First Look: Profoto B1 500 AirTTL Off-Camera Flash
When Profoto rolls out a new product, you sit up and take notice, whether it’s an umbrella, reflector, or battery charger. So, when a new flash head became available for field testing, I was totally onboard.
The first thing you notice is how solid this flash head feels. Like its cousin, the D1 Air, the familiar controls are there but enhanced—whittled down from 8 buttons to 5. The digital readout is replaced by a bright 1.4 x 2.5” LCD screen with 0.75” power digits and a white battery level indicator, an inch in height, which you can read at 20 paces. So, OK, I’m thinking, it’s an enhanced D1Air—a D1Air.1, if you will. Nothing wrong with that. Let’s see what it's got:
- Solid, almost dense, polymer housing
- Built-in oversized, balanced handle
- Optical, IR, and radio compatibility
- Built-in 77-degree umbrella reflector
- Digital, in this case LCD, readout
- Full-line light-shaper compatibility, of course
- Overall feeling of confidence and coolness just by using it
And then it gets interesting.
- Full wireless TTL compatibility, presently with Canon cameras, and Nikon next year
- Lithium-ion battery source
To say that the introduction B1 AirTTL 500W/s Off-Camera Flash is innovative is almost an ironic understatement; groundbreaking—faint praise. The applicable term is “game-changing,” the standard by which monoheads will be judged for years to come.
True, others have put together aspects of the B1 in small form factors, master-slave TTL etc., and offered battery power in some fine larger products, but Profoto is the first to put all of these features together in a 500W/s veritable TTL cannon, which is not to suggest that it’s in any way cumbersome or unwieldy; just the opposite.
The B1 weighs 6.6 lb with its battery; nearly the same as the D1Air with the battery removed. The D1’s 7 f-stops (7.8-500Ws) is upped to 9 in 1/10-stop or 1-stop increments for the B1. Recycling time is similar and the B1 continues the tradition of self-sensing 100-240VAC, 50/60 Hz, but this time with a 20W LED modeling lamp, the equivalent of a 70W halogen, which is easy on the battery and doesn’t have to be swapped out when you change voltage.
Beyond the Basics
With about the same footprint as the Air Remote, the Air Remote TTL-C is the key to the B1’s TTL interface as well as a way to control your lights remotely in manual mode. The TTL-C uses 8 channels in the 2.4 GHz band with a TTL range of up to 300 m, or 1,000'. There are 3 TTL groups for individual head control of nearly an unlimited number of lights. By the way, the “C” in TTL-C stands for Canon. A TTL-N for Nikon cameras will be available in 2014. To cover legacy lights, the TTL-C offers wireless manual triggering for the AirS series, manual triggering and remote control for the Air series, and triggering, remote control, and TTL for the AirTTL. And of course, the B1 is fully compatible with the extensive line of Profoto's light-shaping tools.
Lithium-ion Battery Powered
One major change was to lose the power cables in favor of a high-capacity Lithium-ion battery that gives you up to 220 full-power flashes and thousands of minimum-power flashes on a 2-hour charge from the provided 2.8A multi-voltage charger. An optional 4.5A quick charger shortens that time to 1 hour. There's also a car charger that will replenish your power in 2 hours on the road. Fuel-gauge-type LEDs on both the battery and charger allow you to monitor remaining power.
Another significant upgrade was in flash duration. The B1 has a Normal Mode that offers 1/1,000-second at maximum power and 1/11,000-second at minimum power, optimizing color temperature over the entire range. Most manufacturers would have been real proud to stop there. But the B1 500 AirTTL also has what Profoto calls Freeze Mode, easily selected on the rear panel, which optimizes short-duration flash, in this case 1/1,000 at maximum power, but a blistering 1/19,000-second (t0.5) at minimum power—fast enough to stop water droplets—and it did, as we’ll see later.
Freeze Mode is further enhanced by using it concurrently with Quick Burst Mode, which automatically engages when the power is set below full, to allow a series of flashes to be fired at a faster rate than the B1 can recycle. Sounds like magic to me, but I’ve seen it in action with bursts of upwards of 18 frames on a camera that does 6 fps. I don’t know of a still camera that shoots more than 14 fps, but if you do, Profoto promises 20 fps bursts in this mode.
So, How Did They Perform?
First of all, I simply cannot overstate the delight I felt working with the familiar form factor of a Profoto product without searching for outlets, coupled with wireless TTL triggering and control. It’s double-wireless freedom.
When I first got the lights, a day ahead of the user manual, and not being able to resist, I mounted one on a magic arm and one on a stand with a shoot-through umbrella and grabbed the only props available: 3 good-looking Granny Smith apples. I took the Canon 5D Mark III and a 24-105mm f/4 lens, put it on Program, and fired away. I was surprised and happy with the test; basically just a snapshot, but a keeper, and it took me literally 2-3 minutes to set up—something that proved to be the norm rather than an exception
I had the same experience with the sun streaming through my otherwise dark living room. I put the B1s on a couple of light stands, including them in the photo to throw off the TTL and got a beautifully balanced shot that would make most realtors gush (how do they sell houses with those nasty snapshots anyway?). Granted, the B1 might be out of a realtor’s price range, but don’t they sell mansions and townhouses in New York City? A little tweaking and ratio-ing and I had a natural-looking shot with managed contrast.
Working with our model Alex was also a snap. I set up a strip bank on one side and a shoot-through umbrella on axis and overhead. Later, we switched to a small softbox with a 10-degree grid. The first shot was on the money. It was fun to ratio the light: 2 stops plus or minus on each light. I must say, though, that I found subtle ratios a little tricky to achieve, since the TTL did such a good job compensating for our changes. The ratio was more effective when the lights were at more extreme angles, say a rim light and a main or main light and hair light. Minus1 on the main and plus 2 on the rim light worked well in general.
The wine-bottle shots proved an easier demonstration. Using the Air Remote TTL-C, I started with my A and B lights at equal power and incrementally increased A (on left) to plus 2 stops and then began backing off the B light, down to minus 2 for a more extreme ratio. With no other lights in the room but a rear window, the TTL handled the exposure beautifully.
Click to enlarge
The B1 500 AirTTL has a couple of intriguing modes I was anxious to try out: Quick Burst and Freeze Mode, which I knew were bound to work symbiotically. I set up some liquid pour shots, dialed the power down to near minimum, set the heads to Freeze and triggered the 5D Mark III for 3 seconds, ripping off 18 frames. Profoto says 20 fps is possible if you can find a capable camera. The B1 performed flawlessly, proving that Freeze Mode was aptly named.
The Freeze Mode was also great at stopping action in Alex’s hair in a series of character shots, as it was in some running shots that we tried where the TTL tracked her accurately as she approached camera position and kept balancing the exposure, even when she was too close to hold focus.
At the end of the testing day and out of light, I decided to see what the B1s could do at night. I was able to light a small marina with 2 lights placed 100’ apart, as well as add some detail to the foliage in a TTL-balanced, late sunset shot.
Arguably the Tesla of flash heads, anyone would feel pretty green tooling up to a job with a couple of B1s in the trunk of their Model S, and little else. In fact, it just might be the first piece of standard-edition lighting gear to become a lifestyle product.
Busy photographers can literally set up their lights, slip the optional Air Remote TTL-C transmitter onto their camera's hot shoe, and point and shoot without taking a reading and testing. Traditionally, point-and-shoot would be a suspect term for a pro, but not if you're shooting back-to-back jobs on an impossible schedule with what you thought was an undo-able deadline. Composition, posing, etc. is, of course, up to the photographer, but time after time the B1 will give you a first-shot exposure that's a keeper. It’s so easy it feels like cheating.
In conclusion: Profoto technology, battery power, TTL, stop-action flash durations and 20 fps capability—simply put—I want them.
The B1 ships with the flash head, battery, 2.8A charger, protective cap, and a soft case.
Optional accessories include the Bag XS for one B1 and accessories, Backpack M for two B1 500 AirTTLs or D1 Airs and an Accessory Pouch for transceivers and other small items. Cables with plugs for Australia, the U.S. and Canada, Europe, Japan, and the U.K. that fit the 2.8A and 4.5A chargers are also available.
For more information, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or contact us online via Live Chat.