Fearless: Profoto. The A1. The future.

0 by Patrick La Roque
December 15, 2017 at 9:30 am  •  Posted in Gear & Reviews, New Products, News & Events, Review by  •  0 Comments

T-Minus. ­Founder Conny Dufgran minutes before the official launch. © Patrick La Roque

Frame #1

“We have a surprise for you…” It’s early morning in ­Stockholm and we’ve assembled in the hotel lobby, over a hundred photographers and journalists from all corners of the ­globe. The hotel itself is a statement: brand-spanking new, ­gorgeous…bikes and kayaks hanging from wooden ceilings, a ­William Blake book sitting on a shelf. Every detail designed, ­chosen and deliberate. Guy Langevin and I have been here since yesterday and we’re still jet lagged, reeling from a 36-hour day. Little sleep but much ­excitement for what lies ahead.

Photo Quest 2017 is about to begin.

We get on a boat, and the mystery remains. No one knows where we’re headed or what’s about to be revealed. Eventually we dock at a studio overlooking the harbour and step into a makeshift presentation hall. There’s a countdown, a live stream…the lights dim and the big screen explodes with images.

The crowd finally gets its first ­official look at the Profoto A1.

Wedding planner. © Patrick La Roque

New Horizons

In 2014, the B1 ­profoundly changed the landscape for ­Profoto (and the entire ­industry): a ­powerful self-contained strobe, it brought TTL and HSS into ­territories that had ­previously been the sole domain of ­speedlights—and ­photographers flocked. The A1 promises a similar sea change at a more intimate level: ­on-camera flash. But after using it for a couple of weeks, the story I see is much broader. For one, the Profoto A1 is a ­full-fledged citizen in the ­company’s ­ecosystem, able to act as both commander or slave when paired with other ­Air-powered strobes (Profoto’s wireless ­protocol). But more importantly, its entire design from top to bottom pushes the ­envelope yet again.

For the past five years, ­simplicity has clearly been at the core of Profoto’s vision—both from a ­user-experience and a ­user-interface standpoint. The D2 I reviewed last year brought the B1’s streamlined interface into the ­studio. The A1 now brings this same order to the world of small flashes, and, at the risk of hyperbole, I feel this needs to be said: I have never used a simpler, better-designed flash, period.

The menu system spans two ­ridiculously simple screens…and there’s nothing missing, nothing hidden. The round head also acts as a zoom ring—just like a lens. This feels so natural you ­immediately have to wonder why it’s never been done before. There’s a physical switch on the side to toggle between TTL and Manual modes. There’s an LED modeling light that also zooms and can be used as a light source. What all this amounts to is a small strobe that, for all its ­innovations, feels instantly obvious and ­familiar. A strobe for which you don’t need a cheat sheet—a first as far as I’m concerned. ­(Seriously, I have PDF manuals stored on my iPhone for every flash I own, even those I’ve had for years.)

But the A1’s design isn’t just about interface: it’s about ­quality of light and ­performance. ­Marketing speak? Well, it ­certainly could be, but…no. That round head—­especially when paired with the included Dome ­Diffuser—creates the sort of light falloff that is normally achieved either through modifiers or a much larger strobe. And ­because of this falloff, it’s possible to feather the light, ­essentially using the edges of the strobe the same way we would a softbox. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a small light source, this isn’t going to replace an Octa, but up close—even used on-camera (anathema to a lot of us)—this light offers new possibilities. In a nutshell, it’s not about guide numbers. Where speedlights are all about ­intensity, the A1 is about light shaping. This is a very ­different core ­philosophy, an ­approach that embraces image creation beyond technical specs. Is this the most powerful small flash ­available? No, it isn’t. Not in terms of raw power. But it ups the game in ways that are likely to matter to a lot of ­photographers—battery life and refresh rate, for instance.

What all this amounts to is a small strobe that, for all its ­innovations, feels ­instantly obvious and ­familiar. A ­strobe for which you don’t need a cheat ­sheet—a first as far as I’m concerned.

For Lanny and Erika Mann of Two Mann Studios—Canadian ­photographers we met during this trip that also tested the product—this meant shooting over 7000 ­images at a wedding party, on a single battery, ­without a misfire. That’s insane and well ­beyond what the company ­promises on paper. Combine this with TTL, HSS, remote ­triggering…and this becomes a small ­powerhouse.

I have to admit to having doubts at first, but real world use of this strobe is an eye-opener. And Photo Quest is all about hands-on use…

The CEO addressing guests. © Patrick La Roque

Frame #2

All guests get an A1. It’s like a ­party where it’s everyone’s birthday. I see a group of ­photographers, minutes into opening their packages, taking high-speed, burst-mode selfies—the strobe not skipping a beat. Big smiles. There’s an entire day of themed workshops planned—the Outdoor Quest, the Character Quest, the Moment Quest—each one meant to highlight what the product can achieve.

But there’s a larger goal as well: many photographers attending this event aren’t flash shooters, and this is obviously deliberate. If all goes well, the A1 will become a gateway drug into the ­mysteries of light control. I see a lot of eyes opening as the hours pass…­personal epiphanies.

Guy is attending the workshops, but I’ve decided to step back and remain in the shadows. I want to capture the spirit of the day. It’s all so fascinating.

A brief history of the A1 project. © Patrick La Roque

Frame #3

On Day Two we hop on a bus, headed for Profoto HQ. It’s a beautiful day—turns out the sun does shine in Sweden after all.

After a presentation and ­question period, Guy and I find ­ourselves casually chatting with CEO ­Anders Hedebark in the small, beautifully designed ­company ­cafeteria (ahead of the more ­formal interview we’ve ­scheduled). I have to stop for a moment—this is definitely not the “elder statesman” business I had imagined.

We pick up our conversation in his office a few hours later. At some point during the ­interview, the topic turns to the new iPhone’s Portrait Lighting mode: “I think it’s fantastic! This is the best thing to ever happen to our market!”

Square One. The Unknown.

There’s a fury in Anders ­Hedebark’s eye but it isn’t ­malevolent: it’s the mark of a man possessed. Hedebark has been with Profoto for over twenty years, and it’s obvious from his very first words that he cares deeply about the company, its mission and its people.

“We fight a lot on details, but it’s totally open. We fight about the purpose of our products. Who is it for? You can’t do something for everyone because you then do something for no one.”

In an industry that is increasingly cutthroat, Profoto is growing. The company grew 70% in China last year, where its most aggressive competition originates. That’s impressive but also comforting: it means risk, innovation and ­craftsmanship can, in fact, pay off when done right.

“We fight a lot on details, but it’s totally open. We fight about the purpose of our products. Who is it for? You can’t do something for everyone because you then do something for no one.”

We circle back to Apple’s recent Portrait Lighting announcement, something that could easily scare the bejeezus out of anyone ­making a living in ­photography, let alone lighting gear. But he remains undaunted: “People will end up demanding a better quality of light. They’ll be used to a new standard. But they’ll also ask more of ­photographers. In the end, they’ll want better images.” “Would you eventually be open to virtualization?” I ask. He says, “Why not? The great thing about change is that you don’t know what’s ahead…it’s not about the size of a company, it’s about ­being on your toes.”

There are two ways to ­confront change: you either hide from it or you embrace it. We all like to think we’d do the latter, but it’s never that easy. It may mean ­destroying the house we’ve built so ­painstakingly, or ­shifting our outlook in ways we’d never thought possible. It may also mean going back to the ­drawing board…

During the course of the A1’s design, a lot of different parts had to come into play, just as with any product: the hardware informs the software, one detail may affect ­another, etc. It’s an iterative ­process. Eventually you get to a point where it all comes together as intended. Except when it doesn’t. On a quick tour with the engineers, we learn how after years of work, a working ­prototype had been produced that was to be the Golden Master. It was done. Everything was ­functional, all the elements were in place, and the ­machine was ready to roll. But the ­company ­discovered a flaw. The light ­falloff—the ­entire purpose of the ­round-head ­design—wasn’t right. Some of the edges were too ­jagged. So the ­company scrapped it. The ­engineers went back to square one and came up with an ­entirely different head/lens ­assembly…and this time they did get it right. But this added six months to product ­development—an eternity in tech time. Change is hard—but it’s usually worth it.

“We need to step outside of our comfort zone.” Hedebark adds, “You need to do that every day. If you don’t, you basically die.”

Light modifiers ­become light fixtures in the company ­cafeteria. © Patrick La Roque

Giants

On several occasions since we returned, I’ve questioned my overall impression. Had I been sucked into some kind of Jobsian Reality Distortion Field? Because, yes, objectivity does get harder once you’ve looked people in the eye and felt the passion behind their words. We met engineers, managers and marketing folks up and down the Profoto ladder. In every ­single case, their love of the work was palpable. I could’ve feigned detachment with this ­article, but instead I chose to share my experience, as ­genuinely as possible. And I can’t deny being impressed. ­Objectively impressed.

Corporations are just like us—­human, in the end. A collection of the many individuals whose lifeblood flows through their limbs. They rise, mature and, most likely, get set in their ways. Eventually the world order seems perfectly balanced, and any change becomes an assault, something to fight against in an effort to maintain the ­status quo. Power as a monolith. Profoto turns fifty in 2018, and, in all these years, its name has ­remained synonymous with very high-end, sophisticated lighting gear. For many of us, in fact, the brand itself is iconic. A portrait of founder Conny Dufgran by Annie Leibovitz, hanging in an office corridor, speaks volumes. There’s a gravitas to this brand that we traditionally associate with a ­certain rigidity…­conservatism even. Such is life, usually.

I came to Sweden expecting to gaze at a sprawling, immutable monument to ­photographic ­history. A giant. Instead, I discovered a band of pirates: eyes wide open, ready to take on ­whatever the future holds. A giant in name, but an ­underdog at heart. Proud, excited and ­fearless.

© Patrick La Roque

Technical information

A1 Features

  • Round head with soft, smooth and natural light falloff.
  • AirTTL and HSS for a beautiful professional image, fast.
  • Smart magnetic click-on mount for A1 Light Shaping Tools.
  • 5 dedicated A1 Light Shaping Tools available.
  • LED modeling light integrated to the head.
  • Air Remote built in.
  • Rechargeable and exchangeable Li-Ion battery.
  • 1.2 s recycling time.
  • TTL/MAN switch.
  • Built-in motor-zoom with hand control.
  • Autofocus (AF) assist.
  • Large Hi-Res display.
  • Support for Canon, Nikon and later for Sony.

Specification summary

  • Max energy: 76Ws
  • Energy range: 9 f-stops (2.0-10)
  • Energy range HSS: 9 f-stops (2.0-10)
  • Modeling light type: LED
  • Battery capacity: Up to 350 full power flashes/
  • Battery charging time: Up to 80 minutes
  • Weight: 560 g (1.2 lb.)

Patrick La Roque is a speaker, writer and professional photographer from Montreal, Canada. He is an official Fujifilm X-Photographer and founder of the KAGE COLLECTIVE, an international group specializing in visual storytelling and documentary work.

Leave a Reply