In 2008 I wrote what many people thought was a pretty good book about lighting with little, battery powered electronic flashes. The book is called Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography. The entire book revolves around using small, inexpensive lights to do 90% of what we used to do with big power packs and flash heads. If you read my book and David Hobby's website: Strobist.com you'd be forgiven for thinking that pretty much anything under the sun could be shot well with a couple of speed lights and couple handfuls of double "A" batteries.
Until you actually get "under the sun" and decide that you don't want just a complacent little burst of fill light, you want a big ass pop of bring on the photons that at least matches the sun and in some cases you want it to go one better. Now you're into a whole different universe of lighting equipment. You can still use all the techniques from my book, they are relevant and most of the information about "how" to light never gets obsolete but I should add a new chapter called, "When a box of speedlights isn't enough."
We love to watch Joe McNally assemble six or seven thousand dollars worth of Nikon Speedlights, clamps and weird fitting modifiers to do what he could much more easily and inexpensively do with, well, a single bigger battery powered flash.
If you stack little flashes to increase power the progression of need goes something like this: 1 flash = 100 w/s, to get another stop of light you'll need to double the power to two flashes. To add another stop requires four more flashes. To get another stop you'll need to add sixteen flashes. Etc. At $500 for a top of the line Nikon, Canon or Sony flah you'll probably need about eight to twelve flashes ($4000 to $6000) and lots of batteries, plus clamps with hot shoe mounts and lots and lots of radio slaves to do what you could much more easily do with something like the Profoto Acute B 600 power pack. Really. And a Profoto system with a head and box will cost you something like.... $2400 for the box and $900 for the head. Pricey but maybe a lot more efficient, powerful and long lasting than a Think Tank case crammed full of shoe mounters and their batteries.
I bought a Profoto Acute B 600 system about five years ago when Profoto had a sale and kicked in the head if you bought the box. I also have added three new batteries in the last two years in order to have enough ready power to get through a long day of shooting on location. When the Profoto Acute B 600 first came out it shipped with sealed lead acid batteries. They worked well. In the past two years they've upgraded the system by adding lithium ion battery technology. It makes the box lighter, lasts longer and keeps a stored charge much longer for people whose work on a more sporadic schedule. The nice thing is the Li batteries are backwardly compatible with older boxes. Hurrah. Battery compatibility! Maybe camera manufacturers will take note. You can order the system with either type of battery. The Li battery version is pricier.
I have two different high powered battery powered systems, the Profoto Acute B and the bigger and more complex Elinchrom Ranger RX AS. In this blog I'd like to just concentrate on the Profoto and give it my complete attention. It's the box that made me a convert to the idea of going mano-a-mano with the Texas sun. What follows are my general thoughts about what the strengths and weaknesses of the Profoto are and how to use it to your best advantage. Let's get started.
The beginning. I bought the Acute B 600 because I had a corporate client who wanted me to shoot portraits of their key executives on exterior locations all over central Texas. They wanted the old, Annie Leibovitz--Rolling Stone Magazine look from the 1980's where the subject is standing outside and the light on him/her is about half a stop to a full stop brighter than the sun on the surrounding scene. There are two ways to do that. One is to use whatever flash you have at hand, and, presuming it is a low powered flash, you wait until the sun sets and you can match the ambient illumination with the output of your flash unit. As the sun continues to fade your light becomes a comparatively stronger and stronger source light. At some point your light becomes more powerful than the (already set) sun and you have maybe five minutes to catch the sweet spot combination before the sun's afterglow vanishes and you've got basically nothing but a flash or the option to mix your flash with a really long exposure. Which always results in subject movement that the paying client doesn't want. Even if we call it "art" and meant to do it...
Your other option is to have the tools you need to step up no matter what time of the day it is and shoot on demand. Why is this important to commercial photographers? Because scheduling executives is tough and no matter what you'd like to have happen, nine times out of ten you'll be asked to shoot at 2pm on a nasty hot, bright day and you'll have the option of delivering what you promised or changing careers. Enter the self contained studio light ( cannon, light bomb, big guns) high powered battery unit.
I chose to go with the second option. At the time pretty much all of my lighting, from flash to tungsten, monolights to power packs, was Profoto brand so the choice of which battery powered system to buy was pretty easy. Profoto makes great modifiers and attachments and the stuff just flat out works. That's why their products are the top choice of rental facilities nearly everywhere. The other grown up choice in the market is Elinchrom and we'll get to that system on Monday. Or earlier.
The Acute B comes in two parts: you've got a stout little box that weighs around 9 pounds. Most of the weight comes from the battery in my unit as my batteries are mostly still the older (but very reliable...) sealed lead acid batteries. The second part is the flash head which attaches to the box with a fairly short but really thick cable. The over-engineered cable is purposely oversized to reduce resistive power loss between the head and the box to give higher output and longer battery life. I have a Domke canvas cargo bag that I can throw the whole system into and take "off road." At about fifteen pounds including head, box, and a few accessories it's the only way for me, really, to get to rough, isolated areas and still be able to do studio quality lighting.
The box has one outlet for one flash head. The plug is rock solid and has a breech lock mechanism to prevent accidental detachment. The top of the box has six switches and three "ports." The far left switch, labelled, "energy", is a rocker switch that gives large changes in output power. There's "max", "-2", and "-4". (I translate it to mean: full power, half power, quarter power). Just to the right of that switch is a rotary control with click stops. It goes from "max" to "min" and it's a 2/10ths per adjustment click power fine tuning switch. With the leftmost switch set to max and the trim control set to max you have the box at full power which is 600w/s. If you go to the minimum settings on both you have 9 w/s, which translates into a 7 stop range.
People talk about the "stopping power" of electronic flash but I don't think a lot of people understand that the duration of the flash, the parameter that determines just how frozen you can get a subject, changes with the power settings on most flash systems. At full power the Acute B's flash duration is about 1/1,000th of a second. Not as short as a smaller, shoe mount unit but much faster than many bigger studio A/C powered flashes. When you head toward the other end of the scale the flash duration drops down to a minimum of 1/6,800th of a second.
The next switch over controls the modeling light that comes installed in the flash head. You have the options of "off", "ext", and "batt". As you can imagine a tungsten modeling light with an effective output of around 90 watts will suck a battery dry in short order. It's hard to see the effect of any modeling light in full sun so we mostly use the system (when we're outside) without the modeling light on. In the studio it's a whole different matter (and if you substitute the "studio" with "the abandoned saloon in the abandoned town next to the desert" this all makes good sense...). The modeling light might be your dominant light source for focusing and understanding the play of light across a beautiful face. And at the end of a long, night time shoot in the desert it might be a useful light to use while packing your car...
Sometimes I use the Acute B system in the studio because I like the way the light looks in the big Magnum reflector or the white Profoto beauty dish. I know I'll burn through batteries over the course of a two hour or three hour session running the modeling lamp so I just line up three extra batteries and change as needed. Without using the modeling light, shooting in mild weather, I count on getting between 150 and 160 full power flashes as long as I'm not pushing the recycle times. Using the modeling light doesn't slow down the recycling time but it does reduce the number of shots you'll be able to take. Given that this light unit is fairly expensive compared to "plug in the wall" units from both Profoto and other makers they do acknowledge that a photographer might want to use the unit in both studio settings and locations so they offer an adapter that plugs into the box and it does nothing but power the modeling light from an A/C circuit. Once you've plugged in the adapter and set the rocker switch to "ext" all the current being drawn by the modeling light is coming from the wall socket and the battery (which still solely powers the flash circuitry) is left untouched.
I've used flash for so long I generally just turn on the modeling light for a few minutes while I'm dialing in a shot to make sure that the shadows are falling where I want them. Modeling lights were a much bigger deal in the film days where you didn't have the constant feedback loop of an LCD monitor on the back of every camera. You had to take a few extra minutes to make sure you got stuff right before you started shooting....
There is another switch right under the carrying handle and it turns a sound alert feature on or off. The alert beeps every time the flash recycles completely (a very handy thing) and also beeps an alert when the unit is battery exhausted and about to shut down. I leave the sound on. It's hard to be stealthy when you're belting out big pops of white light over and over again....
The next switch is an on/off switch. It's a switch always freaks out my assistants because you have to hold the switch in position for three or four seconds to affect a change in either direction. That's a safety feature so that when the unit is packed for travel the switch isn't accidentally actuated and the battery drained in transit. Nice to have. Just remember to hold it down until it actually does what you want it to do.
The final switch enables the built in optical slave. Nice to have when you are using multiple boxes in interior locations as the flash can "see" other flashes and trigger right along at the speed of light. With all the newer units you also have the option of getting your box with a Pocket Wizard radio receiver built in. I'm always opposed to this because I don't want to get locked into one supplier's radio trigger system. I'm using much smaller and equally reliable Flash Waves triggers and happy doing so. Just thought I'd let you know the option existed in case you are a die hard Pocket Wizard adherent.
The three ports on the top of the box are: A standard 1/4 inch synchronization socket, the plug-in for the external power to the modeling light, and the plug-in for the unit's battery charger. The charger is boring and straightforward and recharges a spent battery completely in about five hours. If you need more charging performance there is also a quick charger as an available option. The quick charger reduces charge time to about 90 minutes. I'm sure there must be a car charger available as well but I've never looked into it. I rarely need to charge more than the four batteries I have while out and about.
The Head. The flash head is set up just like all other Profoto flash heads. The reflectors fit on with a sliding collar that is tightened with a spring clamp. The fitting (when used on speed rings) is strong enough to hold my heavy, five foot diameter octabox securely. The head uses a bright 65 watt modeling light set in the middle of a ring shaped, UV coated flash tube to provide accurate visual tracking. The head is not fan cooled but is small and as lightweight as it can be given the strong metal construction.
Umbrella Warning. The one caveat to using most Elinchrom and Profoto flash heads is the fact that they require a thinner, 7mm umbrella shaft if you want to slide an umbrella into the receptacle provided. If you try to put a thicker, U.S. standard umbrella into the hole you'll have a hell of a time ever getting it out. You can order 7mm shafted umbrellas from all the usual sources. Even Photek's incredibly popular 60 inch Softlighter Two is available in both configurations.
But Why? Yes, why would you want to spend upwards of three thousand dollars for one light? Granted, if you are a studio only photographer or a location photographer who only works in air conditioned, power strip rich environments you are probably not the target market for this kind of light. Likewise, if you do events and use your hand held, dedicated speed light you're probably not in the market either. The person who wants one of these is routinely in situations where not much else will work well to fullfill the vision he or she might have for a photograph.
The first and most obvious situation would be the need to have a lot of power and also have that power available in a place that doesn't have electricity on tap. I mentioned shooting executives on remote locations which have included the roof tops of thirty story buildings, on the top of Mount Bonnell with the sun high in the sky and the lakes in the background. (Dragging a gasoline generator up the steep and rocky foot paths of Mt. Bonnell would be a silly exercise in self torture and you'd probably need a folder full of permits to fire one up in the city park..). Shooting a beautiful portrait on an isolated beach and shooting a weathered rancher out along the fence line. Sure, there's generally a plug somewhere in the vicinity but do you routinely pack a thousand feet of fat gauge extension cable with you? And do you know how much that would weigh?
What I want (and get) from this system is something light enough for me to carry around on locations by myself but something that retains the capability to get enough light on a subject to give me f11 at 1/250th of a second at 100 ISO from five to seven feet away AND with a large modifier in between the flash tube and the subject. You could do it with a ton of speed lights but that's never pretty, efficient, convenient, etc. And the thing that makes the one big light the winner? You can recycle at full power every 2.8 seconds and know that every frame will be consistent. And you can do that about 150 times in a row.
There are less expensive ways of doing the same thing. The most popular low cost option is to use a Paul Buff Mini Lithium battery/inverter and his biggest model Alien Bees or Einstein flashes. They are not as rugged and industrial grade as the Profotos but they will do the job. I've owned both and after using them side by side I got rid of the Buff gear and kept the "high price" spread. When you work outside in the elements you need strong everything. And while you might not think about it when shooting in the studio the weak link of the Alien Bees flashes is the "hardware" that mounts those monolights to light stands. On the AB's it's plastic, it cracks if you over tighten and if you don't overtighten it moves around. I've also cracked a couple of the unit cases and I much prefer the repeatability of controls with detents over very, very cheap control sliders.
The biggest difference though is in the mounting hardware for softboxes, octabanks and other big, diffusion modifiers. The Profoto stuff is stout enough to hold a big box in low wind. The Balcar style clamps on the Buff gear were never made to be used outdoors and I've had my own series of mishaps with sudden mechanical "let go's" of big modifiers. Once or twice the escaping speedring caught a modeling light bulb and broke it apart. I never lost a flash tube but I was always nervous about the possibility. When I put a 28 inch beauty dish on the Profoto head I know it's going to stay there no matter what. That has real value when you are on location juggling chaos.
(above photo): This is a classic use of the system for me. I start by "flying" a 72 by 72 inch diffuser up over my subject to block direct sun. In this instance I let a little light come over the top as a quick and relevant hair light. Then I bring in the Profoto as a front light, in this case with a 60 inch Softlighter II umbrella and diffuser just in front of my subject. Before we start shooting I'll fill up my location sand bags with water (they come to the location empty and light and can be filled with sand or water) and put them on the diffuser light stands and on the flash light stand. I've added gaffer's tape to the clamps holding the big diffuser to make sure it doesn't sail away. The next image down is a shot from the set up.
Lighting is a fun subject and I believe that a good working knowledge of artificial light is one of the many differentiators that separates professionals from everyone else in their photographic work. Lots of people can "see" good available light and leverage it to make nice photographs but it's a far smaller part of the ven diagram when it comes to people who can make the lighting happen reliably on a gloomy or bald day.
If you want to learn more about lighting equipment, modifiers, the nuts and bolts of lighting gear I wrote a book about that. It's right here: Lighting Equipment
The Profoto B 600 is a great little (relative) lighting system. Two of them make a versatile system for any hard working corporate photographer who might be called on to make a wide range of images in a wide range of locations. Until you've spent years running extension cords from far off plugs and then taping them down so that people don't trip over them you don't really know just how freeing it is to: set up, power up and shoot without slowing down to do things the old ways. Conversely, if you've always shot with speed lights you'll be amazed at how much flexibility in light placement, modifier size and other options a professional system like this gives you. We talk about overpowering the sun with lights. Once you've done it with a professional system like this going backwards into the "Rube Goldberg" constructions of the small flash set ups seems silly.
Next up: The Elinchrom Ranger RX AS system. When you need more power or two heads....