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Using the Profoto A1 for Food Photography Lighting

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For years, I had my eye on the Profoto B2s but worried about schlepping them around and held off on making the purchase. With 4 to 6 shoots a week, every single piece of additional equipment creates a logistical challenge for me. It is one more thing I need to keep charged and functional but worst of all, it’s one more thing to pack and carry around. When the Profoto A1 came out, I made the leap. It's quite small, very light and really easy to use. 

Just a note that I predominately use the Profoto A1 on location shoots at restaurants where I want to keep things relatively quick and tight. For larger commercial shoots, I still think it's better to rent the Profoto B2s (EDIT: I now have started renting the B10 for shoots), especially if you have any extra hands around. 

Getting started with the PROFOTO A1

I don't love reading manuals and often find them surprisingly difficult to decipher. The Profoto A1 manual is one of the better ones out there. It's nicely designed and easy to understand. Even if you're one of those people, like me, that jumps right in and only goes digging for the manual once you're stuck, I'd recommend giving it a quick skim. If you're determined to disregard that advice, here's everything you need to have this operational in about 3 minutes. 

On & Off
To turn the Profoto A1 on, you just press and hold the test button and then twist the center dial to the right. Disregard the slight flashing of the GIF on the right, that doesn't occur in reality. I just didn't lower my frame rate to get rid of the flicker. 

Profoto A1 packaging
Turning on the Profoto A1

Manual vs. TTL
Most of the time, I shoot in the manual mode but if you want to switch to automatic strength you just have to flip a switch on the side. 

Switching from manual to ttl on the profoto a1

The Profoto A1 comes with a small stand, a dome diffuser and a wide lens adapter that you can just snap on. I also picked up a soft bounce to use during night events. 

Food photography with the Profoto A1

I've been running around with the Profoto A1 for the last couple of months. One of the best things about it is that it's so small and light that I'm never tempted to leave it at home to save a bit of weight. I often find myself ditching my laptop and manfrotto tripod to give my shoulders a bit of a break but the profoto usually stays unless I'm 100% confident that I won't have any light issues (i.e. when I've already been to the location and the forecast is clear).

Food Photography using the Profoto A1

Bounce flash food photography

If I'm in a pinch on time or space and I'm in a dark room, I'll shoot with the Profoto A1 on my camera and bounce the flash. This results in a decent and even light. I'm not here to proclaim that direct flash food photography is bad. There are plenty of photographers that do a lot of direct flash and make it work. It's just not my style. Perhaps this is just a technique I need to practice more often to appreciate (EDIT: I’ve been working on direct flash a a bunch over the last couple of months and have found that a high aperture with flash sometimes really works for me, so it did just take time and practice) . Anyway,  one thing to keep in mind, when the light bounces off of the wall is that it will pick up whatever colors are on the wall. One time I was shooting in a very dark, basement restaurant and I realized that all of the walls were painted red. When I tried to bounce the light, it picked up a pink hue from the wall. You can adjust the colors when editing but it's a pain and it never looks quite right.

Example from the Game Room at the Chicago Athletic Association

Using the Profoto A1 for Cocktail Photography

A few weeks back, I went to grab a quick cocktail photo at the Game Room in the Chicago Athletic Association. I had an event starting about an hour after the shoot so I wanted to pack as few things as possible so I just had my camera and the Profoto A1, that’s it. I took one photo using a mirror to bounce the light and this photo with the wall to left as a bounce. It worked out and I didn't feel weighed down with equipment the rest of the evening. I made lots of compromises in the process of taking the cocktail photo above but I don’t feel like the final image lacks in anything.

Flash with a diffuser 

If the wall is a crazy color and I've forgotten to pack my remote trigger and I have no choice, I'll direct the flash straight on the subject but use a diffuser (one other item I usually leave in my camera bag) to keep the harshness in check. This is a challenge to do alone. It either requires an additional helping hand or a c-stand with a clamp to hold the diffuser. Or for you to really use your yoga practice and contort your arm into some silly positions. 

Using the Profoto A1 for Food Photography Lighting

Example from Paulie Gee's in Logan Square

Food Photography with the Profoto A1

I made this day unnecessarily difficult on myself by forgetting to pack my remote trigger. It was a busy period of time and I didn't double check to make sure I had everything I needed before running out the door. You live and you learn. Initially, I thought it would be fine because I would be able to bounce the light off the ceiling but I didn't realize how large the space was and that there were a lot of brown accents. The bounced light kept picking up weird beige tones. Eventually, I decided to just shoot straight on with the diffuser, which worked out.  

Off camera with a trigger 

Perhaps the easiest and most reliable way to use the Profoto is off camera with a trigger. The one downside to this is that you have to buy a remote trigger, which is not cheap (note that I linked to the Canon one but if you use a Nikon or Sony camera you'll have to get a different one). The second downside is that with one light you usually end up having to make some compromise or get really clever with bouncing lighting to fill in the shadows (EDIT: I recently picked up a super small light stand and a second reflector and that has really solved this issue for me). Once you have the trigger it allows to use the Profoto A1 remotely and basically treat it like a baby sized studio light. 

Using the Profoto A1 for Food Photography

For this example, I placed the light slightly behind and off to the left. To get the dark background for the steam to be visible, I used the black side of my 5-sided reflector. This is an extremely simple setup that takes about 2 minutes to arrange, no extra hands and minimal equipment. 

Food Photography with the Profoto A1

Example from Blind Barber

Food Photography with the Profoto A1
Cocktail Photography with the Profoto A1

The Blind Barber bar in Chicago is a windowless space that's always very dark. Whenever I shoot it, I get asked to try and maintain some of the darkness of the space in the images. It's a tough balance to convey that a space is dark but to still create a clear image. I usually shoot with the Profoto A1 off camera directed on to the food from the side so it doesn't throw too much light onto the back ground. It's a balance. 

Should you get a Profoto A1? 

Since getting the Profoto A1, I've gotten a lot of questions about whether it's worth the price tag. For my situation, it is. I'm not sure that I would whole heartedly recommend it for all photographers. It works really well for me because I travel a lot and on shoot on location very frequently. If you predominately work in a studio then the portability might not matter as much. Also, I doubt this fits into the prosumer space. If you're not shooting professionally and making money off it then this would be difficult to justify but to each his or her own. It's been great for my workflow and I'm glad I picked it up. 

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