Profoto Camera App Review: The Future of iPhone Photography?

Profoto recently announced a revamped version of its Camera app and with lots of new features and a new file format, it certainly looks promising for smartphone photography.

I recently shot a swimwear editorial with it, both in the studio and on location. Does the application live up to the descriptors? In short: yes.

Phones are one of the fastest growing technologies. Naturally, various accessories also tend to evolve with the device. One of the major 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 certain: phones are much more popular than traditional cameras.

Most people these days are probably starting to get into photography using a smartphone. Lighting, being an essential aspect of photography, is naturally a priority for many photographers, which is why Profoto has introduced a new technology, AirX, which allows photographers to sync flash directly to their phone.

The new update of the Profoto Camera app brings smart TTL as well as Profoto RAW. I took it on a tour of a studio and on-site environments to see how it presents itself as an image capture device that promises to deliver fast results and an uncompromising light shaping experience.

Characteristics

Features included in the Profoto Camera app include:

  1. Two modes: Smart-TTL and manual mode. Smart mode takes control of everything, all you need to set is what level of brightness you want and what color temperature you want. Manual mode, on the other hand, lets you control your phone as if it were a camera. This means full manual control of not only the exposure, but the flash as well – it’s pretty much like your phone has a built-in flash remote.
  2. Profoto Raw Format. Profoto describes this as a format that uses DNG files. Profoto RAW (DNG) files are 5-8 times larger than regular JPEG. On paper, this allows them to capture more detail, thus providing more possibilities for post-production. In essence, it is simply a DNG file.

User interface experience

Maybe one of the things Profoto is famous for is its Swedish simplicity. As famous photographer Albert Watson says: you plug it in and it works. Profoto Camera sticks to this tradition. Selecting Bluetooth on compatible lights and then connecting to the app is very easy. Pairing requires you to press the test flash button, but once the lights are paired, they will automatically connect to the app. I never encountered any connectivity issues on the app either.

As for the rest of the app’s GUI, it’s easy to understand as there are labels and names on everything, making the learning curve very shallow.

Field performance and real experience

To really test the application and how well it works with the lights, I chose two different settings: in the studio and on site. The idea was to make a summer swimwear editorial that would encompass these looks very well.

The shooting experience with the Profoto Camera app can best be described as slower than usual. 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 shoot, a moment to do everything else. It may work with the shooting style of some photographers, but it could also prevent photographers from working faster and more seamlessly.

Watch 1

A 70s inspired look with a badminton racket. It was shot on a white background which was made blue by a large 2 × 3 softbox with a blue gel inside. The model’s main light was chosen to be difficult to imitate sunlight, which was done with an OCF beauty dish. A CTO gel was added to warm the light and give it a quality similar to that of the sun.

Using Smart-TTL mode turned out to be a bit tricky here, as it didn’t quite include the setup I was looking for. The main light was crushing the background freeze, so I chose to use manual mode instead.

The lights were synchronized and configured, one by one, as usual. Shooting with a phone was extremely odd, but the app was easy to use and I set the lights to manual mode in no time. One downside was not being able to assign groups, but rather guess which light was responsible for what.

Watch 2

The second look was designed to show the swimmer about to jump. Here, a three-lumen configuration was used. A 2 × 3 softbox has been replaced with a much larger 165cm umbrella to allow for more even background light. The main light was chosen to be a 2 × 3 softbox with the same CTO gel. I wanted much more even lighting, and using a hard reflector would make that more difficult. Finally, a small A10 was used to light up the apple box the model is on and create the gradient. Unfortunately, the app didn’t quite recognize this setup and I resorted to manual mode again as the app was trying to light up the whole scene with no light balance.

Watch 3

The goal was to create a smooth gradient on the model while keeping the background the same color as in the last images. For this, a bare bulb lamp with a 20 degree grid was used. The camera app lets me control the lights seamlessly, the experience not being too different from a real camera. The app allows me to control features like modeling light, intensity, modeling light temperature (on B10 and B10 + lamps)

Watch 4

Using the camera app on site was another story. With only a handful of things to pack, the versatility of the app was pretty fantastic. I had to take an A10 starter kit (available in certain areas only), which came with a small softbox, a grille, as well as an OCF adapter for the A10 flash. I threw the kit on a light stand and shot in automatic mode setting the light to soft. It allowed me to not worry about the camera settings and focus on shooting.

At first there was little understanding among the crew as to when the photo was taken as there was a series of pre-flashes. However, the app didn’t miss the mark and got all the photos exactly as I imagined. This leads me to believe that the app is intended for smaller lighting setups, such as a single softbox or a key with an infill.

General tests

One feature that interested me was the ability to control how dramatic the light is. This can be done in Smart-TTL mode by simply changing the slider. This is a great feature that has worked surprisingly well. Usually it would have to move their light or change the modifier, but the camera app takes multiple exposures by combining them into one large one.

One drawback for potential users would be shooting moving objects in smart mode. To work, smart mode must perform a series of flashes and exposures, which requires the subject to be more or less still.

Speaking of Profoto RAW format, there are no options to edit images in the app. While speed is of the essence, there is seldom time to process raw files. There are more options with DNG files than Profoto Camera captures, but they’re nothing fancy. While editing, I found that although there is more leeway, it’s not like with other raw files, like CR2.

A gateway drug to portrait lighting

Profoto may be ahead of its time with the Camera app, as many photographers may be puzzled as to exactly why it exists in the first place. However, the app allows for much faster image capture and social media posting, which traditional cameras cannot.

Those likely to gravitate to Profoto’s new camera app pool are photographers who aren’t new to shooting, 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 think phones will simply never achieve the quality that a good camera provides.

That said, I don’t think the Profoto Camera app competes with high-end cameras – that would be a silly fight to choose. The camera app simply offers a much more compact solution to enable capturing of images on the fly. I see event shooters are interested in this as well, as it would allow them to carry a lot less while still letting the camera mix flash and ambiance and expose the entire image.

Benefits

  1. Fast results straight from your phone
  2. Light control in simple situations
  3. More control over lighting settings compared to the remote control
  4. Ability to photograph with any light shaping tool

The inconvenients

  1. No power adjustment on back of light unit display
  2. The names of the lights are not clear on the app. No possibility to assign groups
  3. No possibility to process DNG files in the application.
  4. Limited ability to work with fast moving subjects.

Should you use it?

Yes. A previous argument against iPhone photography was that syncing lights is not possible, but now with good light I’m more than happy to take my iPhone photography to the next level. A family portrait shoot or something of that nature is perfect for the Profoto Camera app. I’m drawing the line personally, but someone else might prefer to ditch their camera for the iPhone entirely given the functionality here.

Overall, the Profoto camera app is very useful, especially when capturing images on the fly is a priority.


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