Focusing On The Light
As Swedish professional lighting company Profoto finds a new home in Australia, we take a look behind the scenes at the company’s headquarters in Sundbyberg, Stockholm.
Report and Pictures by Ola Jacobsen
A large logo for a funeral parlour adorns the entrance. A small text on a signboard in the hallway is all that shows that one of the world’s leading manufacturers of professional flashes has its head office here, located at Landsvägen 57 in Sundbyberg.
Up until a couple of years ago the company focused mainly on studio photographers, especially within the fashion industry. For 40 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 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.
The spacious and bright office is sparsely populated. Many employees are off travelling to meet with retailers all over the world. In the large studio, in the middle of the office, some employees are shooting pictures for a manual.
While around half of the chairs in the open office space are abandoned, there is lots of activity going on behind the big glass wall that divides the Marketing And Sales Departments from the Development Department. Prior to the visit the area has been wiped clean of traces of coming products, so it can be photographed without giving competitors any advance knowledge about the future.
(Right: Dufgran and founding partner Eckhard Heine back in Profoto’s early days.)
Since its start in 1968, Profoto has been true to the principles of the founders, namely to only engage in what creates value for photographers. That means, among other things, that Profoto doesn’t actually manufacture any of its 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,” explains Profoto’s CEO, Anders Hedebark.
Conny Dufgran – who founded Profoto with Eckhard Heine – actually 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.”
Profoto utilises different manufacturers and several of its suppliers are very specialised, working only with the photographic flash and medical technology industries. Even though it doesn’t have its own production facility, Profoto still exercises extensive quality control, both internal and external.
“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,” observes Anders Hedebark.
For more than 40 years, Profoto has emphasised 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 system, we are expanding considerably, addressing target groups that might have worked with speedlights 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 Anders Hedebark.
The first product in the OCF system, the Profoto B1 combines battery pack and head and was released in 2013. It was also the first flash system ever to combine professional performance with automatic flash compensation via TTL measurements. In March 2015, the B2 was released. It’s another flash system in which the battery pack and the head are separated for greater flexibility. It soon became obvious that these OCF systems fill an important gap in the market. Since their release, Profoto has more than doubled its revenue.
Today Profoto 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 based.
The plan is for Profoto to release new products in all segments. Since the increase in revenue has been so high, the company tries to employ 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,” states Anders Hedebark.
Developing a new product takes the company around two-and-a-half to three years.
“Firstly 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 a new core technology. Then you have the whole journey from verifying that it’s do-able to actually starting up the production,” explains Bo Dalenius who is Profoto’s Head of Electronical and Mechanical Research and Development (shown above operating the test equipment).
“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 optimised for flash duration and recycling time. All our products have to be robust and easy to use, that’s something we never compromise with.
“For example, the cable clamps – which connect the cable from the flash to the generator – are specified to bear the weight of the generator so you can actually lift it by the cable. Also, all the generators have mechanical buttons and knobs to change the different values.
“Not even in the 1970s 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,” comments Anders Hedebark.
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 are the software developers with their big screens filled with code. Each actual workstation comprises 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 Masters 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 usually 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 Peter 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,” he adds.
The room next to the software developers is the design team area. Right now they are finalising the design of an upcoming product so the content of the computer screens is actually changed when we enter the room.
In here, are also the company’s 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. In here too, the company develops and analyses 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,” explains Bo Dalenius.
Even though LED-type lights are changing the way lighting is used within many fields, flash tubes are still the only option if you want enough light to compete with the sun over short exposure times.
“No matter how much effect a 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 6000 degrees Celsius without affecting either the color of the light or the reliability. It is an extremely robust technology that still defends itself well against LED lighting.
“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 move across the sensor at the same time, with only a narrow slit open over the sensor. Earlier, it was impossible to shoot with a flash in these kinds of conditions, but not anymore.”
Behind the drawn blinds, the engineers of Profoto have developed a completely new way for the flash to perform, and Bo Dalenius explains how the company’s 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 at 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’s AirTTL system. This system works with both Canon and Nikon cameras.”
Not surprisingly, Profoto doesn’t want to reveal anything about future compatibility with other brands; at the moment its busy optimising its TTL products for Nikon and Canon.
The foundation for its new wireless and battery-operated flash systems was created at the beginning of 2000s when Profoto decided to develop its own radio protocol for communication between the remote control and the actual flash units.
“The existing products like WiFi 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 Bo Dalenius.
Focus On Creativity
Co-founder Conny Dufgran (above) is now 82 years old and no longer involved in the company’s daily work, but he sits on Profoto’s board where he keeps a close eye on technical developments. His ideas about primarily creating tools which allow photographers to focus on the creative process, are still carried out and continue to help Profoto thrive.
The new headquarters that the company moved into only four years ago are already too small. But some of this success has actually come for free.
“When we started competing with Balcar, it was using glass made from Pyrex in its lamps. Its 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. This was a lot more expensive, but allowed running the flashes at high frequency. But glass from quartz 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.
“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.”