Will Off Camera Flash Make The iPhone a Professional Camera?

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.

The Profoto Air X app lets you control every aspect of your image

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?

Some of my favorite images using an iPhone 11 Pro with the Profoto B10 Plus and AirX

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. 

Exposed for scene, exposed for bride, and both exposed with flash

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. 

Natural light exposed for dress, natural light exposed for bride, flash adds dramatic look

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. 

All images straight out of camera: shot on iPhone 11 Pro with Profoto B10 Plus

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. 

If you're passionate about taking your photography to the next level but aren't sure where to dive in, check out the Well-Rounded Photographer tutorial where you can learn eight different genres of photography in one place. If you purchase it now, or any of our other tutorials, you can save a 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout. 

Patrick Hall's picture

Patrick Hall is a founder of Fstoppers.com and a photographer based out of Charleston, South Carolina.

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I could see the argument, "I use my overpriced phone because it's small and always with me" but if you're dragging a $2,000 light around with you and care that much, why not go all the way and just take a camera? Reminds me of the video they did with an iphone and thousands of dollars of equipment. I don't get it.

Slaves to smart phones.

I presume you do not own a smartphone then as the majority of people do. By virtue of having a smartphone, I automatically have a camera system with me by default wherever I go. "The best camera is the one you have with you". I always have my smartphone with me. If you regard that to be slavery, oh well.... sigh.... in your case you have a problem. Personally, I love the convenience as well as the potential smartphone-based photography has going forward. Algorithmic, computational photographic technology advances every year if not sooner and continues to get better. DSLRs and MILCs should learn a few things by taking some cues from smartphone technology.

Most young photographers have a smartphone-based workflow where they shoot, edit, and share entirely on their smartphone. Jumping to a camera & memory card-based workflow adds a lot of time and complexity. This adds controlled lighting while building upon what they know, and I think it'll be a pretty big deal (but it would be better if it were more like $200).

Glad I'm not the only one who sees it this way. You and I both are not the type to leave the pro camera behind but you are absolutely correct in the way many younger people use photography. Heck, I've been to some big product unveilings with younger influences who literally had no idea how to use a Sony, Nikon, or Canon camera (DSLR or mirrorless) because their entire portfolio and following has been built around images taken directly off their phones. Many of these are super well known photographers and people would be shocked to see them fumble around a pro camera.

Hi Tony. I watch your show all the time and enjoy your videos. And I think most people would agree with your statement. We all know the advantages using a smartphone. But Patrick's demonstration wasn't done with a $200 lighting system. He used a $2,000 lighting system and that is what the discussion is mostly about.

But you can achieve something like this with a $200 system, try the Godox A1 and a compatible speedlight or flash, like the TT600. The results may differ, but's possible.

I've been talking with friends who have used the Godox A1 system and apparently it's not able to sync past 1/10th of a second with flash. This means they must be slowing the flash duration of the strobe down so it acts more like a constant light but syncing issues arise after you pass that 1/10th of a second. In most cases outdoors, I can't even imagine shooting at such a long shutter without some sort of neutral density filter on your lens. If anyone has any more experience with the A1, I'd be curious to know how it is working.

Can confirm, I was excited enough about the concept of adding strobes to an iPhone that I bought the Godox A1 as soon as it was released. It is unusable garbage mostly because of the 1/10 sync speed... makes it impossible to kill the ambient light, even in a dim room. Profoto is taking advantage of new iPhone software interfaces so I hope the A1 or something like it arrives soon.

I agree with Tony here in that if there were a lighting system in a more affordable range for the commoner, $200, or even $300-$400 would still be reasonable depending on the feature set. But $2,000 bucks just for a flash? I might as well buy myself a couple highend flagship smartphones. haha.

Tony that right there is why I'm so surprised camera manufacturers have not worked on more reliable methods to wirelessly send at least jpegs straight from a camera to a mobile device. It seems to me most apps that transfer images are pretty unreliable at best. I dabble with it using my Fuji cameras and I immediately realized how much time I could save if I could just do some quick edits and publish from my phone or tablet. problem is the Fuji app blows chunks and only works SOMETIMES. When it does work it's amazing. have you ever found a camera system that does wireless image transfer well?

No :(. I've tested literally every brand's smartphone app and they're all frustrating to setup and unreliable to use.

Most "young photographers" will not be buying a $2,000 flash; moreover, you can plug an SD card directly into your phone in the same way you connect it to your computer - with a memory card reader and the USB port. It's not rocket science but you haven't figured out what USB-OTG is yet.

This is a running theme with you Tony Northrup. It's rather like when you slandered (and yes, it was slander) Steve McCurry by saying he "trampled over Sharbat Gula's cultural beliefs". Facial concealment was not a cultural requirement in 1984 for pashtunwali (search 1980's afghan women into google images and you will see this is obvious).

You may be confused with the relevance, but you simply don't do the research. If you've used all of the apps you speak of, and you still haven't figured out how to operate the device, it's because you're incapable. Accept you're an incapable human and do some research. Reach out to people who are more capable.

Geezus dude. Have a drink and hit the brakes. Lots of hate being spewed, bud. Your “obvious” solution with the SD card thing sucks at best. Incapable.... right. And where’s your channel that’s closing in on 1 million subs? That just “happens”, right? Especially if someone’s incapable. Go upstairs, give your mom a hug and make yourself a nice sandwich. You’ll start to feel better in no time.

Well dang :/. Maybe manufacturers will figure it out one day lol.

It's one of the reasons I almost exclusive shoot with my smartphone these days. Convenience. I have a flagship smartphone and it takes excellent pictures, day or night. One of the reasons, a main reason, is the convenience factor. It's always with me. I don't have the hassle of large, bulky, heavy cameras and multiple lenses to carry around as with DSLRs/MILCs. Also, I am not shooting photos for GQ Magazine or similar as cover photos. Photography should be fun and a joy, not a chore.

BTW, since I only use a smartphone, FWIW, I found an application, PhotoSync, which will synchronize my photos and video clips wireless to my PC or NAS when at home. It works quite well and reliably. Furthermore, I can conversely sync from my PC/NAS to the smartphone as well, by installing the free PC-based software.

Most is a bold claim. I managed (until recently multiple commercial studios for a large global eCommerce company we all know. I had hundreds on staff and hundred more freelancers across multiple locations. Never once have I had a single pro want to shoot with a phone other than goofing off. Never once did I have an intern or freelancer show a portfolio primarily from a smartphone. And when they did use a smartphone they noted it because they wanted to show off that skill.

In the full-service agency, I work now none of our photographers or videographers use smartphones to shoot and we tell them they can use whatever they like. All of them are under 25 years old.

Saying ost young people do it at a professional level is mostly and exaggeration.

Really nice example of how photo features have been improved with smartphones.
Waouh even if nice light is necessary, those photos are astonishing !
Like you said, it’s hard to believe they have been taken with mobile phone.
Ok, i can’t buy Profoto lights, but it would be nice to be able to repeat this kind of session with Android phone , apps and Godox Flash.
Thanks for this interesting article 👍👍👍

I also would like to see this capability come to Android. I imagine over time it will. Manufacturers such as Profoto and others can not (should not) enjoy a global market which is much larger in size then Apple can ever hope to achieve.

Patrick Hall took amazing photos of that model. Technology sure is incredible today. But it doesn't make much sense to use a Profoto B10 Plus costing twice the price of an iPhone unless you're really in a jam.

"Uh, I've got a phone call." Hahaha!

Seriously, good stuff, Patrick.

Its a completely unrealistic situation but then so is tear arsing a car around the Nurburgring or up Pikes Peak to see how quick it goes, only to be sat at 70mph on normal roads... what the video does show is the amazing results you can get with a mere smart phone in 2020, and its a great showcase for everyone who is taking average shots with a proper camera and blaming the gear.

Oh and the troll comments on youtube are pathetic, truly pathetic.

Got super excited but then realized the A1 and A1X do not have Bluetooth so they will not work with the app. Bummer. You may wanna edit your post.

The sample images look great, but I wish the author had made a little more effort (or any effort, actually) to find out how Profoto is getting this to work.

Godox was actually first with this capability two years ago, via the A1 (aka Flashpoint M1) interface device, and I tried it then, but was never able to get it to do much of anything useful: my iPhone didn't have a wide enough aperture/shutter speed/ISO range to get a good balance between ambient light and flash, and most of my Godox flashes couldn't be throttled back enough to avoid overexposure without using neutral density filters. I concluded quickly that it actually was easier to use a "real" camera and transfer the images to iOS for sharing.

Seemingly Profoto has resolved these issues, but how? Specifically, I'd like to know:

-- Can you use the iOS camera app or a third-party camera app, or are you limited to a Profoto camera app?

-- Are there any restrictions on camera or flash settings you can use, or can you choose any combination that will produce correct exposure?

As to why anyone would want to use an iPhone instead of a "real" camera, well, if you need to push your set onto social media right away, it does make things easier. A next logical step would be for some third-party manufacturer to make a Bluetooth-enabled iPhone case that would split out the basic camera controls onto physical dials and provide a responsive shutter release button... then we'd have something that would handle more like a real camera but still could work as a phone when you weren't taking pictures...

absolutely not! if i’m dragging around that light, i’ll be damned if i’m gonna shot something with my iphone.

It’s missing the point though, Patrick is merely showcasing what can be done and where the tech is at, nobody anywhere is telling anybody to start using 2 grand light strobes with a phone.

As to why global shutters are available on phones but not on Simplex-format cameras, I suspect sensor size is the main reason. It's quicker to read the signal off a smaller sensor, so you can complete the read during the duration of the flash; with a larger, slower-reading sensor, the flash will have cut off with part of the sensor still unread. That was one of the problems I had with the Godox A1 system: at any iPhone shutter speed over about 1/10, there would be a hard cutoff in the flash-lit part of the image. I'd love to know what Profoto is doing to stretch out the duration enough to work even on a phone-camera global shutter.

Incidentally, the largest-sensor camera I know of that claims to have a global shutter is the Pixii, and as near as I can tell from the specs it doesn't have flash sync at all... probably for the same reason.

I've updated my article with some more info shared with me from Profoto. Apparently, despite what many tech blogs have claimed, the iPhone does not have a global shutter. This means the syncing of the flash and the data being pulled off the sensor in the iPhone is more complicated than I originally thought. I'd love to know more on how the technical side of this works but at the moment I still don't 100% know how this is working but it does work well.

Those are pretty good. Dare I say, it gives your 3 amigos challenges a run for it's money. :)

This could be a game changer for brand ambassadors and influencers. Also, some brides want pictures the same day to share on social. This is something that's technically good enough and it comes from the photographer which they will be willing to share over whatever their mom and dad took. I do agree with the comment that it would be nicer if it was significantly cheaper.

What sucks is their BT-enabled Profoto Connect is not supported via the phone app. The B10 modifier is nice and portable but its flat head doesn't work well with parabolic reflectors like Broncolor Para. If they add support to the Connect unit - it will really open the whole world of great lighting to the smartphones.

Sure, everyone likes that fake bokeh😀

Did you watch the video? this comment implies that you didnt.

Fstoppers the only ones who claim that iPhone 11 has a global shutter. Go shoot any propeller with it and you will see how “global” it is 😅

Can you elaborate on this? I believe the reason this is working is because of a global shutter and other tech websites claim the last few phones have had global shutters. If it doesn’t have a global shutter, how is the flash syncing? Also could there be another reason super fast moving objects like props still have the jelly effect on the phone if it does have a global shutter? I still have a lot of questions about how this works from a tech side.

The flash sync is just using the HSS method making the flash duration the same length as the sensor scanning time...

I have a friend who shoots Profoto and uses Sony cameras and he says he cannot sync his Sony camera (A9 and A7 cameras) with any flash when using the electronic shutter. I can't confirm this since I don't have that entire system in front of me at the moment but that makes me wonder if HSS is significantly different between larger format sensors and tiny cellphone sensors. Profoto confirmed that it is HSS since the AirX app does show the HSS icon when you increase the shutter on the iphone.

Im guessing the scan time is just too long on bigger sensors. Streaming the data off the sensor probably takes long than we think

Godox offers with the A1 a cheap way to not only to add this unit as a permament light or off camera flash to your mobile, but also to control and fire all compatible Godox flashes. The unit is small, adding a compact TT600 or AD200 to the kit and you can achieve some great results.

I need to get the Godox because I’m reading from a lot of users that you can only sync up to 1/10th of a second. That implies it is either just using a super powered led which can’t exposure much past 1/10th or it can’t sync correctly to use faster shutters to begin with. I am curious how all this tech works between brands and phone models.

I have a Godox A1 and it has a flash unit and an LED (modelling) light, my understanding is that the low synch speed is down to the iPhone's low shutter speed
Also, https://petapixel.com/2017/08/17/godox-a1-smartphone-flash-led-trigger-n...

Can you confirm that the flash is much more powerful than the LED? Many flashes that synced to the iphone in the last 2 years are actually just pulsing the LED to a much brighter level than the LED normally runs (LEDs can output about 2-5x more power but are throttled back because those extra lumins would burn out the LED quicker). If it's using the LED, that light output should be SIGNIFICANTLY less powerful than using the xenon flash tube. This is why I was skeptical at the beginning of my video....I wasn't sure the flash would actually over power the sun but it did a pretty great job out on location.

I've also received emails from A1 users saying the max sync speed is 1/10 which is fine for indoor lowlight shots but is completely unusable outdoors when sometimes 1/250th isn't even enough to control the ambient light. Can you confirm this?

The A1 has 3 LEDs and a separate flash unit.
There's a smaller version, the Godox Ami, which has only a LED light.

The shutter speed depends on the mobile and it's native electronic shutter speed, I believe it's 1/25 at least, I've heart that Samsung allows up to 1/70.

I actually think this is a pretty cool innovation in technology. I've been waiting to see how long it might take for a company to come up with a solution like this, using pro level strobes with a smartphone. I'd love to see Paul C Buff developing an app that allows for using their products with smartphones as well.

I'm assuming Profoto is probably using some form of high speed sync (HSS) technology in order to make this work. I'd be interested in seeing what you can do with an ND filter placed over your iPhones lens in combination with using flash in order to achieve a real shallow depth of field as opposed to the simulated AI versions built in to most phones. Patrick Hall, does this app allow you to shoot RAW files as well (similar to Lightroom CC/Mobile) or are they compressed JPEGs or HEIC files?

Though an iPhone doesn't match the sheer quality of today's mirrorless cameras. I can definitely see this technology being a useful tool for journalism or quick editorial work. I'd also see this being really useful for BTS shots of sets, where you actually want to see the strobes firing.

Yes, the app is using HSS to allow for faster shutter speeds and essentially create a longer flash duration.

As for adding ND, I don't believe the iphone has the ability to change the aperture at all. It's simply a constant wide open aperture with exposure being set by ISO and electronic shutter speed. Thefore you cannot add or lose depth of field with an iphone as far as I can tell. All the shallow depth of field tricks are done in software which is not open to outside apps at the moment (you can't use portrait modes with the Profoto AirX app yet).

You can shoot in HEIF, Jpeg, and Jpeg/RAW in the app. I probably should have used the RAW setting and worked with those files but I just used the HEIF setting. It's no secret that I absolutely hate Apple's proprietary file system that requires iTunes to pull files off your phone so I didn't even think to venture past HEIF/Jpeg since I could easily transfer those files through a wifi transfer app, but yes, you can shoot RAW from the app.

The BTS idea is actually a really good application. In order to do that now, you would need a second camera and a second trigger so you can capture your camera and strobes all in one shot. This def solves that problem for those who like taking full blown behind the scenes images for social media and marketing.

I think one point that nobody ever seems to mention is that smaller sensors have larger DOF. If you want to lock in hyperfocal distance without changing your aperture to a small one. This means that you would need less light/power to light your subject and for large product photography, that is preferred. I’m glad that there are strobes that can sync with the iPhone now like Godox and now Profoto. I believe that if you can get the job done with a better tool, you should use it. That said, a lot of strobes are too powerful for the iPhone without an ND filter. The power is just overkill in most situations. What is needed is more control over the power and correct syncing. For large product photography, you also need lighting ratios for multiple lights which is tough to get right. It’s one of the reasons why most setups use continuous lights so you can see the fall-off of specific lights.

Are you approaching this after using the Godox system? I've been reading from A1 users that the flash is too powerful and the shutter can't be faster than 1/10th. The A1 looks like a tiny little pocket flash so I can't imagine it's actually "too" powerful. It seems like their system just isn't able to correctly control the flash, camera exposure, and syncing in a very usable way but I haven't used it so I don't know.

As I found in the video above, the B10 Plus is extremely powerful but I was still able to use it at 1/4th power (level 8) and it worked really well for balancing out harsh mid day/ late day sun which I honestly didn't think it would do. So from my perspective, the whole system worked perfectly.

That being said, I've made the argument for a decade now that flash manufactures should build in a setting that lets their flash power down to say 1/256 or 1/512 or even less. When you start shooting in extremely low light situations (say a candlelit wedding reception or event photography in low lit clubs), and you want to shoot at ISO 800 at f/1.8, it would be AMAZING to have a flash that still powered down low enough to be useable without looking like a burst of powerful flash. So if that's what you mean, yes I'm totally on board. But in terms of the B10 Plus being too powerful to be used with the iPhone, I def don't think that is true at all.

Daaaamn patrick! Nice photos!

Nice photos in the vid. Any chance Godox is going to figure this out so I can use a future iteration of the AD200 or AD600 with the phone at...less than $2k? That would be fun.

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