Updated May 16, 2015: See the end of this blog post for an update on the Profoto B1. I recently got a chance to see the B1s in action using High Speed Sync and I saw first hand how my assessment of these units was right on.
Updated January 3, 2016: See the end of this blog post for links to other blog posts I wrote for the Elinchrom blog and a review of the new Skyport Plus HS that appears in my Fall 2015 Newsletter.
With the introduction of the Elinchrom ELB 400 last week, I thought I would add to my review of that unit and compare it to it’s main competitor, the Profoto B1. I will also add some comments on the Profoto B2 sporadically and at the end of this article. It isn’t often that I compare and contrast two pieces of photo equipment here on the blog (or in my Newsletter) but the marketing hype surrounding the Profoto B1 is so over the top that I feel an honest appraisal of these two units will shed some light on the tech specs that really matter to working photographers. Hence, I am going to be very frank here with my comments on both of these units. Many of you know, especially if you read my previous review of the ELB 400, that I am sponsored by Elinchrom. I am not writing this comparison to bash Profoto. They make some stellar products. So do Broncolor and Hensel for that matter. I have used the high-end Profoto B4 battery-powered strobe on a shoot where I had to rent some gear (since I didn’t have enough Elinchrom gear for that assignment) and I was mighty impressed with the build quality and ruggedness of the B4. The B4 was a bit on the hefty side for my needs but still it was impressive in its capabilities. The Profoto B1 is another excellent product. A big part of what I want to demystify here is the over-the-top marketing that has been so craftily sculpted on the part of Profoto.
For this comparison, I am going to delve into a number of topics and compare the ELB 400 and the B1. I have used both of these strobes – and at this early stage I might be one of a handful who have actually used both of these strobe kits since the ELB 400 isn’t even available yet. I have owned and used the Elinchrom Quadras for five or more years, and I have shot with the Profoto B1 as well. I will admit, I have a lot more experience with the Quadras and the ELB 400 than I do with the B1, as you might have surmised from the last sentence. I have spent the last two months testing the ELB 400 for Elinchrom and because of that time and my previous experience with the Quadras, I know that system quite well. The topics I aim to talk about here are more on the tech side of things and are readily apparent to the educated strobe user. Nevertheless, if you are an owner of the Profoto B1 and find that I have made any mistakes please feel free to drop me a note in the comments section below.
Below is a chart showing the various specs of the ELB 400 and the B1 and B2. I have noted in this chart the best specs in red for each specification, though I have left the B2 out of that comparison since it is a strange bird in terms of light output. I’ll be referencing these specs throughout this article. Dig in, this is going to be an in-depth, long winded comparison.
Through-The-Lens (TTL) Flash Metering
Right off the bat, I have to acknowledge that Profoto was pretty inventive when they introduced TTL (Through-The-Lens) flash metering capabilities with the B1. For a few years prior to the B1’s introduction, I had thought that it was only a matter of time before a major strobe manufacturer incorporated TTL into a high-end strobe. Having tried it out on the B1, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it works. But it is still TTL. I know for many folks out there, having the option to use TTL with the Profoto B1 is the main selling point of these strobes. That is why I am putting this topic right up front here.
As anyone who has used TTL before knows, it leads to inconsistent flash exposures depending on your framing and how your camera communicates with the flash. So the big question here is, “Is this a useful option?” Indeed, I can think up a few scenarios where having TTL capabilities would make life easier. If the subject is moving very quickly towards the camera and I want to light them accurately, then TTL flash metering could be very useful though the jury is still out on how well I could trust the TTL metering capabilities of the B1.
For many years now I have been working with all manual strobes and creating amazing images without any issues. One reason I would be afraid to use TTL in instances where something is going to only happen once (as in a sporting event) is that I don’t know what it will do when it pops the flash. In other words, automation makes me worry because I am not in full control of the flash head. As a pro, who shoots adventure sports, where athletes are often risking life and limb, we are in the business of limiting our risk of failure. When using strobes, I am always in Manual exposure mode on the camera. When I set the strobe to fire, I want to know it is going to give me consistent output from flash to flash so I can nail down the exposure. If I am using a wide angle lens I will also set up the shot so so that I can use a hyperfocal distance setting on the lens and have everything in focus – and then I will turn off the autofocus so I can concentrate on getting the image. It is the same thing for the flash output, once I get it dialed in, I don’t want it to change.
The TTL capabilities of the Profoto B1 are not built into the strobe itself, instead the TTL is controlled via the Profoto Air Remote TTL transceiver (above, middle right) that sits on top of the camera. Elinchrom’s Skyport Transceiver (above, far right) is due for an upgrade if it wants to keep up with Profoto so I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point TTL and other capabilities are incorporated into a new Skyport transceiver to give the ELB 400 more advanced functionality and possibly TTL capabilities. Note that this last comment is just a guess on my part. I have no knowledge of Elinchrom pursuing this.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying having the option to shoot in TTL is a bad thing. It is just another option. There are only one or two other strobes on the market that even have TTL as an option. The ELB 400 does not have this option. One thing to note is the actual TTL capabilities are not built into the Profoto B1 but in the Profoto Air Remote TTL transceiver that controls the B1. That is why there are separate models of the Air Remote for Nikon and Canon. I can see Elinchrom (and every other manufacturer) following suit on this TTL push and adding TTL capabilities into their transceivers. Or, if Elinchrom doesn’t add it, I can easily see PocketWizard adding TTL functionality into the ControlTL system transceivers.
Score one here for Profoto.
[A quick note here before we start this section. When I reference flash durations I am referencing the t0.5 flash durations. As this is the most common flash durations nomenclature, I will use this to compare the B1 and the ELB 400.]
Let’s get down to brass tacks here and talk about flash durations. Profoto has been advertising their super fast flash durations for quite a while now starting with the B4 and continuing with the B1 and B2. With the Profoto B4, released a few years ago, the ad, which ran in all the photo mags, talked about a blazing fast flash duration of 1/25,000th second. The image used to communicate this fast flash duration was of an athlete standing in the dark and having water thrown at him from both sides. Now, first off, it’s a cool image. No doubts there. But, if you didn’t know much about strobes and how they work you may not have realized that you could have saved yourself $10,000 and shot the exact same image with a few Nikon or Canon Speedlights. How you ask? That crazy fast 1/25,000th second flash duration is pretty slow compared to my Nikon SB-910. As you can see in the image below, pulled straight out of my trusty Nikon SB-910 manual, it lists the flash durations and they are mighty impressive. Note that at 1/32nd power I can get a flash duration of 1/20,000th second. At the lowest power setting on the SB-910 I can get a flash duration of 1/38,500th second!
Now, this example of how fast your Speedlights are compared to the Profoto B4 isn’t to say that the B4 is a bad product in any way. It is just that the marketing leads you to believe you can’t get these fast flash durations without spending $10,000. The interesting fact here is that at the power setting on the B4, where the super fast 1/25,000th second flash duration resides, I am getting about the same amount of light output as a couple of Nikon SB-910 Speedlights can put out at 1/32nd power for 1/10th the cost of a B4. Because there is only a tiny amount of light being output by the flash you are now starting to understand why that ad with the athlete and the water was shot in the dead of night — because they needed very dark ambient lighting conditions to make it work. The B4 can’t really stop motion at all because of it’s long flash duration at the full power setting. The speed mode on the B4 doesn’t kick in until you drop the power down to the 5.8 setting, which is over four stops down from full power, meaning you have less than 125 Ws of light output at that setting.
By now, you might be wondering why I am going on and on about this flash duration business and why I am talking about the Profoto B4 instead of the B1. The reason I went though all this is that Profoto talks about how fast the B1 is, just like they did with the B4. But in reality the B1 (and the B2 for that matter) have a flash duration of 1/1,000th second at their highest power settings. Sure it has a flash duration of 1/19,000th second at it’s lowest power settings but I can get that same flash duration or faster with a Speedlight. As for the full power flash duration of 1/1,000th second on the B1, the image below, shot with the ELB 400 and the Pro Flash Head, which has a flash duration of 1/1,200th second, shows how the 1/1,000th second flash duration on the B1 and B2 is going to be worthless for action photography.
For my work, and for most photographers working with strobes, even if they are just photographing models, the more important flash duration specification is how fast the flash duration is at the highest power settings. This is where the ELB 400 is going to blow the doors off the B1 and the B2. In fact, there is a reason that so many sports photographers use Elinchrom strobes as many of their strobes (all of their Pack and Head type strobes at least) have the option to use “Action” flash heads with very short flash durations at the full-power settings. The ELB 400 with one Action flash head has a flash duration of 1/2,800th second at full power in the A port. If you plug in two Action heads, you can get an even faster 1/4,000th second flash duration at full power. Since I regularly have to light an athlete from 20 to 60 feet away while they perform I need the shortest possible flash duration at the full power setting.
With the Elinchrom ELB 400 you have the option to get the Action head with a fast flash duration at full power or to go with the Pro head, which has a flash duration of 1/1,200th second at full power. Here is where the statement in my review of the ELB 400, where I said it is one of the most versatile strobes in this category starts to prove itself. If I want to shoot at 1/250th second shutter speeds and below but want a fast flash duration to stop action, then their is an option. With the Profoto B1, which has a 1/1,000th second flash duration at full power, your options are limited. You could buy or rent more B1s and line them up to get more light output and faster flash durations at the lower power settings but this is a cumbersome option at best. You could also use High Speed Sync with the B1, which we will talk about in the next section, but that isn’t always a viable option depending on how far your subject is from the strobe.
So if you bought a Profoto B1, this is likely where you are going to be let down – with the slow flash durations. Score a big one for the Elinchrom ELB 400 here.
Hypersync vs. High Speed Sync (HSS)
The Profoto B1, and B2, both have the option to use a High Speed Sync (HSS) mode. This technology is similar to how Speedlights from Nikon and Canon work. When you push your shutter speed higher than it’s normal sync speed (usually above 1/250th sec) the flash will emit a continuous burst of low power flashes to illuminate the entire image as the slit opening of the shutter moves across the frame. Of course, to do this, the flash must emit much lower power flashes because it is firing so rapidly. Below is a diagram showing how HSS works.
In the diagram above, you can see how High-Speed Sync works. The top part of the diagram shows how a flash works when the shutter speed is at the highest sync speed or below (i.e. < 1/250th sec). The bottom part of the diagram shows how the flash emits a high speed series of low power flashes to illuminate the entire image when a shutter speed above the sync speed (i.e. > 1/250th sec) is chosen.
The Elinchrom ELB 400 has the ability to use Hypersync when paired with the PocketWizard ControlTL transceivers. For those who don’t know what Hypersync is, it is the ability to shoot with DSLR cameras at shutter speeds above the normal sync speed except in this case the strobe needs to have a slow flash duration allowing the transceiver to time the flash so that your exposure takes a slice out of the brightest part of the flash. For example with my Nikon D800 and D4, the normal flash sync speed is 1/250th second. With Hypersync technology, I have been able to shoot at shutter speeds up to 1/4000th second with my Elinchrom Ranger strobes and very close to that with the ELB 400. In effect, you get a smaller amount of the light illuminating your image because you are only using a slice of the full light output, but since you can use a higher shutter speed and darken the background this allows you to overpower daylight with less light output. With Hypersync, the flash is not emitting a burst of low power flashes but one big burst of light. In my experience, you get a lot more light power when using Hypersync as opposed to HSS. With the ELB 400, Hypersync is available when using the Pro Head and the PocketWizard ControlTL transceivers. The old Quadras have been able to work in Hypersync mode for quite some time now so this isn’t anything new on the ELB 400.
Not having used the Profoto B1 in HSS mode, I can’t say how well they perform in this mode. But from what I have seen, if you are relatively close to the subject or in shaded or darker situations it works quite well. Also, by combining the TTL and HSS modes, just like a Speedlight does, you have a very easy to use HSS option. With either brand here you have the option to use shutter speeds above your normal sync speed.
I’d say in real world experience, Hypersync is going to be more useful than the HSS technology in the Profoto B1 and B2 if you need to light a subject that is far away from the flash head. If the subject is close, within ten to fifteen feet, then both units will perform similarly. When you get the flash head farther away than that, only the Hypersync will be able to overpower daylight in full sun. Because of this, I’d give the edge to the ELB 400 using Hypersync.
How they deal with the Elements
I have yet to see any other strobe on the market (save for strobes made for use underwater) that are as weatherproof as the Elinchrom ELB 400, the Rangers and the older Quadras. I have taken my Elinchrom battery-powered strobes into some very hostile environments and they have seen it all and kept on performing shot after shot. Profoto makes some bomber-gear. Their strobes are incredibly well-built and that is why rental houses across the United States predominantly rent Profoto strobes. Even so, I have known a few adventure photographers that used to shoot with Profoto strobes who moved over to Elinchrom gear because they killed Profoto power packs while shooting in snowy or wet conditions. I realize this is a small point, but these are battery-powered strobes meant to be used outside the studio or home and as such the new ELB 400 continues the tradition of being extremely weatherproof.
While I haven’t tested the Profoto B1 extensively in tough weather conditions, the way the battery attaches to the side of the head and the slits on the rear and sides of the flash head would give me pause in inclement weather. As you can see in the images above, I have had the ELB 400 in some wet snow and seriously cold weather and it didn’t skip a beat.
Battery Life and Recycling Speed
When it comes to battery-powered strobes, the battery life and recycling speed of a unit is a big deal. In terms of battery life, the new ELB 400 wins in this comparsion. It allows for 350 full power flashes while the B1 only gets 220 full power flashes and the B2 allows for only 215 full power flashes. What that boils down to is you can keep on shooting for longer periods without having to carry or buy extra batteries.
In terms of recycling times, the ELB 400 comes in at 1.6 seconds at full power, which isn’t bad at all for such a compact unit. The B1 by comparison takes 1.9 seconds but having 76 Ws more power than the ELB 400 I would call this a draw. The B2 recycles in 1.35 seconds, but we are only dealing with 250 Ws of power so that seems a bit slow compared to the ELB 400. The reality is these are all fairly fast when it comes to recycling speeds.
Monobloc Design vs. Pack and Head Design
One of the other big marketing buzzwords Profoto is using is that the B1 is an all-in-one setup, i.e. there are no cords to connect, which makes for an easier setup. While it may take a few second less to plop the B1 onto a light stand, you still have to set up the light stand and attach a light modifier to the strobe just as with any other setup. Sure that is a feature to talk about but anyone who has ever used a big strobe knows that the flash head itself, is just a small part of the dog and pony show known as lighting. The five extra seconds it will take to screw in a flash head to a separate power pack isn’t going to mean you miss the picture. Slowing down is what strobes are all about.
I am very happy that Elinchrom has chosen to keep the separate pack and head design with the ELB 400. I own a few monobloc strobes and while they are great in the studio, once you put them up high it is a pain to have to lower the flash head and modifier to change a few settings on the back of the unit. I realize that many settings can be changed on the transceiver on top of the camera but in all cases there are some settings that can’t be changed anywhere but on the monobloc. Monobloc designs are also quite a bit heavier when it comes time to mount them on a light modifier, like inside an Elinchrom Octabank. I wouldn’t dare mount my monobloc strobe inside an Octabank as it would stress the mount quite a bit and be a beast to lock down. With the separate power pack and head design of the ELB 400, and especially the lightweight nature of the Pro and Action flash heads, they are so lightweight that you can get away without even using a stand and they don’t require a big, hefty light stand to put them on. Since this is meant to be a fast and light strobe system, this is a critical fact that you may not think about when debating which brand to go with.
I have also used the Elinchrom Quadras on a number of assignments where the assistant hung the power pack over their shoulder and held the flash head attached to a medium sized softbox with one hand. On those assignments, we dispensed with light stands all together for greater mobility. Try holding a 6.6 Pound mono bloc with a two or three pound light modifier over your head for five or ten minutes and you’ll think the ELB 400 starts to make a lot more sense.
Above is a portrait shot with the Elinchrom ELB 400 and the Pro Head. When shooting subjects that aren’t moving the slower flash durations of the Pro Head (or the Profoto B1) are not an issue. This is a close up of expert skier John Fullbright taken at the Taos Ski Valley near Taos, New Mexico.
Stroboscopic, Sequence and Delay Modes
The ELB 400 has three additional advanced modes that offer very specific options but are not available on any other strobe out there save for the Elinchrom ELC Pro HDs. These modes are great for getting creative and creating images that are way outside the norm. See my review of the ELB 400 for a run down on these advanced features.
Looking at the Profoto B2
In this review, I have only mentioned the B2 here and there as an afterthought for the most part. It seems like a copycat product that resembles the ELB 400 quite a bit but with one major distinction – the fact that it is only 250 Ws. I have a hard time seeing who is going to buy the Profoto B2 as 250 Ws of light output is not a whole lot to work with, especially with a price tag of $2,195 for a one head kit. Of note, a similar kit with the older Quadras is only $1,500 on B&H and you get 400 Ws of light output.
Profoto has been marketing the B1 by saying that it “has ten times the power of the average Speedlight.” I don’t know which Speedlights they are talking about but my Nikon SB-910 Speedlights can put out about 80 to 100 Ws of light, so their math is a little off, or perhaps they are talking about much cheaper Speedlights. Either way, if two Nikon SB-910 Speedlights or two Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites put out around 200 Ws let’s say – and are quite a bit cheaper than the Profoto B2, then why would anyone by the B2? The Nikon and Canon Speedlights have TTL technology and High Speed Sync (HSS). You could buy four top-end Speedlights from Canon or Nikon for the same price as one B2 setup and have 300 to 400 Ws of light, four separate flashes and all for about the same weight as the Profoto B2. So, I don’t understand why anyone would buy the B2. This fact is also the reason that I compared the ELB 400 to the Profoto B1 instead of the B2. I think it is fairly obvious that the ELB 400 is a much better unit than the B2. The Profoto B1 is a closer comparison, and one I am sure more people will be considering if they are looking for this level of lighting gear.
From what I can tell, Profoto has been suffering from the influx of amateur photographers into the photography industry. With the high price of their top-end products the new “Off-Camera-Flash” line up seems aimed to grab some of that amateur market share – and their marketing campaign contains just the right buzzwords like TTL and HSS to get a pretty good chunk of it. This is a smart move on their part but as you can tell by now, some of their marketing ploys have stretched the truth a bit in my view. In this comparison, my aim was to level the playing field and compare the specs to give a more rounded and fuller perspective on these two units.
And the results? Both the Elinchrom ELB 400 and the Profoto B1 are excellent products. Which one will be best for your work depends on what you need. If you need a long battery life, a unit that can deal with the elements and especially fast flash durations at full power then the Elinchrom ELB 400 is definitely the way to go. If you are always in a rush and feel the TTL capabilities of the Profoto B1 are more suited to your style of shooting then that is one of the only options on the market and a good one at that. If you don’t shoot with either Canon or Nikon DSLRs then you won’t have TTL as an option with the Profoto B1 or B2.
For myself, I prefer the versatility of having two different flash heads that allow me to get both fast flash durations at full power and the ability to shoot using Hypersync techniques with the slower Pro Head. Hypersync also allows me to throw the light a long distance (with a high performance reflector) and still overpower mid-day sun. I also love that the ELB 400 can deal with the elements and keep on ticking like few other compact strobe setups on the market. I don’t feel like TTL is something I need in a strobe. In fact, I love the manual nature of strobes and the consistent light output. For my work, setting up the strobe and crafting the light is a slow process, not something that I want to slap together at a moments notice. When I do get everything set up and dialed in I don’t want it to change. Of course, the Profoto B1 can be used without the TTL technology. But if we eliminate the TTL factor, then in my opinion the ELB 400 is definitely a better option than the B1 because of the faster flash durations with the Action head.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
Update – May 16, 2015: I recently taught an adventure sports photography workshop where one of the participants had two Profoto B1 units and the Profoto Canon TTL AIR transceiver. While I did not use the B1s during the workshop, I helped the participant work with them. As I suspected, they cannot freeze motion at full power. I wasn’t shocked by that at all. But I was pretty surprised when using two B1s in HSS mode, the strobes were unable to over power daylight on a cloudy day when placed twelve feet away from the subject, which in this case was a mountain biker catching some air off a dirt jump. Right next to the B1s, I placed my Elinchrom Ranger RX Speed AS battery pack and a Freelite A (Action) flash head, which at 1,100 Ws is roughly equivalent to the two Profoto B1s. The Ranger easily overpowered daylight without using HSS or Hypersync and froze the motion of the cyclist. At that distance I could have easily overpowered daylight with one ELB 400 using Hypersync.
The upshot of all this is that the Profoto B1s were not made for action photography. They are fine for portraits, and seem tailor made for wedding photographers. If you are looking for strobes to shoot action with, these aren’t the ones you want to go for. At low power settings they can certainly freeze action, but that means you will have to wait until after sunset to use them or be using them indoors.
On that same shoot, we did a quick portrait session using the TTL capabilities of the strobe. Since we were moving quickly, I grabbed the B1 with a beauty dish on it and held it up in “voice-activated-light-stand” mode. I was quite surprised at how heavy the units are, especially when you have to hold it up over your head for a minute or two. I will say the TTL capabilities seemed very good. For the portrait, we were shooting in HSS TTL mode and the strobe was able to overpower daylight quite easily but it was also only a few feet away from the subject. As we left that day, the participant turned to me and said he was nervous everytime he put the strobes on a stand because he was afraid they would be blown over and come crashing down since they are quite hefty when you add a light modifier to them.
Again, I am not here to bash the Profoto B1. It is a great product and it was obvious that it was solidly built. I just want to make prospective buyers aware of the limitations of this strobe, when compared to others on the market, and shine some light on the type of user the B1 is intended for.
Update – January 3, 2016 – More information on the ELB400 and the new Hi-Sync technology: I have written a lot about the new HS and Hi-Sync technology as I was one of the two photographers who shot the marketing materials for it. Check out the two blog posts I wrote that are on the Elinchrom website:
The Hi-Sync Experience:
This blog post on the Elinchrom site was released with the announcement of the Skyport Plus HS and helped to introduce the new transmitter and the new HS heads.
HS vs HSS: What’s the Difference:
This article is the best one out there that describes all of the different High Speed flash options, how they work and how they differ. It also shows why Hi-Sync is the best of the lot. Bram Dauw at Elinchrom went above and beyond creating the amazing graphics for this blog post.
Also, check out the Fall 2015 issue of my Newsletter, which has a review of the Skyport Plus HS:
I will also be putting up a blog post here shortly with what I feel are the best flash heads to buy for various scenarios. The best part of the ELB400 (and Ranger) systems is that you have various flash heads available so that you can have the best of all possible worlds for different scenarios with the same flash system. Stay tuned….