Profoto A1 Review – Mercedes of Speedlites?
“I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.”
– Michael Jackson
This Profoto A1 review is our very first product review. It is unauthorized, unsolicited, and unfiltered.
Erika and I were honoured to have been chosen to help launch the new Profoto A1, but we can not, have not, and will never endorse anything that we don’t actually use ourselves and actually love. After testing the A1’s (see below) we have decided to replace all our old lights. This is why…
No Technical BS
Warning to gear heads… this product review is not based on numbers and technical jargon… it is based on actual real-world experience and performance. Anyone who knows us, or has been a part of our workshops, knows that we are not techie gear head type people, at all. Ask us about the specs of our camera equipment and we probably couldn’t answer (or care less).
For us, when it comes to the art and craft of photography; numbers, math, or how good a product looks on paper, means almost nothing. It’s not that it’s not important… it is. It’s just not as important, for us, as so many other factors with more profound impacts on our performance as photographers. What we do with the gear, and why, for example. Consequently, we don’t form our opinions about gear until we actually get it into our hands, onto our cameras, and put it to the test in actual shooting situations that reflect what we actually do as wedding photographers. And our job as wedding photographers is presumably distinguishable from every other photographer’s job as a wedding photographer. We all work differently and have a different need
20K Frames Per Wedding (cue the critics)
Understanding our perspectives on the A1 is contingent upon understanding who we are as photographers. We are not studio photographers. We are documentary wedding photographers. Our weddings are just that… weddings (not photo shoots). We document reality, as it plays out organically before our cameras, so we don’t have control over all the tiny little details that make all the difference in a photograph.
Outside of portraits, our work is unscripted without direction or do-overs. This isn’t necessarily the best or only approach, of course… but it’s our approach, and it heavily impacts both our work and our equipment needs. We have to be small, light, and fast, but synchronously, our gear has to be robust (because we beat the shit out of it). We roll in the dirt, crawl through the snow, and shoot through the moments.
20,000 exposures at a single wedding (between the two of us) is not out of the ordinary (and most of those are made on dark, sweaty dance floors). Our flashes, therefore, are often firing repeatedly (or trying to), non-stop for hours. Consequently, the gear we choose has to be able to work its ass off for us, over and over again.
Putting it to the Test…
This 2-minute video was filmed during our very first experience using the A1 lights. Filming began literally 30 minutes after receiving them (with no manual). We had hoped to film this at one of our actual wedding receptions, but timing and logistics (and not wanting to test brand new equipment at a client’s wedding) didn’t allow for it. So we basically just threw a big party (thank you, Mariya!) in a particularly dark wedding venue that photographers find extremely challenging. As best we could, we tried to replicate an actual wedding reception and party. We even managed to find an actual bride and groom who had just got married!
7,832 Exposures, 7,832 Flashes
Several songs into the night, while chimping back through the images on our display, Erika and I realized,
“Wait a minute… the flash literally hasn’t missed a single exposure.”
It was crazy… not a single missed frame, the entire night, on a single battery.
Obviously, given the low ambient light, our flash was at low power (1/32ish), but there is no way we could dream of achieving that with our old flashes. With our Canon 600, we would have had hundreds (possibly thousands) of missed frames… not to mention 20 to 30 burned-out AA batteries strewn throughout our camera bag (all mixed up with the fresh ones, of course).
This alone (recycle performance) changes the game for us.
For those interested in the technical specs here, Profoto says the A1 battery can manage 350 full-power flashes with a 1.2-second refresh rate (at full power). Obviously, the real-world performance is another story.
Quality of Light
Okay, after recycle performance, what impressed us most about the A1 is the quality and shape of its light.
Due to technical naivety, there are infinite subtleties of light that we can’t explain, except for our own subjective aesthetic judgment. We have no technical description as to why we prefer the quality of this light to what we’re accustomed to… we just do. It’s somehow different. Less severe? More natural? Cleaner? We don’t know. Is it the round shape versus the rectangular? We don’t really know or care. It just looks awesome, and we love it.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
The next most enticing thing about the A1, for us, is simple… it’s simple. The LCD literally has only 2 menus.
Hands down, this flash is faster, easier, and more intuitive than every other speedlite we’ve used. So what? Valuable mental bandwidth, that’s what.
We have come to know our Canon 600 inside out and backward, but that required a lot of time in the user manual and a lot of practice learning the muscle memory. Conversely, we had the ins and outs of the Profoto A1 figured out within one hour without even opening a manual (because it didn’t exist).
It’s just that much faster to link and unlink our flashes, switch between groups or channels, turn the heads on or off, zoom them in or out, and make all the flash power adjustments on the fly. Operations that used to require pressing several buttons to navigate through menus and sub-menus, can now be done with one button (or not even). For example, adjusting off-camera flash power up or down requires pressing a sequence of 3 buttons in the correct order on the Canon 600. With the Profoto A1, we don’t even have to push 1 button… we can just rotate the single large dial-up or down.
This all amounts to more mental energy available for the craft itself.
Better Focus Assist
As Canon shooters, we’ll take every little bit of help we can get in achieving focus. 😉 Especially in the dark. 🙂 The little red laser cross-hair thingies emitted from the A1, for whatever reason, helped us achieve focus noticeably faster than we’re used to (and they never appeared in any of our exposures). For all those wondering why this is a big deal… it’s a Canon thing you wouldn’t understand. 🙂
Smaller & Lighter
Along with simplifying as much as possible, our intent has always been to try to go smaller and lighter… to be less and less bogged down with heavy, cumbersome gear. Moving from Canon 600 to Profoto A1 makes us even smaller and lighter than we were before (albeit, only a teensy bit). Each flash unit is saving space and weight in our bags, on our hotshoes, and on our shoulders.
Profoto A1 with lithium battery = 567g
Canon 600 with 4 AA batteries & MagMod = 601g
How Far Can We Go?
Erika and I often crowd the thresholds of our equipment. When our flashes go off-camera, for example, we often try to take them way off camera… 20, 30, 40 meters (yes, we’re Canadian). “How far can we push it? How tiny can we make our bride and groom (read sarcasm)?”
So we decided to see how far we could go before the A1 built-in trigger would fail to transmit. We couldn’t create a scenario where it failed indoors, so we took them outside and started pushing it further and further. We had to go 50 meters (150 feet) away, and hide the receiving flash behind our subject, in order to find it’s limits (a significant improvement over our Canon 600).
But Will They Last
Blasting the shit out of these babies wedding after wedding after wedding (and tossing them around the way that we do), how are they going to hold up? Of course, we’re in no position to answer that question yet. We can only speculate for now, based on reputation.
What we can say, is that our confidence level is pretty high after personally visiting Profoto’s R&D headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden (where the A1 was conceived, designed, built, and tested). Honestly, this place blew our minds. We got to meet the actual people who toiled for months trying to create this thing from scratch. We witnessed first-hand, their extremely high standards, meticulous attention to detail, and relentless testing.
It remains to be seen, but we believe strongly that these lights can hold up to whatever we can throw at them.
Yeah, but Godox
We’ve never owned and tested Godox flashes ourselves, but many of our friends and students have, so we’ve been able to play around with them and hear what photographers love (and don’t love) about them.
For us and our needs right now, the Profoto A1 delivers the recycle performance, light quality, speed of use, AF Assist, and durability that we’re looking for. If there is something else that better meets your needs… keep on rockin’ in the free world.
If the printed number of watt seconds on the spec sheet is your primary concern, for example… the A1 is probably not the flash system for you.
Yeah, but MagMod
One of the coolest things about the new Profoto light is that it has its own built-in magnetic head to accommodate various light shaping tools.
Obviously, the world’s first round-headed speedlite would require light shaping solutions that had not yet existed in a world full of speedlites with rectangular heads.
Erika and I have been shaping our off-camera light by attaching modifiers since before MagMod. Then MagMod came along and changed the game by making it easier and faster for everyone. We’ve been MagMod ambassadors by choice ever since. The products (and people behind them) are awesome. Here’s why.
Now here’s the thing… with the arrival of Profoto’s A1, nothing changes for MagMod or the photographers who use and love them. MagMod will continue to innovate new ways of making awesome photography easier. Their track record of solving real problems in photography speaks for itself.
Erika and I will continue to champion MagMod, because we believe in it (and them).
The A1 is our first Profoto light (because the nature of our work has necessitated a priority of being as small, light and fast as possible). But the fact that the A1 works seamlessly with the entire Profoto ecosystem, makes us fear (or hope) that this light is a gateway drug into their bigger, more powerful lights (like the B1 and B2).
For photographer’s already hooked on Profoto’s hard stuff, the A1 is a no-brainer 🙂
So, What Sucks?
Besides the price (see below)? For us? Honestly? We don’t know… yet.
We haven’t put them to the actual test at an actual full wedding. But we’re pretty stoked to be bringing them with us to our 5-day destination wedding this week. We know there will be limitations and drawbacks, or course, but we’re not sure what those are yet. We will update this review after that wedding.
One unfortunate thing for now, is that the there are no light shaping grids available yet. We’re told they are coming soon. They better… or you might just see us out there with Pringles tubes on our flash heads 🙂
One Thousand Dollars for a Speedlite?!
Yes. That is correct. Get over it. 🙂
But seriously. Can you buy 3 Godox flashes for the price of 1 Profoto A1? Yes you can. Can you buy 9 Mazdas (2018 car of the year) for the price of 1 Mercedes-Benz? Yes you can. Will they both get you there? Yes they will. And guess which one is more comfortable, has more luggage space, gets better mileage, and has a better safety rating? Not necessarily the Mercedes.
We all spend our money on different things for different reasons. Some of us will spend $9,000 on a brand new, top of the line bike. Some of us will spend $2000 on a purse because it looks nice. Some of us will buy $400 designer jeans, when we could buy 8 pairs from the department store down the street. Some of us will spend hundreds of dollars on an amazing meal at a 5 star restaurant. Some of us will buy the Sennheiser sound system, when a Bose would have done just fine.
Some of us love bikes. Some of us love fashion. Some of us love food. Some of us love sound. Some of us love light.
So relax! If something is overpriced for you, it’s overpriced for you… don’t buy it. Simple as that. The very existence of the A1 doesn’t make any flashes you already own and love any less awesome. There’s just a new option now, for those who wanna drive the Mercedes.
But fair warning… if you don’t wanna buy it, don’t test drive it. 🙂
Don’t Be a Tool, It’s Just a Tool
In the end, our gear is simply a tool to help us do our job. If you’re a chef, analogously, the knives you choose might make your job faster or easier… but they’re not going to make your dishes any more or less delectable.
We are all different shooters and different lighters, with different priorities and desires. Find the tools that allow you to do your job, and do your job. Just make sure you’re not trying to cut the steak with a butter knife. 😉
Here’s some more tales from the dance floor during that Profoto A1 review shoot…