This is a guest review of the Profoto A1 studio light by wedding photographer Jesse La Plante.
When the Profoto A1 hit the market last fall, it was accompanied by the superlative statement “the world’s smallest studio light.”
While I’m not sure that this is the most accurate descriptor, I can tell you this: the Profoto A1 is a damn nice speedlight.
Profoto A1 Review | Quality of Light
The Profoto A1 differentiates itself with a round head that provides a smoother falloff than we’re used to seeing with traditional speedlights.
If you’ve ever taken a test shot against a blank wall with a bare flash, you know what I’m talking about. The shape of the light is rectangular and usually contains some unflattering artifacts within the gradation.
While the Profoto A1 doesn’t completely eliminate this issue, the rounded shape of the light is a very nice touch… and when you attach the dome diffuser, it becomes even more so.
So this got me thinking. What about grids? Could I use a grid to achieve a similar effect with my much less expensive Godox speedlights?
As you can see, by adding a MagMod grid plus diffuser gel to my Godox speedlight, I was able to achieve a somewhat similar result.
The light from the Profoto A1 is still a bit cleaner, and the falloff more nuanced, but for those who need more bang for their buck, I’d recommend the Godox/Magmod combo.
Keep in mind though, that when stacking mods, you’re going to lose power. The Profoto A1 is already a bit more powerful than a standard speedlight (to my eye, at least) and gridding your flash will diminish the light source even further.
[Ed: Check out Jesse’s Godox AD200 review if you’re after a light with more power.]
So what about using MagMod with the Profoto A1? I’m told that the MagGrip will fit the A1 head, but I didn’t dare try and squeeze it on. This light was sent to me for a test drive on loan, so I didn’t want to risk damaging the zoom dial.
If it were mine to keep, I probably would have given it a go, but for the purposes of this review I was limited to the Profoto-brand modifiers.
This segues nicely into the next section…
Profoto A1 Review | Accessories
I’m happy to report that the Profoto A1 modifiers are of good quality and surprisingly easy to use. Profoto has jumped on the magnet train (and what a nice train it is), building a magnetic ring into the head of the A1 for seamless attachment of mods.
The kit comes with a dome diffuser, a “wide” lens and a bounce card. I found myself using the dome diffuser almost 90% of the time. As evidenced in the comparison photo from earlier, the diffuser really softens the edges of the light, creating a beautiful falloff.
My only issue is that the flash doesn’t include gels. When shooting receptions, I use CTO (color temperature orange) gels to match the color of the flash with the warmer ambient light commonly found in wedding venues.
Since I didn’t have gels for this light, I had to spend extra hours in post, correcting color. This isn’t a knock on the light so much as it is a bit of friendly advice that, if you purchase this light, you should splurge for the Profoto Gel Kit as well.
Profoto A1 Review | Build Quality
This is where the Profoto A1 truly excels. Light-weight yet sturdy. Simple yet sophisticated. The head swivels like a hot knife through butter.
The dials/buttons are solid and exhibit the exact right amount of sensitivity to the touch. This light feels good to hold in your hand and it looks great on your camera. A++
Profoto A1 Review | Interface
The Profoto A1 has the simplest and most intuitive user interface of any photography light I’ve ever placed my hands on. The main screen is basically just one number: your flash power.
I should point out here that the power scale is a bit unorthodox. Instead of using fractions to measure power, the Profoto A1 uses a “relative f-stop scale” which ranges from 2.0 – 10.0 in 1/10th stop increments.
According to the manual, when you increase the power by one full stop (i.e. 9.0 to 10.0), you’re effectively doubling the power.
The sub menus are a joy to use. They’re crisp, clean, clearly-labelled and a breeze to cycle through and quickly change settings.
So much less hassle than my Godox speedlights and my old Nikon speedlights, with which I would always struggle to find what I was looking for.
Profoto A1 Review | Battery
The Profoto A1 comes equipped with a built-in lithium-ion battery pack, which doubles as the front face of the light itself. This means extremely easy access when changing/recharging batteries.
Battery life is definitely above average. One battery pack lasted me throughout an entire eight-hour wedding shoot.
Also of note is the battery gauge on the light’s main screen. Instead of using four symmetrical bars ( indicating 100%, 75%, etc.), the Profoto A1’s battery gauge is far more specific, diminishing in small increments that give a much better feel for how much juice you have left and any given point in time.
Profoto A1 Review | Wireless Function
[Ed: The Profoto Air Remote is available for Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and Fujifilm here.]
However, I did not find the Air Remote to be as foolproof as others have noted. Throughout the wedding, I experienced the occasional misfire, but nothing egregious.
That said, it’s always a bit difficult to tell if a black frame is due to a radio communication issue or simply a result of slower recycle speeds when shooting at a high power. Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t say that the Profoto A1 any better or any worse in this regard than other speedlights I’ve used.
I did notice one strange little quirk using the Air Remote. After a period of rest (let’s say two minutes or more), the next flash after the break would be far too bright.
For example, when I was shooting a speech that ran a bit long, I stopped taking photos for a minute or two. When I took the next shot after the hiatus, the frame was completely blown out. Subsequent shots were normal. This happened several times throughout the day. Possibly user error. Who knows?
Also, when adjusting power via the Air Remote, the power number on the remote doesn’t match that of the speedlight… Let me explain:
Let’s say your A1 is set to 5.0 power. This information is not conveyed on the remote. The remote always goes back to 0.0 just a second or two after any power adjustment. So if you increase power +1.0 stops on the remote, the Profoto A1 is now set to 6.0.
The remote then reverts back to 0.0. Now when you go up +1.0 stops, the A1 increases to 7.0. And so on and so forth.
I found this mildly irritating at first, but it became normal to me over the course of the shoot. I think it’s really just a matter of what you’re used to.
Profoto A1 Review | AF Assist
The Profoto A1 itself has a wonderful AF assist light. Much like Godox or Yongnuo, it emits a crisp crosshatched pattern that is a cinch to focus on in low-light shooting situations.
The Air Remote, on the other hand, doesn’t have any AF assist light whatsoever. This realization washed over me in the first two minutes shooting a wedding reception when my camera started searching for focus during the introduction of the wedding party.
The real bummer is that, not only does the Air Remote lack an AF assist light, but it also overrides the camera’s built-in AF assist.
It’s possible that this isn’t the case for all camera bodies, but the AF assist on both my Nikon D850 and D750 were completely inoperable with the Air Remote attached. And for those wondering: yes, I was using the center focus point.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I very rarely shoot with a light attached to my camera. I use a radio trigger at least 90% of the time, and for a trigger to not be equipped with an AF assist light is beyond my comprehension.
Maybe other photographers have techniques to circumvent this issue that I’m not privy to, but with as much low-light/nighttime shooting as I do, this little oversight is difficult to work around.
Let me show you an example of what I’m talking about here. Toward the end of the evening, we pulled the bride and groom out of the reception for a nighttime portrait in the falling snow. I wanted to backlight the image to make the snow pop, but it was nearly pitch black outside and, without an AF assist light, I had no way of focusing on the couple.
Long story short, I was forced to switch over to my Godox system for this shot.
It’s possible that there’s something I’m overlooking here. If anyone out there has alternative methods for focusing in little to no ambient light, I’d love to hear your insight in the comments…
And if it’s something I’ve never thought of before, I’ll buy you a beer (or two) the next time you’re in Colorado.
I should point out here that you can always set the AF assist light on the Profoto A1 to “always on,” but I found this to be a bit annoying for guests during the reception.
It also gives away your position when you’re trying to be sneaky, making it more difficult to capture candids. And obviously, it’s completely useless when backlighting.
Profoto A1 Review | High Speed Sync
My usual litmus test for judging HSS is shooting portraits in midday sun, but the wedding I shot with this light was extremely dark and overcast.
As a result, I didn’t have the chance to really put it through its paces. However, I did take some test shots in my studio and The Profoto A1’s HSS worked seamlessly up to 1/8000th on my D850. [Check out Jesse’s Nikon D850 review.]
All good stuff here.
Profoto A1 Review | TTL
I almost never shoot in TTL because manual just makes more sense to me. That said, I did find myself experimenting with setting a baseline power level via TTL and then switching over to manual to make small adjustments.
This is a super easy and efficient technique with the Profoto A1. All in all, I still prefer straight manual, but I could definitely see this coming in handy for a lot of photographers out there.
Profoto A1 Review | Other Features
One of my favorite features of the Profoto A1 is the flash zoom. Instead of tiny buttons, there’s a nifty dial on the flash head that adjusts the angle of light. This is accompanied by an illustration on the main screen that shows how wide or narrow the beam currently is.
Also, the modelling light kicks ass. It’s a nice, bright, white light that’s actually powerful enough to illuminate your subjects and give you a realistic preview of what your image will look like. You know, what a modelling light is supposed to do (I’m lookin’ at you, Godox, Nikon, etc.)
Profoto A1 Review | Price Tag
There’s been a ton of outcry on the interwebs regarding the cost of the Profoto A1 (“a thousand bucks for a speelight?!”)
I think that Two Mann Studios said it best in their review of the Profoto A1 when they coined the moniker “the Mercedes of Speedlights.”
You wouldn’t go into a Mercedes-Benz dealership and complain that the price of the new S-Class is higher than the Chevy down the street. So why piss and moan about the cost of a luxury speedlight?
Some people are willing to pay a premium for nice things. Others aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with either school of thought.
Profoto A1 Review | Conclusion
The world’s smallest studio light? Jury’s still out.. but a very nice speedlight indeed. If you’re looking to buy into a portable lighting system and you have the bankroll to do so comfortably, look no further than Profoto.
Jesse LaPlante is an award winning wedding photographer based in Boulder, Colorado.