Profoto recently announced a revamped version of its Camera App and with ample new features and a new file format, it certainly sounds promising for smartphone photography.
I recently shot a swimwear editorial with it, both in-studio and on-location. Does the app live up to the descriptors? In short: yes.
Phones are among the fastest-evolving technologies to ever exist. Naturally, various accessories tend to evolve with the device too. One of the main improvements that phones seem to have from generation to generation is the new camera, and many people have already asked if iPhones have a future in replacing cameras. Although opinions differ, one thing is for sure: phones are much more popular than traditional cameras.
Most people these days likely start dabbling in photography by using a smartphone. Lighting, being a core aspect of photography, is naturally a focus for many photographers, so Profoto introduced a new technology, AirX, that lets photographers sync flash to their phones directly.
The Profoto Camera app’s new update brings smart TTL as well as Profoto RAW. I took it for a spin in a studio and on-location environments to see how it fairs as an image capturing device that promises to deliver fast results and an uncompromised light-shaping experience.
Features included in the Profoto Camera app include:
- Two modes: Smart-TTL and manual mode. The smart mode takes control of everything, all you need to set is how dramatic you want the light to be as well as your desired color temperature. Manual mode, on the other hand, lets you control your phone like it’s a camera. This means full manual control of not only exposure but also flash — it’s pretty much like your phone has a built-in flash remote.
- Profoto Raw format. Profoto describes this as a format that uses DNG files. The Profoto RAW (DNG) files are 5-8 times larger than the usual JPEG. On paper, this allows them to capture more detail, therefore offering more post-production possibilities. In essence, this is just a DNG file.
Perhaps one of the things Profoto is famous for is its Swedish simplicity. As renowned photographer Albert Watson put it: you plug it in and it works. Profoto Camera holds to that tradition. Selecting Bluetooth on compatible lights and then connecting to the app is very simple. Pairing requires you to press the test flash button, but after the lights are paired, they will connect automatically to the app. I never experienced any connectivity issues on the app either.
As for the rest of the GUI of the app, it is easy to understand as there are labels and names on everything, making the learning curve very shallow.
Field Performance and Real-Life Experience
To truly test out the app and how well it works with lights, I chose two different settings: studio and on-location. The idea was to shoot a summer swimwear editorial that would encompass these looks very well.
The experience shooting with the Profoto Camera app can be described as slower than I’m normally used to. Having worked with cameras for much of my career, I felt really slow when working with a phone. It took a moment to adjust, a moment to fire, a moment to do everything else. This may work with some photographers’ shooting style, but it could also possibly limit photographers from working faster and more seamlessly.
A 1970s-inspired look with a badminton racket. It was shot against a white background which was made blue by a large 2×3 softbox with a blue gel inside. The key light on the model was chosen to be hard to mimic sunlight, which was done with an OCF beauty dish. A CTO gel was added to warm the light up and give it sunlight-like quality.
Using the Smart-TTL mode has shown to be slightly hard here, as it didn’t quite understand the setup I was going for. The key light was overpowering the background gel, so I chose to use manual mode instead.
Syncing lights and setting them up was done, one by one, as usual. Shooting with a phone felt extremely strange, but the app was easy to use and I had the lights set up in manual mode in no time. One drawback was not being able to assign groups, but instead to having guess which light was responsible for what.
The second look was designed to show the swimmer about to jump. Here a three-light setup was used. A 2×3 softbox was replaced with a much larger 165 Cm umbrella to allow for more even background light. The key light was chosen to be a 2×3 softbox with the same CTO gel. I wanted much more even illumination, and using a hard reflector would make that more challenging. Lastly, a small A10 was used to light the apple box the model is standing on and create the gradient. Unfortunately, the app didn’t quite recognize this setup, and I once again resorted to manual mode, as the app was trying to light the whole scene without balance between lights.
The goal was to create a smooth gradient on the model while keeping the background the same color as in the last images. For that, a bare-bulb light with a 20deg grid was used. The camera app lets me control the lights seamlessly, with the experience being not too different from an actual camera. The app lets me control features such as modeling lamp, intensity, modeling lamp temperature (on B10 and B10+ lights)
Using the camera app on location was a different story. With only a handful of things to take, the versatility of the app was quite fantastic. I had to take an A10 starter kit (available in certain regions only), which came with a small softbox, grid, as well as an OCF adapter for the A10 flash. I threw the kit on a light stand and shot away in the auto mode setting the light to soft. This enabled me to not worry about camera settings and focus on getting the shot.
At first, there was little understanding between the crew on when the picture was taken as there were a series of pre-flashes. However, the app was not missing the mark and got all the photos exactly as I imagined. This leads me to believe that the app is geared towards smaller light setups, such as just one softbox or a key with a fill.
One feature I was interested to try was the possibility of controlling how dramatic light is. This can be done in Smart-TTL mode just by changing the slider. This is an interesting feature that performed surprisingly well. Usually, one would have to move their light or change the modifier, but the camera app takes multiple exposures combining them into one big one.
A drawback for potential users would be when it comes to shooting moving objects in smart mode. To operate, the smart mode needs to make a series of flashes and exposures, which requires the subject to be more or less still.
Speaking of the Profoto RAW format, there are no options to edit the pictures in the app. If speed is of the essence, there is rarely time to process raw files. There are more options with the DNG files that Profoto Camera captures, but they are nothing extraordinary. When editing, I found that although there is more latitude, it’s nothing like with other raw files, like CR2.
A Gateway Drug to Portrait Lighting
Profoto is perhaps ahead of its time with the Camera App, as many photographers may be puzzled by why exactly it exists in the first place. However, the app allows for much faster image capture and social media publication — something that traditional cameras can’t do.
Those who will probably gravitate towards Profoto’s new camera app pool are photographers who are not new to taking pictures, but perhaps new to lighting. Many iPhone photographers could potentially benefit from the ability to use a familiar device with sophisticated lights.
When it comes to whether the Profoto Camera app should be used in large-scale productions, I doubt it. I believe phones are just never going to reach the quality that a proper camera offers.
That said, I don’t think the Profoto Camera app is competing with high-end cameras — that would be a silly fight to pick. The camera app is simply offering a much more compact solution to allow for the capture of images on the fly. I see event shooters being interested in this, too, as it would allow them to carry much less while letting the camera mix flash and ambient as well as expose the whole image.
- Fast results straight from your phone
- Light control in simple situations
- More control over light settings when compared to the remote
- Ability to shoot with any light shaping tools
- No power setting on the back of the light unit screen
- Light names unclear on the app. No ability to assign groups
- No ability to process DNG files in the app.
- Limited ability to work with fast-moving subjects.
Should You Use It?
Yes. A previous argument against iPhone photography was that syncing lights is impossible, yet now with good light, I am more than happy to take my iPhone photography to next level. A family portrait session or anything of that nature is perfectly suited for the Profoto Camera App. I draw the line there personally, but someone else may prefer to ditch their camera altogether for the iPhone given the functionality here.
Overall, the Profoto camera app is very useful, especially when capturing images on the fly is a priority.