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Choosing Big Lights: Profoto

If you are shopping for Big Guns, you cannot help but lust after consider Profoto. Among high-end pro shooters, Profoto is near ubiquitous. And there is usually a reason for that.

Several good reasons come to mind in favor of choosing Profoto, actually. And one pretty big reason not to -- inside.

"The Light Shaping Company"

Those four words define a corporate philosophy that sets Profoto apart from many other strobe companies. They sell a bewildering array of light modifiers. And you have to respect a company that puts that much effort into trying to deliver such a wide range of light shaping tools.

The quality of light pushed into those tools is legendary, too. Which is one of the main reasons pros around the world seem to so often go for Profoto when it comes to choosing lights.

But another reason is the rental network. Profoto was very smart in engineering wide availability of their gear for traveling shooters via rental houses around the world. So you can rent what you need on location, or augment the specific Profoto tools you need for a shoot but do not yet own.

It is a powerful triple whammy: Quality light, shaped well and available everywhere. So what's not to like? Let's all just load up on Profoto and be done with it, right?

Not so fast, bucko. There is one little problem:

Profoto is Expensive.

Even the entry level battery pack and head is gonna set up back over three grand, absent special deals. And the fun just starts there. The packs are expensive. The heads are expensive. And then there are those beautiful modifiers.

The modifiers are as insidious as they are wonderful. They reach waaaay into your wallet, grab it by the short hairs and ask, "What kind of beautiful light would you like to make today, Dave?"

And that's a problem -- because you say, "Well, of course I want make alllll of the different kinds of pretty light today, Profoto!"

Then pretty soon you and your Chase Visa card are best buds. And shortly after that your kids are eating the dry, generic cat food because you can no longer afford to feed them the premium canned stuff.

Which of course would make this an easy "nossir, Profoto," except for then they start to work on your brain from the "logical" side.

"But my reflectors zoom, Dave. So each one is like having, say, three different reflectors."

So then you start to divide the price by three, and that oh-so-versatile "Magnum" reflector which costs like three hundred bucks or something starts to magically look like a mere $100 reflector. And now a hundred bucks for a reflector sounds positively frugal, like when you slow down to 70MPH from 100MPH and it feels like you can get out and walk.

And then who wouldn't want to belly up to the photo bar and buy one?

(What kind of reflector would you like to buy, sir? Oh, I'll be needing a *Magnum* reflector, please…)

And then there is the other value-added thing that starts to creep into your brain: The light mods work on all of the heads. Which makes this an investment into your long-term future, of course.

Know Thyself

So here's the thing. I am not exactly sure what light mods I am gonna be using most often, because I am only now starting to think more frequently in terms of big lights.

And if you do not know which light mods you will need, Profoto is a very expensive place to find out. With these prices, you need to have a conservative, go-slow approach to building a system. And even then, you are gonna have to have a plan.

My strategy if choosing Profoto would be to start with two basic light sources, small (zoom, remember) reflectors, and a Magnum. (Oh, and some gum, to not look too obvious when buying the magnum.)

Maybe grab two 7" grid reflectors, which presumably will take standard 7" grids. So the Magnum is your only real flyer here.

But What Pack and Heads?

Here, you have some choices. If you want to slide in bare bones and discover Profoto one light mod at a time, one relatively pain-free way is to grab some of the few remaining Compact-series moonlights. They can be had very reasonably -- especially in kit form. They are plug-in only, but some people have successfully powered them with Vagabond II's from Paul Buff.

But most important, you are in the door for not a lot. (The first hit of meth is always free or cheap…)

Your mods will continue to be useful as you get deeper into the system. And you have made a commitment to a system that is very much into non-obsolescence, which means that those dollars could be amortized over many, many years. Which means that your system could be a good value -- or downright cheap if you do not require a large number of mods or light sources.

(I know -- rationalizing…)

The Compacts are being replaced by the D1 system, which are smaller, more feature-ladened monos and are priced very attractively. They have great controls, and you can configure them with built-in remote systems for remote manual control, etc.

On a recent overseas trip, I met with a Profoto rep and asked him about battery power for the D1's. He basically winked and said that this is not something they have ruled out. Which means that there either is most definitely a battery coming out soon, or that he was blowing smoke up my skirt. Who knows.

But they are reasonably priced, and get you into the exquisite mod system with low damages. There is only one thing that bugs me about them: They have a recessed tube, with a small, "built-in" reflector.

I am sure they have their reasons, but this just seems counterintuitive to all of the advantages of the zoom light mods. I just don't get it. If you are already using D1's and can give us your thoughts, please educate us in the comments.

Acute Anxiety

But the choices don't stop there.

Besides the going-extinct Compacts and the new D1's, the other entry point into the system is the Acute system, which features a sweet, 600WS battery unit and AC packs whose prices won't give you a heart attack unless you actually stick your finger in a flash socket.

And they frequently run specials (there is one on now, until the end of 2009) wherein you can get a pretty good deal all told (free mods this time, free head other years.) So definitely cruise the specials if you are in the market.

If you want to go batts and AC, skip the smaller AcuteB head, and get the Acute/D4 head, which ships with the better reflector and can be used either battery or AC Acute packs. Then you can go for a 600B pack first and add an AC Acute pack later.

If you plan to use them heavily and for a long time, I would submit that there is excellent value in the Profoto system. If you choose to move up to the If-You-Have-To-Ask price levels of the 7B or other pro series gear, you can eBay your Acute stuff and all of your mods transfer. You could also use the two flash systems alongside each other, but they will not plug and play together.

The stuff holds its value very well, so think of it as rental fees over time and it starts to look palatable. See, I can rationalize with the best of 'em.

Head for the Light, Carol Anne…

I'll confess to having a major Jones for the Profoto stuff. The light quality, the mods, the longevity, the rugged build quality -- I'm getting' a little woozy just thinking about it.

The rental availability is not a huge draw for me, as I am almost always working local enough to drive whatever gear I need when shooting with big lights. But it matters to many others.

Going with Profoto for me would mean exercising some serious gear restraint at first. Not my strong suit, but it might be good for me for a change. Maybe two 600B value kits, and load up on free light mods with the special. I'd be in for about $6k.

[NOTE: The deal seems to vary a bit by region as to what purchases are required and how much free loot you get. Check with your home country dealers for best info.]

And I could always grab a few Profoto soft box adapters (which, um, cost as much as my soft boxes did) and transition in with some of my existing soft boxes. JoeyL did that, essentially sticking his 7B head into Paul Buff soft boxes. I am pretty sure someone in Sweden had an aneurysm over that one, but Joey liked the results.

Eventually, I might migrate to the "stimulus money" -priced neighborhood of the "pro" stuff. I must say it'd be a tad off-putting to drop $6k on the Acute and not get a "pro" label. My pro Flickr account cost me $25.00. Just sayin'.

Or I might be happy forever with Acute. Who can know for sure?

Either way, going Profoto for me would be a trip down the rabbit hole -- drugs priced separately, of course.

If you use Profoto and have sage words of advice for other readers, sound off in the comments. And if you have Q's, maybe you'll get some answers there, too.

Next week, we head back over to the cheaper side of the tracks.


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