Profoto: we are ahead of our time

CEO Anders Hedebark talks to us about AirX, algorithmic lighting and the future of photography.

Profoto AirX

The Profoto AirX system is designed for the next generation of photographers, the company claims. In an interview with Lighting Rumours, Anders Hedebark—chief executive of the Swedish lighting manufacturer—explained the company’s current vision.

Profoto recently released the A10, a shoe-mount flashgun with built-in Bluetooth. Along with the B10, it is part of the Profoto AirX wireless flash system, which is capable of synchronising with smartphone cameras. We asked: why go to all this trouble?

‘Maybe we are early’

‘As the leading brand, we have to develop new kinds of technology and we need to invest a lot in product development,’ said Hedebark. He claims 10% of Profoto sales revenue goes back into research and development. ‘I am not a photographer; I don’t shoot (but we have a lot of photographers working here). It is not what I need, it is what our customer needs.’

But who really needs to use off-camera flash with their phone?

‘We are not adapting our products to the customer’s current needs. We are adapting to the future needs of customers. We obviously foresee that the camera in the future will not be traditional silver film photography. Obviously it is digital photography and obviously it is combined with great computational power, because computational photography will be a natural, integral part of all cameras in the future.’

The decision to invest in smartphone-compatible technology was made around six years ago; the A10 is just the latest step in that process. Since that decision there have been six new versions of iPhone, and smartphone cameras have been ‘developing rapidly… much faster than any traditional camera, whether it’s Sony, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fuji or something else. We have to remember that there is so much more invested in product development for the larger market of smartphone photography.’

‘The general trend in the world is more convenience and solutions that require less knowledge,’ added product manager Marko Pirc. ‘Flash photography is not necessarily the easiest type of photography in the world. We know that when you add proper light to the image, you can make really extraordinary results.

‘We want to lower the knowledge level needed to take great flash photographs, and this can be done with a smartphone, not a DSLR. Smartphones have a bunch of sensors that DSLRs will never have… it is much smarter, it has the connectivity, you can edit and you can share photos… all of the things that are an integral part of a photographer’s workflow today. We believe that going forward, smartphones will, in many areas, catch up with DSLRs. We don’t know yet, but we are confident that it is only a matter of time. We’ll see what the future brings.’

Martina Nillenstedt, VP product marketing, said: ‘No matter what kind of camera you use, you should be able to paint with light with our products, whether it’s a smartphone or whatever it will be in the future. Smartphones have been closing the gap to traditional cameras, and that’s great for photography. We don’t know where this will end, and we don’t have a preference. Because what really matters for a great photo is creativity and light—the camera is least important.’

As for now: ‘We understand people might say: “no real photographers are using their smartphones to create good images”,’ Hedebark admitted. ‘Maybe we are early. But that’s the way the market is headed… We constantly test our offerings, bring products to market and see if they fly or not. We talk to customers. We listen.’

Stills photography is more difficult

Profoto’s reputation might traditionally be associated with commercial photography studios, rather than smartphone technology. The CEO suggested this will continue. ‘At the high-end, there is a lot of creativity… and productivity,’ he said, citing the Pro-10 as an example of a studio pack used in big budget fashion shoots, and the D2i Industrial as a product aimed at e-commerce photography. Some 70% of all rental flashes around the world are Profoto branded, Hedebark claimed.

‘This is how we work. We develop products and offerings to all different kinds of serious photographers who are willing to invest their time and effort in light shaping. We do this for different segments, for studio photographers as well as photographers who work on location… We try to support photographers wherever they are, to spend time not on technology but on creativity. Even people who do not call themselves photographers today, we try to support all of them. We are preaching light shaping as the main tool for great photography.’

How about video? Don’t expect to see Profoto continuous lights illuminating film sets any time soon. The company is defiantly sticking with xenon flash: ‘We are catering for stills photographers. This means we can focus on especially their needs. We don’t make one solution fits all.

‘We understand video is growing faster. But stills photography is more difficult to do; we need to capture the attention of the user, in 0.1 second. If you want to sell ideas or products, you need good stills photography. And light is very important for that. LEDs are fantastic; great for the market, great for photographers and great for videographers… What you see is what you get… But we cater to photographers who have very high demands in what they do.’

Overpowering the sun with LED lamps is ‘not feasible’ and even in e-commerce photography, LEDs do not provide enough light, making it ‘hard to get the crispness’ in images, or the requisite consistent colour rendering, according to Profoto.

Algorithmic lighting is not a threat

Artificial intelligence—such as the iPhone’s portrait mode, which can simulate lighting effects—is that a threat? No, Hedebark insists: ‘It shows demand for great stills photography. This is great, because people will demand better light. Everything cannot look the same because we will notice.

‘We need creative photographers who are making great images. People shoot much more with digital technology… old photographers who were merely taking snaps—not creating images—they lost their jobs; only the creatives remain. In the end, Profoto wants to support the creatives. Photography is creativity. That’s why we make simple products. That’s why our products are black—that they should not be seen… disappearing from the image. It is a tool for creative photographers, nothing else.’

How about Profoto algorithmic lighting? ‘If we need to develop algorithms to support creatives, then we will do it. Algorithms are not a threat to anyone, just a great tool.’

The future

Finally, what can we expect from Profoto in the coming years? ‘We will develop new products for each segment that we are focussing on. You will see continuous development of lights so that it is easier to create great images. Each will be developed in different ways.’