Introduction: The Profoto Air Remote

 

Introduction

The Profoto Air Remote transceiver can be purchased from Samy’s Camera here.

In recent years, the single aspect of strobe lighting to advance most noticeably has been control.  Strobe packs like the Broncolor Senso (reviewed here) and the Profoto D4 now offer precise digital control of flash power in compact, go-anywhere boxes.  With wide-ranging power and asymmetry, advanced packs like theses have practically done away with ND filtering and separate packs for each head, allowing tenth-stop finessing of each channel.

The Profoto Air System brings a new degree of control to the set, at once replacing wireless triggering and the hassle of interacting directly with on-pack controls.  Profoto Air equipped packs and mono lights, like the Profoto D1 Air set we tested for this review, receive not only a high-speed, multi-channel camera sync signal, but remote power adjustments for up to 6 separate groups of lights.  And they work very well.  Read on for our complete introduction…

Features

The Profoto Air Remote is a compact hot-shoe mountable transceiver compatible with the full range of Profoto Air devices.  In addition to the unit’s standard shoe mount, it can also be connected via an eighth-inch headphone plug to trip non-Air equipped strobes and cameras.  The Air Remote is also designed to receive sync signals via cable in settings where, for example, Pocket Wizard and Air units are both in use.

It is a compact control, similar in size, if not design, to Pocket Wizard’s MiniTT1 units.  Mounted to a camera, it is angled up and back to allow easy visibility and operation, if not a strikingly svelte profile.  In style terms, however, it handily beats the stalwart walkie-talkie style Pocket Wizards.  Radio triggers from Broncolor, Elinchrom, and the Pocket Wizard TTL line arguably look less dorky.

Build quality has been a minor issue of some debate with the Air Remote.  Indeed, it is not of the same bullet-proof stuff as the Acute, or even as the D1.  It is however, very much on par with all competition except the tightly molded and rubberized Broncolor RFS 2.  The Air Remote has snappy little buttons that are clearly labeled and easy to operate, though they’re less solid-feeling that buttons from any camera maker.  The unit slides tightly in place and is far too light to need any locking mechanism like those found on most hot shoe lights.  It adds very little bulkiness to a camera.

The Air Remote operates at 2.4 GHz and is consistent for units world wide (unlike Pocket Wizard’s variation between U.S. and European models).  Profoto claims an impressive 300 m range and sync speed up to 1/1500 s for leaf-shuttered cameras with high-sync ability.

On The Job

The control surface of the Profoto Air Remote includes two rows of channel selections.  The top row, labeled 1-8, indicates to which channel the transceiver is set.  The selection of multiple channels allow multiple sets, shoots, or photographers to operated individually.  Photographers with separate sets at one venue will also benefit (for example: both a portrait station and ambient lighting at a wedding reception or corporate event, or multiple portrait set ups for a hurried executive).

The bottom row of six settings, labeled A-F, are group selections.  For each 1-8 channel, up to six A-F groups of lights can be assigned and controlled individually, though all engaged lights will fire regardless of which group is selected for adjustment.  The A-F group selection also includes a Master setting to allow adjustments to all channels.  The Air Remote does not have to be set to Master to fire all lights assigned to different groups within a given channel.

In practice, the Air Remote’s system of channels and groups is easy and clear to use and renders excellent results.  I had no trouble adjusting individual lights and also had no trouble with interference.  A quick press of either + or – Energy buttons yields a tenth-stop adjustment, a long press yields a full stop.  If, for some reason, the change does not happen, including reaching the end of one of one light’s adjustment range, or being out of range, the Air Remote makes a beeping sound to alert the photographer.  The feedback is useful and welcome.

Besides power level, modeling lights can be turned on or off for each group as well, which is a useful trick and a bit of a crowd-pleaser to boot.  The Air Remote also allows each channel to be turned off completely, strobe and modeling bulb.  Our Profoto D1 Air heads, when turned off from the Air Remote, entered a sort of standby mode, with a green dot glowing on the LCD readout, but no light emitted.  Taking advantage of the on/off control is one way to manage multiple lights on a single channel.  I set up ambient lights at two large wedding receptions and, while moving around the venue, was able to disengage individual heads to prevent direct back-lighting with no hassle.

Even from across a large event hall, power adjustments are easy and the remote warns when a strobe’s highest or lowest setting is reached by beeping and blinking LEDs.  With modelings lights on and set to proportional power, adjustments can be visually monitored.  From certain angles, the large LCD power setting number on a D1’s control panel can be read from a good distance, which is also convenient.

By relocating control from high on a light stand to right on the camera, the Air Remote addresses a major mono light complaint, but the convenience is not limited to mono units.  Using the upcoming Profoto D4 Air packs with the Air Remote will allow control of individual channels and combined grouping as if they were separate D1 mono heads.  Awesome.  Grab a few head extension cables and run a whole studio from a single pack.  We’ll bring you a full report as soon as D4 Air packs become available in the US.

Market Possition

Profoto is not the first lighting company to design a proprietary wireless control system.  It’s been done well by Elinchrom, Broncolor, and Paul C. Buff.  Profoto has created the best such system to date, however, by including a solid set of well-integrated features and adding flexibility with an all-transceiver approach, camera triggering, and easy operation.  Profoto also offers the $500 Air USB for computer control of the Air system using Profoto’s Capture One pluggin or proprietary software (check back soon for our full review).

It is not an inexpensive system with each Air Remote costing about $360 by today’s prices.  A roughly $220 Air Sync variant drops the remote controls in favor of a straight-forward strobe or camera sync.  The Air Sync will work just fine, however, has a backup or second trigger, or as a receiver for remote cameras or non-Air equipped strobes.

By one comparison, in the Broncolor RFS 2.0 system, a transmitter costs around $160, a receiver around $190, and a set including both around $340.  The Bron triggers feel better built; are more compact; have an easy to read, lit LCD; have simpler controls that can be more easily worked in the dark; and offer similar power control.  However, Broncolor’s system stops short of offering the same sophistication of power and channel control, visual and audio feedback, high sync speed, and connectivity.  Head to head, Profoto has the more modern and full-featured system, though Broncolor offers a very usable and arguably simpler system.

Selling Points

The Profoto Air Remote is an excellent wireless control for Profoto Air-equipped strobe lights.  It makes adjustments and wireless, high-speed strobe sync, even across multiple channels and groups, an easy task.  The units have very good range, easy-to-use controls, and are light weight and sturdy.  All controls are clearly labeled and intuitive to use, LED-feedback is bright and clear.

I appreciate that the highly flexible units are transceivers, therefore operating as either transmitter or receiver.  They have the necessary connections to receive sync pulses via cable, hot shoe, or radio; and to transmit via cable or radio to lights, cameras, or other wireless systems.

Considerations

Build quality is not quite up to the price point, though certainly on par with, or better, than radio triggers from Pocket Wizard, Elinchrom, and others.  There is very little to break, no external antenna and no moving parts besides buttons.  However, upping the quality with a more robust or rubberized feel would be a nice touch, and features like weather-sealing or more tactile buttons would help the units feel more at home on top of today’s tough DSLRs.

In keeping with Profoto’s apparent aim for low size and weight, the Air Remote operates on two somewhat non-standard AAA batteries (to me, at least, AA batteries seem so much more common on set).  During testing of two separate units, the batteries had to be changed for optimal operation.  Photographers using the Air Remote will do well to pick up a pack or two of rechargeable AAA batteries.  Even so, I would take the pair of AAA batteries over the large watch-style button battery of Broncolor’s RFS 2 transmitter or Elinchrom’s Skyport transmitter (at least the assistant running to the nearest convenience store will stand a very good chance of bringing back the right fit).

Aside from a few control interface quibbles, like being forced to scroll through channels and groups click by click, the Air Remote is really very easy to use, with minimal learning curve, and an excellent feature set.

When compared to certain larger Pocket Wizard units, the Air Remote lacks programability, but adds very useful control.

Conclusion

The Profoto Air Remote is a thoroughly capable wireless control for Profoto strobes equipped with the company’s Air system.  Build quality is only average, though the Air Remote’s feature set and on-the-job usability is better than any proprietary competitor.  The Remote is part of an overall system that will have photographers considering abandoning clunky old Pocket Wizards for the convenience of on-camera multi-channel power adjustments.

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The Profoto Air Remote at Samy’s Camera

 

Profoto D1 Air 500 Kit at Samy’s Camera

Image Gallery
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by Matt Beardsley, inline photos by Matt Beardsley additional photos in “Image Gallery” provided by Profoto

 

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