When a lighting company wants to to show off its new products, it hires a professional photographer, a professional model, a professional stylist, and whatever other professionals are required to make sure the photos look good. Of course, I’m not a professional photographer and I can’t afford a model or a stylist, but I do have a few friends who are willing to pose for me in exchange for a breakfast sandwich, which actually should make the results more honest, anyway. So yes, my ragtag approach to reviewing the Profoto B2 was totally for the purpose of testing it under grueling, real-world conditions, and has absolutely nothing to do with me being cheap.
(Oh, I should also draw your attention to the difference between Profoto, the light company, and Pro Photo Supply, the camera store whose website currently graces your screen. Profoto is not our in-house brand, but what an in-house brand it would be!)
There are basically two ways to look at the B2: from the perspective of a studio photographer, or from the perspective of a speed light shooter. The former will view it as a very compact, portable, and feature-rich (albeit low-powered) location light, while the latter will see it as a woefully oversized and overpriced speed light. Frankly, for photographers who haven’t purchased studio lighting before, it presents a hard sell over cheaper and smaller Canon or Nikon external flashes. Which is weird, because it seems like that’s the group that should benefit most from this type of product.
At first look, the B2, like its B1 sibling, appears to be nothing more than an extra-powerful speed light. It features both TTL and high-speed sync capability on Canon and Nikon DSLRs, flawlessly integrating into those systems as if it were first-party gear. Unlike the B1, the B2 is not a monolight—so while the head itself is quite small, the separate battery pack/controller easily makes up for it. Fortunately, you can power two heads from a single pack, which saves space, but does comes with additional wiring mess. Also, you won’t be able to achieve more power by doing so. The pack provides a total of 250 Watt-seconds of energy, split asymmetrically between the heads. For comparison, the B1 provides 500Ws per head. To be fair, though, a 2-head B1 kit is about $4150, while the 2-head B2 location kit I tested is only $2695 (or just $90 to rent one for a weekend). Neither includes the Profoto Air Remote TTL, required for TTL compatibility, which will cost you the somewhat strange amount of $403.
I’ve heard a few people complaining about the lack of power on the B2, but for me, this isn’t a huge deal—250Ws is more than enough to meet my needs. After all, the difference between 500 and 250Ws is just one stop; that’s like going from ISO 100 to 200 or f/8 to f/5.6. Even when splitting the power between two heads, the B2 produced more than enough light for how I was shooting. But therein lies the rub: for shooters who don’t need a ton of light, but still want TTL and/or high speed sync, why not just stick with speed lights? For about $1100, you can buy a pair of top-of-the-line Nikon SB-910s or Canon 600EX-RTs. Chances are, if your camera has a pop-up flash, it already has a built-in, wireless, TTL flash trigger, too.
Of course, the reality is that the B2 is not simply a more powerful speed light. It features much faster recycle times, a 9-stop power range, flash durations as fast as 1/15,000, and a battery that charges in just 1 hour and grants 215 full-power flashes. Plus, it accepts standard Profoto light modifiers (the new OCF speedring is fantastic, and makes setting up a small octabox a breeze). Essentially, the B2 combines the benefits of a speed light with the benefits of a studio strobe in a package that is sized and priced between the two. Which sounds great, in theory. In practice, however, I kept running into the same problem, and it had nothing to do with what the B2 lacks, but rather with what is supposedly its most salient feature: TTL.
It might sound crazy to ask this question, but does the B2 really need TTL? I can see some situations, such as a wedding reception, where this could be incredibly useful: set up the light in a corner, bounce it off the ceiling, and walk around shooting different scenes all over the room without having to adjust the light. Secondly, if you do plan to use the B2 on-camera (as Profoto is quick to advertise you can) then TTL might again be useful in a similar, continuously changing environment. However, for set scenes, especially with more than one light, TTL just doesn’t cut it. And this is where I feel bad labelling this write-up as a “review,” because none of the photos you see here were shot in TTL mode. I tried, but I never liked the results. And this isn’t because Profoto’s implementation of TTL is somehow off; I have the same issues when using first-party speed lights off-camera. The reality is, a computer may be able to figure out how much light you need, but it doesn’t know what kind: dramatic, happy, mysterious, whatever. When you add a second (or third, or fourth) light into the mix, the computer has even more trouble, because now it doesn’t know which light is key, which is fill, or which is background. In these situations, it makes more sense to just set the lights manually—which, I’ll add, has been made so simple in this age of “guess and check” digital photography that even I can do it (with varying degrees of success, I’ll admit).
The Air Remote TTL works great to remotely set light power, even in manual mode. Photo by Corey Bennett.
Clearly, though, there is a market for TTL-enabled strobes, or else Profoto wouldn’t have followed up the B1 with the B2. It just seems that I am not part of that market. That said, other than the inherent limits of using light heads that are corded to a pack, I really love everything else about the B2. I can’t fault it for having a beneficial feature that I simply don’t need, but I also can’t help but wonder why we don’t have something like a B2 “manual edition” that provides the same power in the same form factor, but without TTL and for a lower price. Because, at the end of the day, price is the only thing holding the B2 back. Maybe my thinking is all wrong here, but I feel that photographers who are ready to move beyond speed lights are also ready to move beyond TTL—and photographers coming from the studio world already have. Save for the aforementioned situations when TTL would truly be useful, the B2 is simply overkill—if I were to buy one, I’d be paying for features I would never use. And yes, you can save about $100 by going with Profoto’s standard Air Remote over the TTL version, but that’s chump change when you’re spending three grand on a lighting setup.
So despite being underwhelmed by the idea of TTL in a high-end strobe, I still think the B2 has a lot going for it. There isn’t another light in Profoto’s catalogue that is as perfect for me as this one: the size, the power, the battery life, the ease of use—everything fits my needs. So until such a time as Profoto releases a simplified, manual-only version (I won’t be holding my breath), I’ll continue to rent a B2 kit for all my location shoots. It’s a fantastic little light, and it’s just a shame that the price will keep it out of so many photographers’ hands who would otherwise really benefit from its advantages over speed lights.