If you’re looking for the top performance in studio strobe systems, it’s a pretty short and pricey list. Profoto and Broncolor have always been battling for the rarified market of a handful of the biggest and best commercial, advertising and editorial photographers, and the rental studios and dealers who serve the rest of the market.
The Profoto Pro-8a 2400 Air retails for $10,999 and the Broncolor Scoro A4S for $10,692, so there are plenty of pros that elect to not spend the ten grand and decide to rent instead.
These systems are at the top of a complete line of lighting equipment. More than almost anything else in photography, strobe systems are tailored to their intended use. A photographer shooting cars is going to use a different system than a location portrait photographer; a catalog shooter is going to need different tools than a wedding photographer. The Profoto and Broncolor systems are intended for studios who need extremely high power, extremely versatile control, absolute color consistency and the shortest possible flash duration at the highest possible power settings.
About flash duration: shooting strobe, the flash duration is what becomes the effective shutter speed. The time that the light comes on, peaks, and shuts down becomes the time that the exposure is made in the camera, rather than the shutter of the camera determining the exposure. You want to freeze movement? You need a short flash duration.
And while we’re at it, a bit about color as well: from the moment that the arc in the strobe tube fires up, the color of the light it produces changes. The gasses heat up, reach their peak temperature, and then cool - all within a fraction of a second. Every step of this heating and cooling produces a light that is a slightly different color. The engineer has to, quite literally, pick which parts of the output curve to use, and for what purpose.
Putting together an exposure with a full spectrum of accurate and consistent color is a matter of making many design decisions that ultimately affect how the system is going to perform in a very real and tangible way - for color, power, and duration consistency. In very few areas of photography are there so many and such obvious tradeoffs to consider in designing a product. Like so many things that involve design and physics, a lot of tradeoffs can melt away when one big ingredient is added: Money. These two systems truly try to give the photographer a no-compromise solution, yet they still make some tradeoffs.
Let’s take a look at how we’re going to compare these two systems. In the performance arena, we’re concerned with color consistency, flash duration, head and output consistency, maximum and minimum power, and power consistency. We’re also looking at issues like handling: is the control interface good, fast, and easy to understand? Is the system robust; will it take the abuse of a working in a commercial studio? Does the entire line give you control over the light - the quality, the shape, the size? (Light control is a tricky thing to describe, and it becomes a very personal decision determined by some very subjective issues.)
We’re going to make some assumptions here, too. Since these are premium systems and huge investments, we’re going to assume the market is either the equipment and studio rental market, or the absolute highest end commercial photographer. The rental market needs to have an inventory of equipment that is above all, durable to the point of being bulletproof. If it’s easy to use at the outset, all the better - and it will rent a lot more if it’s the best performing stuff you can get. 95% of Profoto sales go to rental studios and companies, just for an idea of their market.
If this equipment is going into a private studio, you can bet that it’s a pretty major studio. Not many solo photographers can afford this scale of a system, and either the day rate or the production output level is astronomical to offset the overhead. You can conclude, in either case, the likelihood of the system being handled by a freelance production staff is pretty high - in short, the system has to be easy to use and, again, bulletproof.
What either of these markets needs is a system you can quickly and easily pick up and use correctly. It needs to be reliable and consistent beyond question; there is no option for “getting to know” the lighting. And if the thing gets dropped off the back of a truck onto the concrete, you want to just brush it off and plug it in. There’s no room for delicate build with these guys; there’s far too much money at stake in production costs alone.
One more comment about how we are doing this review. Unlike camera specifications and reviews, there are very few hard and fast standards to work from. More than even the camera manufacturers, lighting marketing seeks to play up the specifications that suit them, and dismiss those that don’t. Specifications, performance descriptions, even units of measure are loosely thrown around and compared. It can be a little like the phrase, “like trying to nail down Jell-o.” We’re going to concentrate on the “show me the beef…” approach. We’ll look at actual shots, under real shooting conditions, and back the more subjective evaluations up with data from our Imatest and Colorthink software. You’ll see the comparisons, but also see the charts.