Light story, 2019 edition.

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I recently took a long hard look at my lighting gear and decided that it was...well, a mess. Years of accumulated stuff, mismatched brands and products, most of it still perfectly fine but overall one huge confused melting pot. I felt the time had come to 1) consolidate and 2) simplify. I should’ve done this eons ago, but the flip side to being comfortable with lighting tech is that we can much too easily settle for whatever solution is available, regardless of how efficient it may be...

So an A1, an SB-800 and an AD600 walk into a bar. the A1 says to the other two:
“Boys, I’m drivin’ tonight!”
“Whoa! Wait a minute, I’m way bigger!” replies the AD600, “I should totally lead!”
“You know damn well I can’t see in the dark Mr. big Godox man! And I don’t talk your talk!”
“I’m ok either way...” says the SB-800, “you young folks just need to stop yellin’ and decide already...”.

Or something to that effect.

When I thought about what I needed and examined the current landscape, the choices eventually came down to either Profoto or Godox—which is surprising, given where we were not so long ago. Now, I like Profoto. I like the company and the people who work there and their energy and vision. Stockholm’s a cool city. I’ve also written in the past about my uneasiness when it comes to manufacturers playing fast and loose with copyright infringement and treading a damn fine line. But there’s still an economic reality to contend with. At the end of the day my bottom line matters, and this leads to two crucial questions: can the products do the job well? How much do they cost?

I spent months looking at specs and reviews, comparing offerings from both companies but also their ecosystems: triggers, light shaping tools, replacement parts etc. And after much hand-wringing I finally chose to go with Godox. It came down to price vs performance of the strobes themselves obviously, but if I’m being totally honest, accessories played a huge part as well. Here's the thing: I don’t want to sound cheap, but a Profoto trigger costs $599 CAD. The equivalent trigger from Godox (and I underline equivalent) is $87 CAD. We’re talking about radio triggers in 2019 here, not some secret ultra-advanced technology from the future. So as far as I’m concerned $599 is bonkers cocoa puffs crazy town. I could accept the insane price differential for an insanely better product...but the Profoto is a plastic remote that does the exact same job as its plastic Godox counterpart. It doesn’t do it better or more elegantly. In fact I’d even argue it’s not as versatile, and at this point it lags (gasp) behind Godox in terms of UX (I think the UI zoom function on the XPRO-F is brilliant). In an even more surprising twist, in terms of build quality I’d again give the edge to Godox: the Profoto trigger connection is so tight I’m always scared I’ll either damage the hot shoe on the camera or break off the connector itself—which would of course set me back another $599, or worse. It uses AAA batteries that drain quite a bit faster than the XPRO’s AA and frankly, its buttons and controls feel noticeably flimsier as well.

I will unequivocally accept a premium for the design and development of unique, superior products—this however, is totally unjustified IMHO. Completely and utterly. And unfortunately I’m forced to admit that it’s such a huge, gratuitous disparity, that it simply turns me off everything else, despite my affection for the company.

That said, I was also swayed by the fact that I already owned and appreciated the AD600BM strobe—the manual, Bowens mount version of the Godox AD600—as well as the minuscule TT350-F. It’s the duo I used to shoot the images for this Capture One 12 article for example and it works very well. So it became a logical starting point. But I also wanted a setup that would allow me to go full TTL if needed, which is new territory for me: I‘ve always been Mr. Manual, but TTL has grown on me—and the credit for this goes to using the Profoto A1 (a bit of irony there). Manual control will always remain the most accurate way of lighting a scene but the shooting flexibility of TTL is something I now often use and appreciate. Long story short, here are the new additions to the kit:

  • AD400 Pro. This is the smaller and lighter 400W version of the AD600 Pro.

  • AD200.

  • H200R. A round flash head attachment for the AD200—more on this in a sec.

  • A few Bowens-based modifiers—octabox, grid etc.

I added two XPRO-F triggers (because why not) to supplement the older, functional but much less intuitive X1T-F I already owned. This means I can now have three cameras on set ready to shoot.

AD400 Pro with a third-party Bowens reflector.

AD400 Pro with a third-party Bowens reflector.

The AD400 Pro is great, works perfectly; just like my AD600 but much lighter and it includes a handle (!). The only caveat is that it uses a smaller proprietary mount: the strobe comes with a Bowens adapter (and there are others available as well) but this needs to be screwed onto the head, so it’s not something you can quickly switch in or out. I’ve defaulted to leaving this on for now, rendering the included native reflector useless, which is a shame*. Godox has promised a line of compatible accessories but I haven’t seen them anywhere yet. Fortunately the strobe still fits perfectly in the included semi-hard case with the mount attached. And that case is a nice bonus too (the AD600BM didn't include one).

The native reflector WITH the Bowens mount.

The native reflector WITH the Bowens mount.

*UPDATE: As it was pointed out in the comments it IS possible to still use the reflector. The trick is to remove a spacer ring…that doesn’t look at all like something that can be removed. The two pieces are simply wedged into one another so I used a screwdriver to gently widen the gap until I could pull the two apart. Once this is done, the reflector snaps to the Bowens adapter AND the entire kit still fits in the case (with the reflector’s protective cover). It looks slightly odd as you can see but it works. Huge thx to Logan for the tip!

A few words about the AD200 pictured above. I’m not going to review this flash—it’s been out for quite awhile and there's tons of info out there—but I do need to mention how impressed I am with its design. It’s not remotely pretty: we’re talking about a rectangular block here. But from a purely utilitarian point of view, I think it’s brilliant as heck. It includes two tripod sockets (on the back and the side) and with the fresnel head attached the entire unit happens to be perfectly flat—easy to lay down on a table, a chair or any similar surface. It's just a light emitting box. And that flash head is modular, which means it can be swapped between the included fresnel or bare bulb attachments, but also to an LED array (haven’t tried it) or that H200R round head I mentioned. Yes, if you’ve seen it, it’s eerily similar to the Profoto A1. So similar in fact that it uses the same magnetic system for attaching accessories (though MagMod still gets first dibs on this). And so similar that, I kid you not: those accessories included with the A1? The Dome Diffuser, Wide Angle Lens and Bounce/Flag card? They happen to fit the H200R like a frickin glove.

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Houston, we have a match.



Ouch. Does this make me uncomfortable? You bet it does. It takes that fine line I spoke of earlier and turns it into one big, ugly splatter of black paint. Smudges everywhere. But owning both...when I realized they were swappable, curiosity immediately got the best of me—I just HAD to compare the two.

The images below were shot with the A1’s Dome Diffuser, first on the actual Profoto A1 and then on the AD200. I had to tweak the placement of each unit to match them as closely as possible (their design is different so they didn’t sit in precisely the same spot on the light stand). If you look at the shadows I think they’ve ended up fairly identical.

There IS a difference; but I truly didn’t expect results to be this close. The A1’s falloff is slightly softer, its light is a bit more diffused (the AD200 is a tad more specular) and there’s a variation in terms of colour temperature and exposure between both images (camera WB was fixed at 5000k)...but this is still comparable. Especially considering both falloff and specularity could easily be manipulated through distance, aiming and contrast adjustments in post. And there’s another issue that surprised me: with an aperture of f2 and both triggers set to TTL, the Godox was able to expose the image properly but the A1 would systematically overexpose the scene. I was only able to match the AD200’s exposure by switching it to manual and dropping to minimum power. Which means the A1 DID have the available range, but lowering TTL all the way down on the trigger still wouldn’t get me the exposure I was looking for (as a reference, TTL on the Godox was set to -1.7). To be fair, TTL is finicky and there’s always a million factors that can sway its output...but in a controlled situation such as this one, using the same position and subject, I’m not sure why this happened. (1)

Of course the A1 is a very different beast: it can be mounted on-camera for instance and it’s also a commander unit for other Profoto strobes. But I’ll personally never use it that way, so it only made sense for me to see how these compared visually. Now I know. And by the way: Godox has a set of accessories for the AD200 that all but replicates everything available for the A1, including the new grids I believe. Ethics aside, I’ll be curious to see how these compare.

So far, this new kit has mostly been a joy to use. I say mostly because I did experience some misfires with the AD200—nothing crazy but enough to make me puzzled. But I was using multiple triggers at the time, mixing manual with TTL and switching settings around constantly, which may have caused some signal confusion. I’ll have to see if this happens more frequently than it should. Overall however, the whole setup fits perfectly with my no-friction 2019 mantra. Everything is coherent, compatible and I even get some redundancy in there without having to sell off the kids.

And not to harp on the subject but the contrast is striking:

Dollars for possibilities? Clear choice in my book.
Now let’s see how this holds up over time.

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1. I thought of something later: instead of dialing-in the TTL value on the remote, I used Fujifilm’s built-in flash interface. This allowed me to set the A1 to -3 and get a correct exposure. But it’s really no excuse: the remote should do the job on its own.

The Stages

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Bert shot with a bag full of Ikea items—a salad bowl as beauty dish, a shower curtain, an artificial plant...I don’t think he ever found a way to use that toilet brush though. Zack showed off the mood of light, Sara wrapped her model in fabric and Mindy revealed the world of Forbidden Tattoos. Elia took us around the globe, Kevin brought us home and Ruddy made us think about it all. Jonas, of course, made us all feel like underachievers: how the hell can this guy also be a doctor? Bloody hell. And then there was Ines and Jan and Anushka and Peter and Elke...what moves me most about Fujifilm’s presence at Photokina is this focus on photographers and their work. We all get to learn so much from everyone that returning home is almost a letdown; Jonas spoke of withdrawal in his Chronicle post this week...it’s not a bad analogy.

My set was half/half: I told a couple of stories about commercial jobs and the importance of visual exploration—then I switched to studio mode with the help of Fabian, our male model. The idea was to create five different looks, using nothing but the small Profoto A1 strobe and the included Dome Diffuser. No softbox, no umbrella...this was all about positioning the light and subject to achieve different results. Although I did cheat on the last day by bouncing it off the white wall—I wanted a different take on the cinematic look I’d done in the previous sets. Sue me ;)

A few of those images below, all processed from GFX 50S raw files using the brand spanking new Capture One Pro 11.3. Side note: Am I excited about this? Oh dear god, you have no idea. It doesn’t just work: it works WELL. Still waiting on the upcoming film simulations support, but this is already like waking from a long slumber. Any concerns I had about C1 have now evaporated completely. More on this eventually...


VARIOUS MOODS AND GRADINGS (PROFOTO A1+GFX 50S+CAPTURE ONE PRO)


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Hashtag

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I need street and colour and a giant gasp of visual oxygen. Been browsing through Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Tokyo work and it almost hurts. I can sense the crowds, the movements, hear the murmurs.

February is when starvation kicks in.

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diCorcia but also Crewdson...I’m on a rampage. It’s a new ritual, making a point of searching for images, seeing the work of others—photographers or painters or sculptors. Forcing it as an essential part of my day. Feeding, really. I keep a running screenshot scrapbook in Bear—I started this a long time ago but I’m now trying to add content to it daily. It’s a vicarious stratagem...to get behind someone else’s eyes and understand their impulse. A deconstruction of intent. Ultimately I’m creating a lookbook based on my own personal triggers, without direction or afterthought.

I invaded our bathroom yesterday morning, with a flash and a c-stand, a tripod and my GFX. I noticed colours, however dilapidated, and couldn’t help myself. Cynthia called it our crap as art when I showed her the results later in the evening. “Good hashtag”, I joked. Crap/treasure...we all know how that goes, right?

For now it’s all an antidote to whiteness.
 #crapasart

Fujifilm + Profoto A1: Testing 1-2...

Stockholm was a pretty wonderful whirlwind. I need to thank Photo Life, Profoto Canada and Profoto Global for making it such an unforgettable experience. I’ll be writing more extensively about the Photo Quest adventure in the next issue of the magazine, but I wanted to quickly touch base with you about the big star of that show: the Profoto A1.

I won’t get into details and specs here...all of those can easily be found around the web. I just want to address a couple of points that may interest some of you.

X...for Fuji?

I had the Canon version of the A1 a couple of weeks before leaving for Sweden—to work on the magazine article. I tried everything to make it trigger on my Fuji cameras but nothing would do the trick, apart from using the older universal remote (single pin). I eventually had to make peace with the fact that it simply wasn’t compatible. Fast forward to day one of Photo Quest, when a few of us noticed a menu item in the A1 flash settings labeled X-Sync. At lunchtime we’re sitting around the table and I ask about this to Andres Prieto, marketing manager at Profoto Canada (great guy). He tells us this is a way for the flash to bypass all attempts at TTL communication...at which point my eyes widen. I grab an A1, put it on my X-Pro2, switch on X-Sync: bingo. Let there be on-camera light. 

I’ve since tried this setting on both the Nikon and Canon versions and can confirm that it works with both. There’s no TTL and no HSS in this mode—it's all manual—but until we get the recently announced native Fuji remote, this will do the job just fine.

One of the shoots after lunch...trying X-Sync for the first time. This is an A1 on-camera acting as commander and triggering two A1 strobes on the floor. X-Pro2 and XF 56mm f/1.2 R.

It’s just an expensive speedlight...

No, it’s not. Is it a smaller, camera-mountable flash? Yup. Does it have as much power as some speedlights? Nope. Is it a game changer? Hell yes. Two reasons as far as I’m concerned: refresh rate and the light itself. I met two incredibly talented Canadian photographers on this trip—Lanny Mann and Erika Jensen—who were chosen for one of the promo videos. They said they shot over 7000 frames during a party, on a single battery, without a misfire. That’s seven followed by three zeros. Which is why I don’t shoot weddings. But that number is simply insane.

And then there’s the light: round is not a gimmick. This, combined with the wide-angle beam and included dome diffuser, effectively creates a fall-off that you can play with and feather the way you would a softbox. There’s a heck of a lot of engineering going on, all for the sake of scattering those photons—and it works.

Modeling. Light.

A real light. Not some crazy hold-down-a-button-while-the-flash-goes-into-strobe-mode preview but an actual LED. Trivial? Not in my book. And the kicker is that it’s powerful enough to be used as a light source—complete with zooming (and there's a really cool story behind this). It’s like a bonus.

Franken...

So, this morning I unpacked my own A1 (a gift for all the guests...huge thx) and thought I’d put points #1 and #2 to the test. Weird looking male model but meh... he was available. First, the Franken-setup:

Don't hit it...seriously, don't.

Don't hit it...seriously, don't.

That’s an A1 on top of a Cactus V5 (a pair of old triggers I dug out), in a plastic holder in a clamp...all on a C-stand. Unwieldy, fragile and definitely not something I’d travel with but, it did the job* (again, all manual). I set the Profoto A1 to X-Sync and, sure enough, everything fired perfectly: one trigger in TX, the other in RX. I used the Dome Diffuser (included), set the A1 camera-left, about two feet away, and angled it slightly above my head to catch the edge of the dome (as opposed to its centre); same thing I’d do with any modifier.

Selfies like these are never easy and I’m not winning any prizes here, but I think the light itself—in terms of structureis rather impressive. Especially when you consider I spent all of 15 minutes on this. Btw that shine on my face is from the crazy 40ºC weather we're struggling with...summer is over right?... Anyway, I won’t be ditching my Deep Octa just yet but this opens up a lot of possibilities...big possibilities that fit in my bag.

More Stockholm in the coming days.
Later :)

*Except now I’m stuck with AAA batteries again. Sigh. Go Profoto/Fuji remote...