable and lots of pop for the dollar.  They work great, but you need to run cables from the power pack to the heads, and you need adapters to use regular Elinchrom light shapers.  Still, a great system, except for that wire issue.

None of these solutions brought TTL.  I still use a light meter.  Many folks don't because in truth you can get to decent in exposure in three or four test shots, but I like the idea of the light meter, except when the subject is moving in relation to the lights.  TTL, for me at least, has always been a good place to start, usually requiring a bit of flash exposure compensation but never really far off.  Hence the simple love affair with the Canon 600 EX-RT setup.  Light, transportable, TTL, lots of groups and independent control from the top of the camera.

Take the power of the Bowens heads, add the TTL capability of the Canon flash system, add the flexibility to use my existing Elinchrom and Bowens light shapers.  Eliminate cables completely.  Give me serious range.  Add second curtain sync and HSS to studio power strobes.   And control the whole thing from a robust legible controller on the top of the camera.  That's the Profoto B1 Air system.

Profoto B1 Location Kit
Profoto B1 Location Kit

So the answer is yes.  The Profoto B1 Air system is absolutely worth the investment.  So much so that despite having many lights, I have purchased the Location kit that has two heads and the car charger in addition to the regular charger.  I've already put my first pair of Bowens 500 Pro heads with PW receivers up for sale.