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. 

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75 Comments

Teresa Oldenbourg's picture

Slaves to smart phones.

Jerry Suppan's picture

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.

Tony Northrup's picture

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).

Patrick Hall's picture

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.

Cool Cat's picture

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.

Heiko Kanzler's picture

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.

Patrick Hall's picture

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.

Tony Northrup's picture

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.

Jerry Suppan's picture

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.

Chris Rogers's picture

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?

Tony Northrup's picture

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

Mike Law's picture

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.

Andrew Hensley's picture

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.

Chris Rogers's picture

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

Jerry Suppan's picture

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.

Michael Margolies's picture

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.

Franck ROLLIER's picture

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 👍👍👍

Jerry Suppan's picture

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.

Cool Cat's picture

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.

Fristen Lasten's picture

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

Seriously, good stuff, Patrick.

Stuart Carver's picture

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.

Tim Wilson's picture

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.

JL Williams's picture

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...

Andrew Urban's picture

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

Stuart Carver's picture

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.

JL Williams's picture

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.

Patrick Hall's picture

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.

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