ANDREW HANCOCK PHOTOGRAPHY BLOG: THE PROFOTO B2 ICELAND FIELD TEST AT THE VATNAJÖKULL GLACIER
THE PROFOTO B2 ICELAND FIELD TEST AT THE VATNAJÖKULL GLACIER
Last month when I was preparing for my shoot in Iceland, I was presented with an amazing opportunity — to take a prototype unit from Profoto (Profoto B2 Off Camera Flash) to Iceland for an honest field test. No parameters, no restrictions. Just make a picture.
By in large, I make my living on the road and on location. I have always gravitated towards the challenge of finding a location and owning it by how I compose the scene both in the viewfinder and with light. To me, intelligent use of light is equally as powerful as the scene, and together they are both paramount when it comes to telling a story visually. I gravitate towards location work because I find it to be much more challenging than working in a studio where everything is controlled. I enjoy the challenge of battling the elements, ambient light and a whole host of variables that present themselves on a location shoot. All of those things must be dealt with decisively and effectively to make the shoot a success. Perhaps more importantly, I feel that working on location, whether it is in a stadium or on top of a glacier, is incredibly powerful in telling the story of who I am photographing. I do this by putting them in their element. And I will go anywhere to make that happen — wherever that may be.
Often times, I am traveling with a significant amount of lighting equipment. It is heavy, bulky and can be a challenge logistically to get into remote locations. My goal is always to be as fluid and adaptable as possible with location lighting in order to allow myself the freedom to go virtually anywhere in the world to make a portrait. I have to take the best equipment possible with me and that can be a challenge when I need to travel light. But it is also unacceptable to sacrifice quality by taking products that I can't trust and don't allow me the flexibility I need to go anywhere and adapt to what the location gives me.
Up until now, what that has meant is lugging my Profoto Pro-B4 Air packs with me along with a host of modifiers. Don't get me wrong, this is my go-to kit for a reason — it is the best for what I do. Not only do I expect that, but my clients deserve that. That being said, I have yet to find an ultralight solution that offers me the power, versatility and speed I demand out of my equipment. But why does speed matter? On location, I sometimes have only a matter of minutes when everything comes together to make that crucial picture my client needs. When working outdoors, this can mean pulling everything and running to a different spot to react to what the light, weather or background is giving us at a moment's notice.
That lack of having an ultralight solution at my disposal changed last month when I was given an early introduction to a prototype unit of the new Profoto B2, a super-portable, multi-head solution with 250W of power, fast recycle time and motion freezing flash durations of 1/1,000-second at full power and 1/15,000-second at low power. The generator (with battery attached) and two flash heads weigh a combined 5.2 pounds!!! I was grinning ear-to-ear when I first laid eyes on the unit and learned of its remarkable features. I knew immediately that this would change how I work and what I bring on location. I mentioned to the great Profoto folks that I would be traveling to Iceland for a project only a few short weeks later and that this would be the perfect solution for me. Profoto was gracious enough to allow me to put the B2 through an honest, real-world field test.
While I have worked with the Profoto B1 units and am a big fan of their features, I am a sucker for anything that allows me to work faster and more efficiently on location. Personally, I don't often bring a B1 unit outdoors on location. This is primarily due to the weight of having a monolight and a big modifier atop a light stand on location. You can't predict what will happen with wind, the terrain and the weather. My goal is to keep the weight atop the light stand as minimally as possible, and this means using strobe heads and pack combinations. This also allows me to put the light in trickier situations or allow an assistant to become a mobile light stand and have the strobe on the end of a boom that can be held and moved freely to follow the subject. The B2 offers me exactly that while preserving key features that have made the B1 the game changer it has been.
If I am going to invest in a product, I have to be able to trust it completely. In order to know if the B2 could stand up to my expectations, I sought out two scenarios for a portrait. With the help of Chris Lund, a professional photographer and guide in Iceland, we began to research our options. My requirements were that we needed to work remotely to get our shot. I wanted to be in the elements and we needed to hike to location. My initial draw was do have the photos involve ice. After all, Iceland is the land of fire and ice and the glaciers in this amazing country are simply breathtaking. My initial hope was to accomplish two shots at the Vatnajökull Glacier and to do one shot in an ice cave under the glacier and another one on top of the glacier. Two different scenarios, two different times of day, two completely different backgrounds.
My good friend Brad Rogers was also along on the trip and he was willing to serve as model for me if we ran into any difficulty sourcing locally. Having that as a backup was key in planning as I knew I always had a Plan B. The main reason of the trip was to photograph the Aurora Borealis for my Night Light book project, so while I was working on the other elements of the trip, Chris was working to arrange access to the locations for the portraits. We arrived in Iceland and headed out to the first ice cave, where we did an initial test shot with Brad. I was able to get a feel for how the product would react on location, what my recycle time was and how quickly I could unpack, setup and start shooting. We didn't want to waste any time on the upcoming two shoots when we had our mountain guides.
The challenge in all of this? The weather. It was brutal this trip. We were weathered in at various hotels on three different occasions. The insane winds and whiteout conditions caused accidents, shut down roads and knocked out power. We knew our dates for the portraits but had no idea what the weather would be. The only thing I knew was that we would have to deal with it and make the picture regardless of what ever Mother Nature threw at us — and throw she did. Of the two weeks I was in Iceland, I can recall only two days the wind wasn't blowing like hell. When it wasn't blowing driving sheets of rain, it was blowing sand — black volcanic sand. There was good that came out of the difficult conditions. I like a proper challenge and I really was curious to see how the B2 would perform in the elements. Additionally, the windows to shoot the two portraits were the two last shoot days of the trip.
Another big challenge with where I wanted to shoot was tourists. The ice caves are only open a few months out of the year and each summer they are changed as the glacier retreats and melts. Trying to shoot around the tourists would be a challenge and the mountain guides that take people under and above the ice have crazy schedules with not much downtime or availability for freelance work. We could have joined a tour but that simply was not an ideal scenario. Armed with that information, Chris was able to arrange for an ice guide to take us to a cave before dawn one morning. The second shoot would also have to be coordinated around the schedule of a mountain and ice guide that Chris was able to source for us — so we could get on top of the glacier and a further back and more inside the giant crevasses of ancient ice.
Both trips involved a hike. For the ice caves, we had to hike over several kilometers of rocky and icy terrain back to the cave while the wind blew a near constant stream of lava dust into our faces. The second trip was a bit more technical as we trekked out onto the glacier with crampons and ice axes to find the right location. In both locations, we shot for less than 15 minutes. The rest of the time was spent hiking to location and surveying on the spot to find the best spot for the portraits. Once that was done, I committed to those locations, unpacked the gear out of the backpack and was set up and shooting within five minutes!
The new kit also features a series of ultra-light modifiers with a new lightweight and super-quick speed ring. No expense was spared in the design of the modifiers. You get exactly what you expect out of anything with Profoto on the name — complete control over your light and what you do with it.
To trigger the units, I used my Profoto Air Remote TTL-N and while I did not have a situation where I wanted or needed to shoot with high speed sync, the unit is capable of providing that for when it is needed — a major boost to what this package delivers!
To make it all happen, I packed my kit so that I would be able to travel as lightweight and mobile as possible. It all packed into a single standard backpack. The location kit I assembled for this trip included the following:
B2 kit (one pack and two heads)
2-ft Octa softbox with grid
Two Manfrotto nano light stand with detachable center
Air TTL-N remote
I also kept my camera kit lightweight as well. One Nikon D810 with the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens and the Nikon D750 with the Nikkor 20mm f1.8 lens. I decided against the long glass for these two portraits because I wanted to be close to my subjects but also allow as much of the surrounding environment as possible into the composition to tell the story of the terrain.
For our first portrait, we photographed Oskar Arason, a mountaineer, guide and active member of the Hofn search-and-rescue team. The initial shot I composed was a hero shot with Oskar standing in front of mountain peaks and the glacier during the blue hour before sunrise. When doing my test photos with Brad, I began with just the 2-ft Octa and grid to control then light and allow the background to underexpose and become powerful. I then added the second strobe to illuminate the foreground to show the ruggedness of the terrain which was once itself covered by the glacier in the background. When I pulled Brad and brought Oskar into the frame I had Brad move the second strobe head to a position near and perpendicular to Oskar from my position and illuminate side and lower body while also spilling down onto the lights in a more controlled manner creating a sliver of light on the glacial rocks.
Next, we quickly moved to a tunnel that the elements had carved into the upper portion of the glacier directly above one of the cave entrances. This location was especially challenging for me. I was staring into the elevated tunnel that caught and accelerated the wind right into my face, the lens and the lights. For that portrait, I used both strobe heads. The key light used to illuminate Oskar full body and the front of the tunnel was again the 2-ft Octa. The other strobe head was used with no modifier and positioned close to and below the tunnel in order to add an extra dimension of light from below.
next evening after that night's storm cleared, we were back on the road and headed to our afternoon meeting and shoot atop the Svínafellsjökull outlet glacier with ice and mountain guide Víðir Pétursson. As a guide and as a search-and-rescue team member, I wanted to show an element of the difficult terrain for those who not only explore but also are called upon for life-saving search-and-rescue operations on the glacier. Our location is the same glacial tongue of Vatnajökull where parts of the movies “Batman Begins" and “Interstellar" were filmed. For this location and due to the time spent getting to and from location, our window to shoot was even smaller. Fortunately, we had no tourists to worry about. Once we found the spot for the portraits, the light started to disappear fast. I quickly unloaded the kit and handed the key light to Chris so he could again act as a light stand and use the center column of the Manfrotto Nano stand as a boom so we could position the light right where we would need it — or as best as we could given the wind sweeping down the glacier. It was no easy task for Chris. From the time the lights were unpacked and exposure was dialed in, we had around 5-10 minutes worth of sunlight left before we would lose our background. In situations like this, I tend to hammer pretty heavy on the trigger so I can make the most of the moment when I have it. For me, that is the biggest drawback of using speedlights in such a situation. The B2 handled the situation even better than I expected. The flashes triggered every time and consistently in output.
Needless to say, I was incredibly impressed with the B2. Will it become part of my location kit? Damn straight. I wish it had a little more power so that I could have more flexibility in even the brightest ambient light situations, but the high speed sync feature gives me the latitude so that I can use it in situations where I am having to battle substantial ambient light.
If you are interested, the highlight features and specs of the Profoto B2 are:
250Ws (adjustable over 9 stops and adjustable in 1/10 f-stop increments)
2 fully asymmetrical outlets
LED modeling lights
TTL and High Speed Sync
Recycle to full power in 1.35 seconds
AirTTL allows for wireless operation up to 1,000 feet away
215 full power flashes on a full charge
Total weight of 5.2 pounds (generator and two heads)
Longest flash duration is 1/1,000s and shortest flash duration of 1/15,000s
To learn more about the B2, check it out on the Profoto site here.
Thanks also to my friend Diana Robinson who joined us on the adventure and was kind enough to take some great behind-the-scenes photos!!!
Andrew is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Indianapolis and working globally. He specializes in sport, portraiture, travel, higher education and reportage photography.
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