Focusing on the light: A behind-the-scenes look at Profoto
A small text on a signboard in the hallway is all that shows that the world’s leading manufacturer of professional flashes has its head office here, located at Landsvägen 57 in Sundbyberg. Swedish company Profoto is world famous for its robust and reliable flashes and light shaping tools. Loaded with technology, but so easy to use that you won’t need a manual. Up until a couple of years ago the company focused mainly on studio photographers, especially within the fashion industry. For almost 50 years Profoto has supplied fashion photographers with tools that have both facilitated the work and allowed the photographers to move the boundaries of their creativity. More than half of the rental studios in the world use Profoto’s flashes and light shaping tools. In New York and Paris that number is higher than 80 percent. Then something happened that fundamentally changed the company.
Focusing on design
Since the start in 1968, the company has been true to the principles of the founders: to only engage in what creates value for photographers. That means, among other things, that Profoto doesn’t manufacture any of their own products. “Our quantities are too small for us to become world leaders within production. Therefore, we have always cooperated with experts to create the highest quality,” says CEO Anders Hedebark.
Conny Dufgran, who founded Profoto with Eckhardt Heine, has another explanation, “For Eckhard and me, Profoto was a way to make our living doing something we enjoyed. Our competitors did not have a lot of fantasy; they cared more about factories than innovation. We wanted to be the opposite of that, not being factory bosses and keeping the machines running, but being able to focus on creating good products from a photographer’s perspective.”
Simple solutions are good solutions
Profoto has different manufacturers and several of their suppliers are very specialized, working only with the flash and medical technology industries. Even though they don’t have their own production, Profoto has an extensive quality control, both internal and external.
A lot of the construction work consists of verification. Each design engineer’s work station includes a desk with a computer and a workbench with hardware testing equipment.
“To a high extent, it is also about designing for quality from the beginning. We think that simple solutions are good solutions. Such as zoomable flash heads with rubber and hose clamps. Or that the lamps are placed so they can’t fall off. Our customers are the best photographers in the world. They may have around 200 travel days per year so the equipment simply always needs to work,” says Hedebark.
For more than 40 years, Profoto has emphasized being the number one choice for studio photographers all over the world, but a few years ago the company decided to change that. Part of the new strategy was to create a product category for wedding and portrait photographers. “To us, rental studios and fashion have always been our target groups. Now with our Off Camera Flash (OCF) system, we are expanding considerably, addressing target groups that might have worked with speed lights earlier but are looking for better reliability and predictability when it comes to light, without having to bring a conventional studio kit with flashes,” says Hedebark.
The OCF system filled a gap
The first product in the system, the Profoto B1, combines a battery pack and a head and was released in the autumn of 2013. It was also the first flash ever to combine professional performance with automatic flash compensation (TTL). In March 2015, the Profoto B2 was released, yet another flash in the system where the battery pack and the head are divided for greater flexibility.
It soon became obvious that the OCF-system filled an important gap in the market. Since the release, Profoto has more than doubled its revenue.
The light lab is the heart of the Development Department at Profoto. In the darkness of the lab, Electrical Design Engineer Michael Sundkvist uses a light meter and a photospectrometer to verify that the light gets the right spectrum and energy level.
Today the company has 115 employees. Around 60 people work at the head office in Sundbyberg, and the rest work in regional offices all over the world. Sundbyberg is where all the product development and global sales take place. This is also where the Nordic subsidiary Profoto Nordic is seated.
Finding new talent
Profoto’s goal is to release new products in all segments. Since the increase in revenue has been so high, the company is trying to hire engineers and product developers as soon as they find someone with the right qualifications. “That’s a challenge for us now, to become more effective in our recruitment in order to speed up the process of getting new products out on the market,” says Hedebark.
A big part of the development is done in the CAD system. Mechanical Design Engineer Emil Stenbacka checks that the plastic components are consistent with the construction design of the head for the B2.
Developing a new product takes the company around 2.5 to 3 years. “First we have to come up with what we want to do. Then we need to find out whether it’s possible using existing technology or if we need to develop new core technology. Then you have the whole journey from verifying that it’s doable to actually starting up the production, says Bo Dalenius, Head of Electronical and Mechanical Research and Development. “However, developing new products always means a great deal of compromising. For instance, you can’t have the world’s shortest flash duration in a system that is super compact or really fast flash recycling times without making the product too heavy. When it comes to OCF, it has to be portable, robust and secure, while our conventional systems directed towards fashion are optimized for flash duration and recycling time. All our products have to be robust and easy to use, that’s something we never compromise on.”
The cable clamps, connecting the cable from the flash to the generator, are dimensioned to bear the weight of the generator so you can lift it by the cable. Also, all the generators have mechanical buttons and knobs to change the different values. Not even in the 70s and 80s, when they were at their most popular, did we use touch buttons. We have always used mechanical buttons and knobs since we are convinced that as a photographer you need to see, feel and hear when you change a setting on your equipment. Then of course there is a computer underneath that controls the generator, but you have to be able to feel what you are doing, not having to click your way around to change a setting,” says Hedebark.
A well equipped photo studio
The glass wall dividing the open office space from the Development Department has a glass door with a code lock. To the right, in the far corner, the Project Leaders are sitting at their desks. To the left you have the Software Developers with their big screens filled with code. Each workstation includes a desk with a computer and a workbench with hardware testing equipment. This is where Peter Lönnebring works as a Team Leader for the Software Developers. He has a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the Royal Institute of Technology and has previously worked at the giant software company Oracle, among others, before finding his way to Profoto five years ago.
“As a Software Developer, you never see the final product, but here at Profoto there is a final product that I can actually put my hands on and would even be interested to use myself. For a Software Developer interested in photography, this is a dream workplace. I get to use my knowledge in software development creating tools for photographers. Also, it is of course pretty nice to have access to an incredibly well equipped photo studio,” says Lönnebring.
Together with the rest of the team he develops the software of the generators and the remote controls, so called embedded software. “There is more software in flash systems than one would imagine, especially in the B1 and B2 where the whole flash is software controlled.”
Monitoring new reserach
The room next to the software developers is the design team area. Right now they are finalizing the design of an upcoming product. The content of the screens is changed when we enter the room.
In here, you also have Electrical Engineers working on developing the components of the flashes. The goal always is to improve the performance in products that are growing smaller and smaller. The company also develops and analyzes new technology. “One of our most important tasks in product development is being innovative when it comes to new technology. That’s why we invest quite a lot of resources in monitoring new research to see how we can use new knowledge in upcoming products, says Bo Dalenius.
Even though LED-lights are changing the way we use light within many fields, flash tubes are still the only option if one wants enough light to compete with the sun during short exposure times. “No matter how much effect an LED has today, it can’t get hot without breaking. On the other hand, the flash tubes and the gas inside them can get as warm as 6,000 degrees Celsius without affecting the color of the light or the reliability. It is an extremely generous technology that still defends itself well against LED-lights.”
To be able to shoot in daylight with a shallow depth of field without getting too much of the sunlight in to the photo, you need really fast shutter speeds. During such an exposure, both the first and the second shutter curtain moves across the sensor at the same time, with only a narrow slit open over the sensor. Previously, it was impossible to shoot with a flash in these kinds of conditions, but not anymore.
Behind the pulled blinds, the engineers of Profoto have developed a completely new way for the flash to perform, and Dalenius tells us how High-Speed Sync (HSS) works. “An ordinary capacitor flash has a high initial peak where it burns off almost all its power during a brief moment. With HSS, we make the flash light pulse up to 25,000 times per second instead. That way, there is constant light while the slit in the shutter moves across the sensor.”
With HSS the flash integrates wirelessly with the camera using Profoto AirTTL. The system currently works with Canon and Nikon cameras.
Development of a unique radio system
Profoto doesn’t want to reveal anything about future compatibility with other camera brands; at the moment they are busy optimizing the products for Nikon and Canon cameras.
The foundation for the new wireless, battery operated flash system was created already in the early 2000s, when Profoto decided to develop their own radio protocol for communication between the remote control you attach to the camera and the actual flashes. “The existing products like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth neither met the demands we already had nor the ones we saw coming. Instead, we created our own radio system, Profoto Air, with essentially the same performance and reliability that we have using a cable,” says Dalenius.
Warm light - the road to success
One of the founders, Conny Dufgran, 82 years old, is still on the board of the company today. While he is no longer involved in the daily work, his ideas to primarily create tools that allow photographers to focus on the creative process, and to keep a close eye on the technical development are still carried out and make Profoto thrive. The new location that the company moved into four years ago is already too small.
But some of the success has actually come to them for free. “When we started competing with Balcar, they were using glass made from pyrex in their lamps. Their flashes recycled so slowly that it did not make any difference, but for us, the glass got too hot, so we had to buy flash tubes made of quartz, which were a lot more expensive, but allowed running flashes at high frequency. But glass from quarts does not filter UV light, and this was in the 60s, so there was a lot of nylon in the clothes that were shot. The UV-light was reflected in blue in jackets and shirts, so we put a glass cover made from pyrex on the outside to reduce the UV-light. Coming from a shining dome, the light got a lot softer and warmer, and gave the models a more pleasant skin tone. It was all out of necessity, but the result was that the Profoto light was perceived as a lot more beautiful. I think that was the first part of our success, that the light was a little warmer than that of the other flashes.”
With the continued focus on hiring new talent, research and development, and intense focus on developing the best lighting tools, the future is sure to hold many more successes for both Profoto and photographers all around the globe.