Flash Of Brilliance

The world’s first flash monobloc with wireless TTL exposure control adds a new level of convenience to shooting on location. Finally the battery-powered monobloc has evolved into an intelligent being. Report by Paul Burrows.

Our full review of the Profoto B1 500 Air TTL wireless flash monobloc is below, but download this 3MB PDF for the full review plus all the pictures and stats.

altIt’s always been the great divide between on-camera flash units and off-camera systems. TTL exposure control. So, on-camera flash units have it, but even the most powerful is still a wimp compared to even the least powerful monobloc. Yes, multiple flashes in wireless TTL set-ups help provide more grunt, but there’s still the issue of the smallish light sources and, frankly, juggling a brace of speedlights is less convenient in practice than it seems in theory. So, the monobloc has the power and the capacity to accept light shapers, but exposure control is back in the Dark Ages with flash meters or possibly just trial-and-error.

So a flash monobloc with wireless TTL flash control is the answer to all our prayers and Profoto has obliged with the brilliant B1. The first reaction to the B1 is to wonder, firstly, why nobody has done it before and, secondly why has it taken so long given TTL flash control in SLRs has been around for over three decades? Well, quite simply, it’s not as simple as it looks. The protocols governing preflash-based TTL metering are fiendishly complex and, worse, different in just about every model of D-SLR, even those from the same manufacturer. Profoto has put a huge amount of R&D effort into getting the B1 to work seamlessly with various Canon and Nikon models which is one of the reasons why there hasn’t been a deluge of competitive models lining up to challenge the B1. You simply can’t rustle up a wireless TTL commander unit overnight. Incidentally, Profoto doesn’t actually call the B1 a monobloc, but rather an “off camera flash”.

altOn The Move
The B1 is based on Profoto’s current D1-series compact monobloc platform with the key difference that it’s battery powered which obviously makes sense given that portability allows the potential of automatic exposure control to be fully exploited. Consequently, the B1 has a slightly different external casing to the D1 in order to accommodate a battery compartment, but it retains the same basic styling, similar dimensions and the novel built-in reflector arrangement.

In the interests of conserving battery power, the halogen modelling lamp gives way to an LED type, although this is likely to become a trend across all monobloc design given the latter’s much greater efficiency. For example, the B1’s 20-watt LED source generates the same power as a 70-watt halogen lamp. It also runs a lot cooler and can be used as a continuous light source, at least for a short period.

As with the D1 models, the B1’s compact two-piece GRP shell neatly incorporates the carry handle and the mounting bracket on the bottom while the reflector brolly tube is integrated into the top. The flash head’s diameter retains full compatibility with Profoto’s clamp-lock reflectors and light shapers which can be attached anywhere along the barrel, thereby creating a de facto ‘zoom’ adjustment for varying the light spread.

altThe built-in reflector gives a 77-degree spread and, in terms of shooting on location, particularly outdoors, is a much more convenient arrangement than fiddling around with add-on dishes. In fact, you can’t help but think that something like the B1 was already in Profoto’s longer-term plans when it was designing the D1 because so many elements of this design are eminently suited to the applications which typically demand portability and onboard power.

Power Points
The B1’s control panel – located at the rear – is also similar to that of the D1 so it’s again a very tidy layout – but actually simpler – with mostly push-button operations save for a rotary knob which sets the flash power output. This is displayed via a large double-digit LCD read-out which also shows the modelling lamp’s level setting when it’s in the ‘Free’ mode. Pushing in the rotary selector switches the power adjustment increment from 1/10-stops to full stops for both the flash output and independent modelling lamp control.

Alongside the power setting display – so you really can’t miss it – is a very large battery power level indicator which is important because the B1 is exclusively battery-powered so you need to carefully monitor consumption to avoid being left in the dark. Realistically, most users are going to buy a second battery pack to have ready to slot in when needed. It’s also worth noting here that the battery has been recharged inside the unit so you need to manage this procedure in the down times.

Profoto says a fully-charged pack is good for 220 flashes at full power which means you’ll do quite a lot better at the lower power settings. Given the B1 has a handy 500 joules on tap, there are going to many situations where you’ll be running it at much lower power settings, greatly extending the battery’s life. The standard charger takes two hours to pump it back up – which actually isn’t too bad – but there’s an optional faster charger that does the job in half the time. Alternatively, there’s a car charger so you can be recharging the B1 while on the move between locations. Incidentally, the comparatively compact packs simply clip in and out of the side compartment, giving one of easiest and hassle-free battery changeover arrangements in the business. The packs also have their own power level indicators which light up after pressing the ‘Check’ button.

altUp To Speed
The combination of portability, battery power and wireless TTL control opens up a subject area that’s rarely been able to be tackled with studio flash equipment, namely sports and action photography. No doubt with fashion photographers also in mind, Profoto has given the B1 some serious speed capabilities.

In fact, there are two shooting modes called Normal and Freeze. In the Normal mode, the flash duration ranges from 1/1000 to 1/11,000 second and colour temperature stabilisation is optimised. In Freeze mode, the range is from 1/1000 up to a dramatic 1/19,000 second. Obviously here the power setting is down to just two joules, but that’s still quite a bit more power than many of the smaller on-camera flash units. Also in Freeze mode, the recycling is rapid enough to allow continuous shooting at up to 20 fps. And, despite its compact size, the B1 still incorporates a proper cooling fan.

There’s a choice of three low-profile, hotshoe-mounted remote triggers which are obviously purchased separately. The first is the standard Air Remote which is non-TTL and simply allows for remote synchronisation via Profoto’s ‘Air’ control system which is based on UHF digital radio – operating at a frequency of 2.4 GHz – to give a very short delay (as brief as 375 μs) and a range of up to 300 metres.

For the owners of Canon D-SLRs, there’s the Air Remote TTL-C which allows for TTL automatic flash exposure control via Canon’s current E-TTL II metering system, and also control over various settings, including flash power, modelling lamp operation and switching between first/second curtain sync. It can also be switched to non-TTL operation for radio triggering. By the time you read this, the Air Remote TTL-N should be available for users of Nikon D-SLRs and it makes the B1 compatible with Nikon’s i-TTL flash metering system. These two dedicated controllers have a USB connection, enabling firmware upgrades to accommodate future models of D-SLR. In TTL mode, the wireless range is reduced to 100 metres, although few users are going to find this isn’t sufficient.

On Location
The TTL-N unit wasn’t available during our testing so we tried out the B1 with a Canon EOS 6D and it worked superbly well in TTL mode, delivering perfect exposures every time. Snag is, it’s all so effortless, it’s also highly addictive… going back to the old way of determining exposure feels like going back to the horse-and-cart.

There are other attractions too… such as having 500 joules of power to play with which means that you can stay shooting at the lower ISO settings to optimise image quality. The unit is also fully self-contained so there are no cables involved at all plus, of course, in many situations you’ll be able to use it without any accessories attached either which makes it very flexible in terms of where it can be located… an important consideration when shooting many types of sports or extreme action. But then, for weddings, portraiture or fashion – you can fit softboxes, grids or a brolly to control your lighting as required. Many wedding photographers don’t use flash because it’s too much of a hassle, but you could set the B1 up with a softbox to mimic window light and then simply leave everything else to the TTL exposure control… no need to check or change any settings, look at read-outs or worry about the colour temperature of the available light. And, in any situation, if you need to adjust the exposure, simply use the camera’s exposure compensation control. Bliss! Similarly, if you don’t want your TTL exposures wandering as you change shooting angles, composition or framing, switch the Air Remote TTL controller to manual mode and the desired exposure is then effectively locked in. As it happens, there’s an operating mode which uses the auto TTL control to establish an exposure and then allows for subsequent fine-tuning manually.

The Verdict
It’s hard not to be anything but thoroughly enamoured with the Profoto B1. It works so brilliantly effortlessly that it’s no wonder Profoto is having trouble keeping up with demand. In the evolution of the flash monobloc, it’s akin to walking upright after aeons of dragging the knuckles along the ground. Even if you still prefer to work mostly manually, the TTL control is the 21st century method of creating a starting point.

Not being able to use mains power is a bit curious as is the absence of a stand-alone battery charger, but these are pretty easily worked around with a bit of planning. It’s also quite pricey for a 500 joule monobloc, even one that can be run off  battery, and especially when the cost of the TTL controller is added to the bottom line, but the convenience factor tends to balance things up a bit (and, in fact, a set of TTL speedlights probably isn’t far off the same sort of money in the end). If you’re thinking about buying any sort of lighting in the near future, don’t do anything until you’ve had a good look at the B1… more likely than not, it’s going to be what you’re really looking for.

Price: $2495 (includes custom carry case, battery pack and battery recharger). Profoto Air Remote TTL-C/N sells for $495. Twin light kits (including fast and car chargers) in a custom backpack sells for $4895.

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