We’ve seen amazing steps forward in phone photography over the years, and the iPhone 11 Pro, Galaxy S20 Ultra and Pixel 4 can take images that comfortably rival what you can get from a DSLR. But Profoto’s newest launch, I’d argue, is the biggest revolution in phone photography since they first put cameras in phones.
Profoto, in case you’re unfamiliar, produces some of the best photography flashes around. They’re used by pro photographers around the world in every genre of photography imaginable. While normally used alongside top-end cameras, its latest B10 strobe is the first professional light that can be used to take images with an iPhone.
So why is this such a revolution?
For years now phone manufacturers have been striving to improve their low-light image quality with night modes. We’ve seen simulated Portrait Lighting become a thing on the iPhone, and we’ve also seen HDR modes trying to balance bright backgrounds with shadowy faces in the foreground. All of these things have been done to try and combat one thing: a lack of light. And that’s what the Profoto B10 provides.
With the right modifiers, it allows you to create beautiful soft-light portraits like you’d see in a fashion magazine, or create dramatic outdoor sports photos — straight from the cover of Sports Illustrated — all on your iPhone. These sorts of images with this sort of lighting have never been possible on a phone before.
As lead photographer for CNET in Europe — and a regular writer about phone photography — I was super-excited to see what I can achieve with my iPhone 11 Pro and the Profoto B10. And boy, was I impressed. All the shots below have been taken and edited on the phone using Adobe Lightroom Mobile.
I started with some product shots in the studio and loved the ease of changing the phone’s exposure and the flash power from the app. I was using a 2-foot softbox to help get a classic, painterly look to the image with the gin bottle and glass. It’s no different to the sort of image I’d take with my Canon 5D MkIV. Getting the shoe to float in the top image was easy; use a fast shutter speed and just throw it into the air! It took a few tries to get it just right.
Next up, some moody self portraits. This time with the phone on a tripod to let me easily use the rear cameras but still get in the shot. The flash does technically work with the front-facing cameras, but the results look washed out, so I used the rear camera, triggering the phone with a small Bluetooth camera trigger held in my hand.
Without flash, I’m barely noticeable against the background in this shot, despite it being taken on a sunny day.
Turning the flash on though results in me being perfectly lit and adding some great shadows and contrast to the metalwork behind me. A crop and some colour tweaks in Lightroom on the phone really made this image pop. OK, fine, so I’m no model, but you get the idea.
Later, I headed to Edinburgh’s hills with friend and fellow photographer Dan Smith who was good enough to run around while I took a shot that I’m particularly pleased with. Here, I was able to underexpose the scene in the camera with a fast shutter speed, darkening the sky, but by using a high flash power I was able to get a perfect exposure on his shoes. The fast shutter speed meant that the dust and flying rocks have been captured in pin-sharp detail. It could easily be a Salomon magazine advert, and it’s far beyond the sort of image I’d have been able to capture without the light.
This time Dan and I went to the top of a hill overlooking the city for this dramatic view. The flash was placed over to the right of the scene, adding some extra illumination to Dan that really helps him stand out in the image and gives it a much more polished, commercial look.
Compare the lit, processed image (left) with the straight-out-of-camera shot taken without flash (right). It’s clear that the light has helped fill in those shadows on Dan’s face and helped this image look like a more professional, considered image, rather than a quick snap taken on a run.
This final shot shows Dan trail-running over the ridge. I’d positioned the B10 on the ground just next to where Dan was jumping. It’s a subtle bit of lighting, but it’s just enough to help Dan stand out and add some real drama to the scene.
Setting the light up is simple. Turn the B10 on and activate its Bluetooth mode. Go into the Profoto app on your iPhone (only iPhone is supported right now, but Android support is in the works apparently) and you’ll be prompted to connect. It worked perfectly in my experience. Profoto calls the connectivity on the B10 “AirX.”
Images have to be taken through Profoto’s app, rather than using the standard iPhone camera app, but it offers control over exposure settings, white balance, choice of lens (the standard view, wide or 2x zoom) and, of course, flash power. You can also shoot in raw to allow for easier editing later — which I took advantage of.
It works just like using a flash with any other camera; balance your camera’s settings with the flash settings to get the precise look you want. The app doesn’t yet offer auto flash exposure (or ETTL, as it’s known) but that’s also on its way. You can also link up multiple B10 lights for more elaborate lighting setups.
Technically using an external flash with an iPhone isn’t brand new — Godox tried it with its pocket-sized A1 smartphone flash, which could theoretically be used to trigger the company’s bigger lights. But it didn’t really work properly, whereas Profoto’s version lets you seamlessly connect directly to its pro lights and offers considerably more functionality.
I’ve spent less than 24 hours with the Profoto B10 so far and I’m already blown away by what I’ve been able to achieve. But it’s not perfect yet; The B10, while powerful, can’t quite overpower the bright, midday sun when using it with the iPhone. The autofocus in the app is very hit and miss, and there’s a delay of almost a second between pressing the shutter button and the image actually being captured. That made it difficult to get my timing right on some of the action shots. But I’m confident that these issues can be ironed out. I’d also like to see the functionality come to some of Profoto’s even bigger B1X lights for increased light output.
There’s also a legitimate question of who this is really for. The B10 retails at around $1,695 without any modifiers, meaning it’s really only going to be pros who will buy it, and surely pros will use their “proper” cameras rather than their phones? It’s an argument I agree with, though I would say that being able to get this sort of quality from a setup you can hold in one hand is super convenient for travelling. Plus, being able to quickly edit images on the phone and instantly share them with clients or social channels means it’s a great way of working quickly.
The B10 then isn’t an iPhone accessory everyone will be able to get, but it’s unquestionably helping elevate smartphone cameras from being solely for amateurs, to being a legitimate tool for professional photographers too. I can’t wait to see what shots I get next.