The day has finally come when photographers can sync their powerful off-camera flashes with their Apple iPhone using Profoto's new AirX syncing system. Being the skeptic I am, I had to see for myself if using 500 Ws of powerful strobe light with your cell phone was simply a gimmick or potentially an industry game-changer. Today, I'm left swallowing my pride.
Now, I know what many of you are thinking: it's the same exact thought I have had for years. Yes, cell phones are extremely convenient, and yes, you can create professional-looking images with minimal gear as long as your natural light is sufficient. However, the fact that cell phones are only around 12 megapixels (with tiny sensors too) and are unable to sync with the powerful flash systems we have grown accustomed to using, using the iPhone for professional photography isn't a viable solution for the fulltime photographer. Regardless of how many iPhone photoshoots we have posted on the Fstoppers YouTube Channel, I understand the limitations of "iPhoneography" all too well.
There are also other limitations and shortcomings that come with shooting on your phone, like workflow issues, transferring images, long-term storage of images, resolution, proprietary file types, lack of raw options, dynamic range, lack of fast lens options, interrupting phone calls, and many other things that make the DSLR and mirrorless options still so much more desirable. I understand all of that. However, for me, one of the most limiting aspects of a phone camera is its inability to sync with flash.
About a month or two ago, I received an email from Protofo announcing their new AirX software. Basically, AirX is an iPhone app that allows your phone's camera to communicate with Profoto's B10, B10 Plus, C1 and C1 Plus flashes through Bluetooth. Previously released software allowed photographers to use their strobes with their phone cameras, but many of these apps were severely limited to simply using the flash's modeling lamp or only syncing a small sliver of flash to the final captured image. When Profoto announced that their AirX app could utilize all of your strobe's actual flash power with your iPhone at shutter speeds up to 1/25,000 of a second, I was of course a bit skeptical. How could a phone camera actually capture all of a flash's output when the camera doesn't have a shutter?
To be honest, I'm still not 100% sure how Profoto pulled off this feat. The iPhone X and 11 cameras both claim to have electronic global shutters, which means the camera can pull all the data of the sensor off instantly. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can't do this and instead rely on a physical shutter to capture portions of the sensor. Having a global electronic shutter on a camera is the holy grail of camera innovation, and it will be more groundbreaking than removing the mirror from the DSLR. The last few iPhones apparently have this type of shutter, but what's crazy is the AirX app can also work on the older iPhone 7, which suffers from rolling shutter. Again, I'm not entirely sure how this whole process works, but it's probably most similar to the high-speed sync function on your professional camera when your shutter is set above 1/200th of a second. Whatever is going on, it's pretty effective, as I was easily able to overpower the sun by shooting with a shutter as fast as 1/2,000th of a second at ISO 32 on the iPhone.
Correction (9/2/2020): Despite my research suggesting the iPhone now has a global shutter, the engineers at Profoto have informed me that no iPhone has a global shutter at this moment. This means Profoto's app using AirX is not simply syncing their flash which is captured all at once by the phone's sensor. Instead, the process is much more complicated and requires complex Bluetooth syncing, a process that has actually been patented by Profoto. To read more about how AirX was designed and how it is now being used with xenon flash tubes, check out this article on Medium by Profoto VP of Technology Tobias Lindbäck.
Below are a few images taken during my bridal shoot with the lovely Mya Puryear. Mya is an amazingly talented broadway dancer and singer from New York City, and it's pretty awesome to have the privilege to photographer her in the actual dress she wore on her wedding day. As you can see, exposing for the scene left Mya completely underexposed, while exposing for Mya left her dress and the overall scene totally blown out. This is where flash comes in handy. By correctly exposing for my scene, even at a fast shutter of 1/2,000th of a second, I was easily able to light Mya independently of the ambient light, which resulted in an image that was both balanced and full of detail. Shooting this way also gives your images more of a high-end fashion look. That's not to say the natural light images aren't usable, but in this very bright environment, I think the highlights are just a little too bright for my liking.
As you can see in the images above, the Profoto B10 Plus was easily able to overpower the bright four o'clock sunlight, and in fact, I still had two more stops of light at my disposal! Using flash with your photography isn't only about overpowering the sun, though. Sometimes, it's nice to give your images a more dramatic look even when shooting in the shade, where the light is even and soft. In this set of images below, you can again see the range of possibilities when shooting with natural light exposed for the background, natural light exposed for your subject, and strobe light overpowering the ambient light slightly. With dark skin against a bright white dress, it's often hard to use the image exposed for the dress, because Mya simply goes too dark. However, I really like both the middle natural light shot and the more dramatic strobe shot on the right. Being able to pull off both these looks on a shoot is super important to me, and it's crazy I'm able to do this with just my cell phone.
The final shooting situation was definitely the most dramatic from this session. I wanted to see how the iPhone handled lower-light situations when paired up with the Profoto B10 Plus set to very low power. For this shoot, we headed to a local marina and photographed Mya against the setting sun. As you can see in the video above, the LED modeling lamp on the strobe still wasn't quite powerful enough to give the exposure I was desiring, but just a little pop of flash was enough to keep the sky dark and dramatic. This is a great example of why constant lights like LED panels are often not as versatile as a strobe light. Strobes are much more flexible when it comes to overpowering the sun and adding just a touch of light into a dimly lit scene.
So, what is my overall verdict? Even though I think the iPhone still has some major limitations when compared to much more expensive DSLR and mirrorless cameras, I am absolutely blown away by the overall final product coming off my cell phone. Yes, there is a slight delay when shooting with Bluetooth, and yes, I'm very much aware that the Profoto B10 Plus is twice the cost of my iPhone 11 Pro. However, for me, this is the beginning of the future for many photographers and visual artists. If you primarily post to Instagram or you want to be able to improve your iPhone photography dramatically with a single accessory, Profoto's AirX app opens the doors for a lot of possibilities. Is it perfect? No. Is it the best we've ever been able to do at this moment in time? Yes! As someone who already owns an iPhone and owns quite a few Profoto products, I'm super excited to have the option of syncing my phone to my strobes for those quick moments that I just need something to look "finished" and uploaded straight to the internet or a client. If global electronic shutters now allow us to sync our flashes to our phones, the last piece of the puzzle lies with increased quality and lens options with our cameras. And with the rumored iPhone 12 having four total lenses, the days of using solely using a cell phone for professional photography are getting even closer.