Intoduction: The Profoto D4 Air

Introduction

Profoto’s D-line of packs and mono heads sits in the middle of the company’s line up of studio strobe lighting, a bit less lofty than the company’s Pro line and more expensive and far more sophisticated than Profoto’s entry-level set of Acute packs.  “D” might well stand for “Digital” with D1 monoheads and D4 packs.  All use tenth-stop digital fine tuning and wide-ranging power.  “Air” equipped heads and packs make use of Profoto’s sophisticated proprietary remote system to offer power and distribution control on camera, and built-in wireless multichannel sync (reviewed here).

The Profoto D4 Air, then, is an awesome combination of both Profoto’s latest in-pack full asymmetry and sophisticated on-camera control.  It is a versatile tool for fine-tuned light, offering quick-control and the flexibility of a wide range of power.  It is both easy to use and thoroughly capable and, as we proved through nearly two months of hard testing, a robust pack, ready for the day-to-day beating of professional studio and location photography.

Read on for our in-depth introduction:

Features

The Profoto D4 Air 1200 is a 1200 W strobe pack (“generator” in Profoto speak).  It offers an 8-stop range of power settings and 4-channel full asymmetry controlled in tenth-stops.  Recycling time is listed as 0.2-1.7 s and durations of 1/1000-1/7500 s (in t0.5 terms).  It offers a range of digital control, including control via USB, USB Air, or the Profoto Air Remote and on-board programming of sequencing and delay.  The pack is Profoto’s only to be compatible with both Acute and Pro strobe heads, making it compatible with every strobe head made by the company.

Click here to check Profoto D4 Air 1200 prices at B&H

Click here to check Profoto D4 Air 2400 prices at B&H

On The Job

The Profoto D4 Air 1200 is a beefy pack.  Its rubber surround, contoured rubberized handles, and rubber feet call to mind the substance of truck tires, though with handsome sculptural execution.  It feels tough and robust and is surprisingly comfortable to lug around with nicely-contored and  grippy handles.  The box’s flanks are metal; knobs and controls are tough plastic.  All LEDs glow a low-key, militant green.

The D4’s controls and interfaces are placed on the pack’s top surface, giving the pack an intimidating complexity and a little clutter, especially once all four lamp plugs are in play.  With a quick read of the manual and a little fiddling, though, it proves to be intuitive and quick to operate.  Each of the pack’s 4 channels has a button to cycle strobe and modelling light on or off as well as a dedicated power knob.  many buttons are on/off controls that cycle options when held.  The four knobs click in tenth-stop increments or full stops if pressed while turning.  Any head can be turned on or off and, in the case of the 1200 watt pack we tested, each is free to range all the way down to an impressively-low 9 watts.  Channel A or B can output all 1200 watts while channel C tops out at 600 watts and D at 300 watts.  Photographers are free to mix and match power settings.  Hold the pack’s “master” button to make adjustments to all active channels while turning any channel’s knob.

For our test shoots, it was an easy matter to set lights and then dial in power with a few test shots.  Unlike traditional ratio-based packs, the degree of digital finesse offered by the D4 allows heads to be placed anywhere without much concern for distance or the loss of light with inefficient soft boxes or diffusers.  On one location shoot, for example, we balanced a hard reflector with two giant umbrellas by running the hard light at around 1/30 of the power of the umbrellas, something like 18 watts and 450 watts.  The ability to balance an efficient and relatively bright source, like a beauty dish or a ring light, with large softboxes or gentle ambient light, is an awesome degree of artistic flexibility.  And, of course, with a quick spin of a dial, 1200 watts can overcome all but the brightest ambient light.  Photographers with old-style ratio packs will be finding alternate uses for ratty collections of neutral density filter – it would take seven sheet of full-stop ND to cover the same range of asymmetric dial-down as the Profoto D4.  It’s so easy to dial in a look with this simple set of four dimmers, photographers will forever wonder how we made pictures using ratios alone.

We enjoyed using the USB Air remote.  It provides a simple computer interface to adjust pack settings and recall arrangements of power.  A complex studio would benefit from the ability to save settings and quickly switch between saved arrangements.  Programming sequences and delay is also very easy, a button press converts the 4 channel knobs to function controls.  The pack can quickly be changed from photography to disco party mode with the press of a button, making exciting multi-pulse action shots no-brainer easy: camera on tripod, dark background, long exposure starts, snowboarder jumps, strobe pops x number of times, snowboarder lands.  Awesome.  We tested the pack up to 12 frames per second, which works respectably at low power.  For serious high-speed work at full power, however, photographers will want to consider the more expensive Profoto Pro8 line.

The Profoto Air Remote brings a tremendous level of control to the D4 Air.  Each of the pack’s four channels can be set to any of the Remote’s 8 channels.  From the Remote, power level can be set in tenth or full stops, individual heads and modelling bulbs can be turned on or off.  The Remote runs on the familiar cell phone, baby monitor, and N wireless router frequency, 2.4 GHz, and operated without accidental pops, misfires, or interference during two months of testing.  In all our time with numerous Air Remotes, we’ve had one dark frame, an impressive level of consistency.  We’ve written a separate review of the Remote here, so I won’t go into great detail again, the Remote does, however, work beautifully, and is a selling point for the system.

For photographers worried about Pocket Wizard integration, It’s important to note that the D4 Air will have to run on a separate transceiver.  With a Pocket Wizard plugged into one of the pack’s two parallel 1/4 inch sync plugs, the Air Remote can still be used to adjust power settings while the Pocket Wizard triggers.  During one shoot, for example, I ran the Air Remote off my camera’s hot shoe and an Elinchrom Sky Port transmitter from the camera’s sync plug, during another I ran the Air Remote from the sync plug with a Nikon Speedlight on the hot shoe.  I found it useful on one test shoot to have an assistant work the D4’s settings with an Air Remote while triggering the pack with the Elinchrom Skyports.

[Editor’s Note: An important advantage of the Air Remote is it’s ability to quickly sync the pack.  During lab testing, we found the Air Remote capable of delivering good results with a 1/1000s shutter speed, far beyond the sync speed of the tested Skyport system.]

The Air system is well designed and integrates nicely into existing technology.  It’s nice that Air Remotes can be connected to any strobe (and a number of cameras) in the same way as a Pocket Wizard receiver or transceiver, and I also appreciate that certain elements of programming (sequencing and delays, for examples) are now done from the strobe pack and not the fiddly buttons of a small radio transmitter.

Our time with the Profoto D4 Air was not without frustrations, though they were minor.  The most striking problem was the pack’s tendency to put select modelling bulbs to sleep during extensive studio sets.  I believe this is a form of thermostatic protection for too-hot heads and, indeed, when it happened, the offending heads were usually in heat-retaining modifiers, like small soft boxes or gelled reflectors.  Shut-offs also tended to occur when heads were also running at near full power.  Adding to the heat, the D4 offers some unique modelling bulb options, including the ability to match the ratio of strobe output, but with the highest powered head at full power (like a school teacher grading on a curve).  This became my favorite modeling bulb setting (and without an optional dim during recycling).  This new-found power likely contributed to overheating.  In the old Acute days, it would have eventually been a blow modelling bulb, so we should be thankful for the interference.  It is impressive, also, that the pack appears to selectively power down modeling bulbs to keep the heat low instead of shutting down completely (as the Acute does).  It’s also nice that it doesn’t regularly blow out bulbs like the Speedotron gear I know so well.  It is also interesting to note that the pack will run its cooling fan even when turned off.  While setting up a shoot in a very hot non-air-conditioned studio early in our testing, I was surprised to hear the D4’s fan come to life before it had been powered up.  Like the D1 monohead, the D4 has a green LED that glows whenever A/C is connected, a standby mode that – sure enough – indicates the pack is alive and thinking.

So if modelling bulb lights need to stay lit, we recommend avoiding full power.  Other minor quibbles include a channel button that tended to stick down, and a minor learning curve with using buttons that do one thing when pressed quickly and another when held.  It can be confusing at first.  Also, the users manual we received (and our unit was a production pack, ready for sale) was wrong with regards to selecting between Acute and Pro heads.  It implies that the pack or heads will explode without a cryptic set of button pressing to change settings from Pro to Acute.  In the U.S., despite a scary yellow warning note, that is not the case.  The U.S. version of the D4 Air selects Pro or Acute automatically (always displaying “Pro” as the selection) – though photographers shouldn’t mix heads.  This information, by the way, came to us during a chat with Profoto’s excellent support line.  During business hours, it’s nice to know that expert help is only a phone call away.

Market Possition

One interesting comparison for the Profoto D4 Air is the Profoto D1 Air monohead.  The D1 shares much of the D4’s technology, and is less expensive.  Even a set of four D1 monoheads will save a photographer money by comparison, especially considering the added costs of Acute or Pro strobe heads to accompany the D4 pack.  Aside from the classic debate between monoheads and packs, something we’ve discussed in other reviews, and something that’s all-the-more interesting with the advent of on-camera digital control, there are interesting comparisons between the D1 and D4 line.  The D4 pack offers one stop more power range, quicker recycling, and the sophistication of digital delay and sequencing.  The D4 can display power levels in both watts and stops, a nice feature we discussed with reference to the Broncolor Senso pack (reviewed here).  The D4 also has a few added features, like dual sync plugs, a “buzz” audio feedback that beeps irritatingly until recycling is complete, compatibility with a huge range of Profoto light heads (both Acute and Pro lines), on-board sequencing and delay, and overall more impressively professional construction quality.

The D1 mono head, however, makes a lot of sense as a more affordable alternative, and an alternative for photographers who routinely have lights spread farther than the reach of expensive head extension cables.  They offer simpler functionality and good performance for the price point.  They travel well and are increasingly available for rent.  It is perhaps a drawback that the heads, much bigger and heavier than Acute heads, require heafty stands, but it’s a nice tradeoff that they can be placed anywhere extension cords can reach (and Home Depot’s cable prices have long been more competitive than Profoto’s).

During our lab testing of the D4 pack, it became clear that the D1 monohead is really a bit less sophisticated than its pack-style sibling.  The D4 pack proved to be deadly consistent up to an impressive 11 frames per second (at 18 watts of power output, which is one stop more than the lowest setting).  If full power wasn’t an option (while attempting 8 FPS at full power, for example) the D4 pack simply doesn’t fire, while the D1 monohead was willing to trickle out badly exposed frames.  In all our testing, we found expected limits, but the D4 pack never produced a badly exposed frame.  In high speed testing, the D4 is either perfect or nothing.  Photographers seeking a pack for frequent high-speed shooting will likely consider the extra 3 or 4 thousand dollars for the Profoto Pro-8 line.

One thing is becoming increasingly clear: digital is the new strobe standard.  The D1 and D4 signal an awesome new product line from Profoto and one that has left Acute in the dust.  For photographers who prefer packs to monoheads, but can’t afford the D4 Air, the Broncolor Senso is a very good, more budget-conscious all-digital strobe pack (reviewed here).  It offers only two channels to the D4’s four (with three lamp plugs), but also utilizes Broncolor’s compact and snazzy new Litos heads (reviewed here) and is itself a more compact pack.  The Senso, it’s worth noting, is significantly slower in both duration and recycling speed than the pricier D4.

Selling Points

The Profoto D4 Air 1200 is a fast and capable strobe pack with wide-reaching power and asymmetry settings.  It is a robustly-built professional unit with excellent color and exposure consistency and the convenient ability to accept Pro and Acute strobe heads.

During months of hard testing, the Profoto D4 Air performed flawlessly in a very wide range of environments and shooting styles.  It is adaptable and intuitive, capable of dialing back to a remarkably low power setting to balance with almost any ambient light source.  Despite a few cool techy tricks (programmable delay and sequencing) the pack is simple to use with a little practice.  The D4 is a major step forward to studio and location strobe lighting.

Also, we love the Air system.

Considerations

Finding flaws with D4 has not been especially easy, though there have been a couple oddities in our testing.  To conserve heat and modelling bulbs, the pack periodically puts modelling lights to sleep, which can be a bummer if they’re needed for focusing, composing, or just to see what’s going on in front of the camera.  If problematic, photographers will want to avoid full-power settings on modelling lights.  Also, the D4’s packing materials and manual prominently alert photographers to never use Acute heads without reprogramming the pack to not destroy them.  MAC Group, Profoto’s US distributor, has assured us this is no longer necessary.  Photographers who like to travel light will be put off by the size and weight of the D4 Air 1200; it is no Acute 2, and is, in fact, rather plump for a 1200W pack, making even an again ballistic Speedotron 1200 seem trim by comparison.

Finally, the last D4 consideration is simply its price tag.  The same investment will go much further by purchasing Profoto D1 monoheads instead, which have a healthy dose of the same functionality, with only a handful of omitted luxuries (like programmability, USB connection, 1 stop of dial-down range, 1/4″ sync plugs, etc.)  Indeed, the D4 is priced appropriately as a premium product, but leaves the old Acute line so far in the dust, many photographers will be left hoping for an eventual “Acute D” that prices somewhere closer to the Broncolor Senso line or the current line of old-school Acute products.

Conclusion

Profoto’s innovative D4 Air is a sophisticated strobe pack with the power, flexibility, and performance to delivery well-lit photography in the studio or on location.  It has amazing asymmetry and dial-down range as well as a few useful digital tricks.  The pack is only hindered by a high price point and a little extra bulk.  Highly recommended!

Click here to check Profoto D4 Air 1200 prices at B&H

Click here to check Profoto D4 Air 2400 prices at B&H

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by Matt Beardsley, photography provided by Profoto

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