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Review: The Profoto D1 Studio Kit 500/500 Air

by Sander-Martijn on 10/28/2011


Sometimes our readers ask for us to review higher end gear. With that in mind we decided to test the Profoto D1 Studio Kit 500/500 with Air. It’s fairly undisputed that Profoto is the best-of-breed for studio lighting and chances are pretty high that if you walk into a professional studio and rent their gear you’ll be handed Profoto power packs and heads. They’re reliable, consistent, fast, durable and include every feature the demanding professional expects. They’re not as well known for their more portable monolights, so how let’s see how they stand up.

Note: A rep from Profoto just read my article and sent some corrections and clarifications. Edits are in bold.

What’s In The Bag

When I opened the box I found a very well made and attractive soft case. It features just about everything you’d want in a portable case except wheels. The kit is heavy to carry using the handles or strap so I do wish they’d put wheels on it. When I brought it to and from the studio I put it on a wheeled cart – built-in wheels would have been a lot easier. When I opened it up, I saw two lightweight stands and two small umbrellas strapped to a panel so they could be removed to access the monolights.

Underneath that were two foam panels for even more padding for the heads which are tightly fitted into custom cut foam. One thing I can say for sure is that these lights are very well protected. Also at this level you will find the Air Remote, one of the coolest features of this kit and the manuals for the light kit and the remote, both of which are on DVD.

The D1 Monolight

Central to the kit are of course the monolights. They’re made as well as any other Profoto equipment I’ve worked with. They would easily handle the weight of the largest light modifiers and there weren’t any parts liable to breakage. The bulb is not exposed so you don’t have to worry about accidental breakage or fingerprint oil causing fires and explosions as is a risk with lights that have the bulbs exposed. The control panel on the back is recessed and easy enough to figure out without resorting to the manual.

The power and test buttons on the left are self explanatory. The LCD display shows the power setting, which ranges 6 7 stops from 4 to 10 in 1/10 increments. The dial below controls this. Across the right you have Slave, which can be turned on or off with the button. Press and hold the button to switch between Radio, IR or both. Next is the Ready button. Turn it off to not have any indicator that the light is powered up, and again press and hold to switch between Beep, Dim (of the model light) or both. It’s really nice to have these options. In a studio environment having indicators is really nice but if you’re shooting in an environment that needs to be quiet and/or dark like a dance performance you may need to turn one or both options off. The third option sets the Model light to prop or free. On Prop the strength of the model light depends on the power setting of the strobe, while on free the strength of the model light is set by the Model Set button on the bottom right, which you press and then turn the middle dial to your desired setting. Press the Model Set button again to return to the dial to strobe control. Last is the Channel set on the bottom left. Press it to set the wireless channel (1-8) with the dial, or press the dial down while turning to change the group (A-F). These relate to the Air system. The only other things to mention are a hole in the top for the umbrella and a nearly hidden unmarked mini mono socket for a sync cable if you’re not using the Air system or if you need to connect pocket wizards (I’ll get to why you might do that).

Air Remote

Next we’ll take a look at the Air Remote. In this small device is the wow factor of these lights. Put this on your camera and you not only have wireless triggering of the lights you also have full control over the settings of the lights. Turn the lights on and off, turn the model lights on and off and change the power settings of each light independently or all at the same time. This is where Groups come in – set the different lights to different groups on the same channel and you can either control each light independently or click master to control all of them at the same time. If you have 4 lights on the background (common of working in a sizable studio) you can put them all on the same group and control all 4 together but separately from your main lights. Ending the constant running around the studio is great. The Air remote is even more useful if you photograph sports, weddings or any other environment which makes it difficult to get to the lights once you’ve set them up.

However the Air remote is also my one criticism of the D1 kit, and this one is huge to me. None of the channels operate on the same frequency as Pocket Wizard, the industry standard for wireless control in the studio. Not one. This would be a problem if you were mixing lights (although you should never mix brands as they’re color balanced differently, you might find yourself working with older Profoto units that aren’t Air compatible and chances are good that you would have Pocket Wizards to control those). Far worse, your Sekonic light meter, another industry standard, with built-in wireless is Pocket Wizard compatible, so now that won’t work either. There are workarounds, but they involve connecting BOTH Pocket Wizards AND The Air Remote to either your camera, your lights or both depending on your needs. Really Profoto, I’m disappointed. Even a single compatible channel would solve this. I really hope that an updated version will take this into consideration, we’re not the only ones that have complained about this.

Note: The defense for using different frequencies for their system is that Pocket Wizard operates on frequencies which are region specific. You cannot legally use a U.S. Pocket Wizard in Europe and vice versa (for example). The Air system is usable worldwide. This is a good  reason. I hope that Sekonic and Profoto work together to design a wireless chip for the light meters as this would solve the main complaint. Also you can get additional Air remote sync units to work with other lights.

In the studio

In usage I found the lack of cables and the control of the Air Remote to save me time and make things safer. The umbrellas are too small to be very useful and don’t have a shoot-through option but they worked well enough for certain things. The D1 monolights are also compatible with standard Profoto speedrings and reflectors so you could use a larger umbrella, a softbox, octabox or any other modifier you want to with these lights. Ultimately that’s what I would end up doing most of the time, but these are good for portability or background lighting.

After setting the white balance using a grey card the color temperature was extremely consistent and neutral. Recharge was fast and the beep and dim indicators ensured I didn’t fire too quickly. I did find that I still go to the lights to adjust the power settings when larger changes need to be made – the energy button on the Air Commander only increases by 1/10 and there’s no display on the remote to indicate what the light is at. Note: Press and hold the energy button to change in full stops instead of 1/10. It was however nice for fine-tuning the lighting once I was close. The difference in power between 4.0 and 10.0 is dramatic enough that I could set the aperture to what I want, place the lights exactly where I want to keep them in or out of the family of angles and at exactly the right distance to control the size of the light relative to subject and have fine enough control to then set the light to the proper power.

As expected, the lack of Pocket Wizard support was frustrating – I had to take the remote off my camera to measure the light with my Light Meter – I opted to use the option on my meter where it’s triggered by the light and use the test button on the remote, but that’s known to give less reliable results.

Note: I didn’t shoot with the fluorescent lights on, that would be a huge no-no, I just turned them on to take this shot of the setup. I apologize for the bad photo, other than the D300 on the tripod the only camera I had with me was a cheap compact.

Sample Images

Summary

Ultimately the Profoto D1 Studio Kit 500/500 Air is a really great kit. I would recommend it to anyone that needs a portable, flexible and reliable kit. It would also be a good starter kit for anyone that wants to get into Profoto equipment and prefers monolights over bulky generators. You can start with this kit and add heads or modifiers as you can. If you need more power you can consider the 1000 watt kit and if your uses are simple and you want to save some money there’s the 250 watt as well. If you’re really miffed by the lack of Pocket Wizard support you can also get the kit without the Air Commander (The lights still have the support built-in so you can always change your mind later).

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