The next generation of the speed light is here and it's not a speed light, it's a studio strobe.
Profoto has released the A1. It looks like a speed light. You can mount it to your hotshoe like a speed light. It comes in versions for Canon TTL, Nikon TTL, and Sony TTL, just like the OEM speed lights.
It's not a speed light.
For many users, speed lights are complex creatures with incomprehensible manuals and menus, that don't work well off camera without some kind of blood sacrifice or having to buy all kinds of expensive and poorly documented accessories. It's one of the reasons there are so many photographers who say that they are natural light photographers, because they find flash complex or just downright difficult.
When we look at the demographics of newer image creators, these folks aren't about specs, or brands or how many gadgets and geegaws a tool has, they are much more about whether the tool just works and is extremely easy to use. As a self-admitted strobist and technical geek, I don't subscribe to this, but as an instructor, I want to see people be able to create images without weeks of basic equipment training and failed experimentation.
There are strobe companies who have not gotten behind TTL flash. Yet every camera maker figured this out a long time ago. Why TTL? Because it works over 90% of the time and when you need to make a minor change, it's a flash exposure compensation dial that you turn until you get what you want. Most camera flash makers also offer full manual flash operation, because once you get the right exposure, provided nothing else changes, the exposures are consistent regardless of the subject. TTL and Manual are the only modes that the vast majority need. The strobe of today and tomorrow does TTL.
A suitable strobe can offer both high shutter speed flash synchronization as well as second curtain flash synchronization. Many very pricey speed lights do not do this.
A strobe will provide hundreds of full power pops on a single battery, and offer one step swappable rechargeable batteries. You do not see that in speed lights.
A strobe will produce a round burst with beautiful soft fall off. A speed light creates a rectangular pattern that can appear in your image.
A strobe brings power to the table. While you may not need full power for every image that you create, you also don't want to have to re-architect your entire shoot because your speed light doesn't have enough oomph. Since different makers measure things differently it's often tough to make a true comparison. The bigger problem is the "next" shot. You can get quite powerful speed lights, but when you release a full power pop, recycling can take a while. A strobe can typically recycle much faster than a speed light after a full power pop and this becomes critical when you start to use light shaping tools that may suck up some of the light.
By now, you are getting the point. The future of the speed light for many image creators is not a speed light at all, but a studio light. A studio light that fits in your pocket, but has more power and more flexibility than a speed light.
Thus, with these criteria in hand, let's examine the Profoto A1. As you might expect from this article, the A1 addresses all of these considerations. In fact, it does things off camera that even OEM speed lights cannot do (such as rear curtain sync with Canon cameras).
When you pick up an A1 it feels no heavier or larger than a top line speed light, such as Nikon's SB5000 or Canon's 600 EX RT II. The first thing that you notice is that the reflector is not rectangular, it's round. This provides a much more pleasing light pattern and also a more pleasing catchlight.
You'll also note incredible simplicity in operation. The rear panel is bright and large and easy to read. It's not cluttered with tiny unreadable icons. There are two modes. TTL and Manual. All other settings, including group settings, synchronization and zoom are accessed in a large visual interface started with a single button.
Battery life, recycle time, and the time to fully charge the battery are critical elements in a studio light. The Profoto A1 uses a clip on Lithum ion battery (that's it on the front of the unit). Despite it's small size, you get 350 full power pops on a single charge, and many more if you don't use full power for every pop. The included charger brings the battery from wasted to full in about 80 minutes. That's the kind of performance that everyone benefits from.
Every A1 can be a master or a group member. When the A1 is on the camera hotshoe, it's the boss. When it isn't, it's not. It could not be simpler. When a master, an A1 can control via radio up to four separate groups of A1s. When off camera, it can be controlled in TTL and Manual by either an A1 on camera or an AirTTL controller. You can also control the A1 off camera in Manual with a standard Air controller. This means complete investment protection and easy mixing with B1, B1X, B2, and D2 lights for TTL and manual as well as any other Profoto strobes in Manual.
For those whose remote work has been limited to line of sight controls, moving to radio is like having the shackles and the need for alcohol abuse removed completely. Radio is simple, has great range and does not need to be line of sight. Place your lights where you need them and have at it.
Strobes typically do not have a built-in zoom control to manage the light spread, but the A1 does. Unlike the way that you work with Zoom on most speed lights, it's a twist ring right on the head itself. You can of course zoom automatically when on the camera, but if off camera, a simple twist of the ring sets the coverage area. A simple icon gives you a clear indicator of how wide or narrow you are. No menus, no secret button combinations, just twist.
Speed lights have become more like strobes in that there are now many light shaping tools available for them. Unfortunately, for the most part, mounting light shaping tools involves, tape, velcro, elastic bands, friction fit and a healthy amount of prayer. The A1 uses a very simple magnetic system. All the modifiers simply magnetically attach, you can stack them and while they hold like mad, removal does not require great strength or tools. I've mentioned in other articles my love of the Magmod system. The A1 is that easy to use, but without having to add an elastic strap with magnets installed. It's so good, I would like to see if this type of thing could be used on larger studio lights. Like most strobists, I love light shapers, and the ones available on announcement are both compelling and immediately useful.
As part of my review, I wanted to see how the A1 fared in comparison against a very successful speed light. I used Canon's 600 EX-RT II. My light pattern testes validated that the round head produces a more even and appealing spread. That is not to suggest that the Canon is bad, because it isn't, I just prefer the spread of the Profoto A1. Canon made significant improvements in the II over the original from a user interface perspective. Yet I still found that A1 easier to use, despite having excellent expertise with the 600 EX RT II. I had spent serious coin to equip my 600 series speed lights with Magmod light shapers and they work great, but to be blunt, the Profoto shapers mount more quickly and are more precise, because they are purpose built and do not have to fit all manner of units as do the Magmods.
Using the speed light and the studio light on the same camera, with the same lens in full manual, I found the output of the two units to be very close, within 1/10 of a stop. Where the Profoto A1 excelled is in output consistency (identical over 20 pops) whereas the Canon's full pop on manual varied by as much as 1/3 of a stop. The biggest differentiator was the speed of recharge for the next shot. I set the ready beep to on on both units. The Profoto A1 was ready for another full power pop near instantaneously. The Canon was pretty quick but at least five times slower to a full charge, even using 2700mAh rechargeables.
I shoot adults all the time, children and pets are not my thing personally, but immediate recycling is why I use Profoto strobes in my studio. To go mobile, with minimal extra weight, the A1 is a key winner, because subjects like children and pets have short attention spans and they run the gamut of position and expression with enormous speed. You do not want to miss the moment because the flash is not ready.
Shooting the A1 in both TTL and Manual was a joy. I like the consistency in both modes, and really appreciate the ease and speed of TTL when light to subject distances change and the rapid ability to alter exposure directly using flash exposure compensation.
Profoto also provided their popup reflector, their grid and their gel accessories. The flash includes a really simple bounce card, the additional light shapers just expand your creative flexibility. I can carry everything in the same bag as the camera and the flash. Very convenient. The look from these light shapers is what you would expect from a top line strobe maker. High quality build and beautiful light. Folks do ask what the difference is between a more expensive reflector and an inexpensive offshore built one. My answer is you have to see the difference and make the decision for your own use cases. I have seen the difference and will choose the Profoto light shaping tools.
I confess that I am not a big fan of on-camera flash, except for event shoots where I am limited on what I can carry. For those occasions I would choose the A1 with the larger scoop style light shaper. Otherwise, I would want the flash off camera and for this the AirTTL controller is perfect. Having worked for years in the past with a wide variety of off camera flash controllers, most of them challenging to configure without some kind of blood sacrifice and all of them badly inconsistent shot to shot, the A1 off camera is a joy to use. Turn it on and if off camera, it is automatically in remote mode. So I can mount it to a light stand, or Platypod or on its own included tabletop stand and control it entirely from the AirTTL on top of the camera. Both AirTTL and the A1 support group level control, so mixing multiple A1s in multiple groups and controlling them all centrally is as easy as doing the same thing with the D2s in the studio.
Even when used directly with no light shapers, the A1 gives a nice light and the dome diffuser provides sufficient diffusion that the image does not have that deer in headlights look. When shot off camera controlled by the AirTTL-C firing into a Profoto Small White Deep Umbrella and leaving the dome diffuser in place, we get the quality of light we expect from a studio strobe, but in a small and field ready package. In the direct case, the light was about 12 feet from the subject and in the off camera flash case, the distance to the subject from the back of the parabolic umbrella is about six feet.
In conclusion, the Profoto A1 really is the next step in the evolution of small flash. The future of the speed light is the studio light, writ small, and portable, without losing any of the agility of TTL capable studio strobes.
If you shop with B&H Photo Video, please consider doing so through the link on thephotovideoguy.ca as this helps support my efforts and has no negative impact whatsoever on your shopping experience. If you find the podcast or articles of value, consider clicking the Donation tab in the sidebar of the website and buy me a coffee. Your donation goes to help me keep things going. Email your questions on any photo or video topic and I will try to respond within a day.
I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.