Profoto C1 Plus First Impressions: A Portable Studio Light for Smartphones

Most people today own a smartphone with a camera that they bring with them everywhere they go. These state-of-the-art mobile cameras arguably make everyone a photographer (in some sense of the word).

But one of the key components of good photography is good lighting, whether natural or artificial. Since good mobile photography needs a good, compact, mobile light, Profoto launched the C1 and C1 Plus making it easier for mobile photographers to have professional lighting options wherever they end up.

I took the Profoto C1 Plus for a very brief spin in the real world and here are my initial thoughts on the portable studio light designed for smartphone photography.

My Journey With iPhone Photography

I originally was not keen on taking photos with my phone, as it seemed boring and lesser quality, but the reason for that is that opinion I tend to not upgrade gear until absolutely necessary. My old first-generation iPhone SE worked for the past four years and finally died last summer.

Iphone 12

Subsequently, I purchased an upgraded iPhone 12 Mini and was positively blown away by the camera quality. This ended up leading me to leave my big camera systems at home and shoot more photos with my smartphone. But as good as the iPhone cameras are, I was still rather skeptical about the quality since it did not perform as well as I had hoped in low-light situations.

My journey with mobile photography needed an “off-camera” flash… Enter the Profoto C1 Plus.

How Things Changed with the C1 Plus

Before I discuss the Profoto C1 Plus, I’d like to note that I am not sponsored by Profoto or by any brand I own or use. Before testing the smartphone lights personally, the C1 or C1 Plus, which cost $149 and $299 respectively, were never a lighting option that was on my radar. The way I got my hands on my C1 Plus is by winning it in a contest that was open to all.

That being said, there are other options for smartphone lighting, such as the now-discontinued Godox A1 and Godox A1 Mini (AKA Flashpoint M1 Mini), but I haven’t tested those units and am not familiar with them beyond what is stated on spec sheets.

To be fair, when the C1 launched I was rather skeptical as it seemed bizarre that someone would be interested in this and spend money on a product like it. I thought it was an underpowered, incapable, and overall just a relatively unnecessary product. I mean, how can a respected lighting company that makes the Pro packs also make smartphone flashes under the same brand name?

My mind was changed the moment I took the C1 Plus for a spin.

The Profoto C1 Light Itself

Just as with Profoto’s higher-end products, the C1 Plus is a very easy-to-use light. Measuring 3.1 inches (7.9cm) in diameter, the unit is small enough to hold with one hand. Being 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) tall, it will fit in most men’s jean pockets. The dimensions of the unit itself make it a very compact and lightweight (6.21oz/176g) unit and the four buttons that control the unit are placed close enough to be able to operate with one hand. Additionally, the material is non-slippery, which makes holding the C1 very easy.

As for the light produced, the C1 offers around 4300 lumens of power with flash, which is admittedly way below what a regular Speedlite (at a similar price) can do.  It recycles fast though which ensures you don’t miss a shot. While a notably lower power, the amount of light is plenty for selfies and close-up portraits or images of small objects, but don’t expect to use it for anything large (wide angle) or over long distances.

If you put a modifier on it, predictably, it will produce even less light so be prepared for that as well. The flash duration isn’t anything impressive and I doubt that the C1 will be used for freezing motion. As for the continuous light, the C1 can pump out 280 Lumens at 90-98 CRI. This is actually good news because continuous light can be used to help the camera focus.

I often found myself using the C1 for lighting myself in Zoom meetings. The great thing about the C1 is that it can change the color temperature in both flash and continuous light modes, meaning that you can adapt your light to the temperature of your surroundings. For example, when I hold meetings in hotel rooms, I just match the C1 to the ambient and make the light look natural.

The battery on the C1 is actually pretty decent and it can produce 2000 full-power flashes or 40 minutes of continuous maximum output. One surprising letdown concerning the battery/device was that it can’t be used while charging, as it would be fantastic to be able to plug it in and use it on meetings that go longer than 40 minutes.

Speaking of modifiers, there are actually quite a few you can use to create portrait images. The same modifiers work with the Profoto A-series flashes, meaning you can use the ones you already own. Keep in mind, like most other Profoto products, they are quite expensive for what they do, for example, a grid or a gel will cost you $50. I struggle to understand what makes them so expensive but it is what it is. The modifiers hold very well and you can be worry-free about them falling off. Here is just how well they hold:

For portraiture, I commonly use the dome, 20-deg grid, and wide lens. The dome is fantastic, but it is rather big and doubles the size of the C1, which makes it unpractical in some situations. I replace the dome with a wide lens to achieve a similar effect.

The Profoto Camera app has improved a lot since I reviewed it last year. Nowadays I almost exclusively shoot in the smart mode. When all that matters is getting the shot, I don’t want to fuss with settings.

There are two controls: light quality and light temperature. My favorite setting is dramatic, it maximizes the flash output and increases shutter speed which makes the images sharp in low light situations. Alternatively, if you do want to use it in full manual mode, you can switch over and do that. The experience is similar if not identical to my review of the app.

Dramatic mode
Natural mode
The C1 is simple in its use — anyone can pick it up and use it to add extra light to photos. This is a casual snapshot of me that my partner took.
The Profoto Camera App can miss focus, but in situations like these, it can be argued that it is not as significant.
Despite the strong sun backlighting me, there was still enough power to illuminate me.
Without something like the C1, you can often expect to get much more drama but say goodbye to shadow (and/or highlight) detail.

Parting Thoughts

While the Profoto C1 is a light that will probably not make it to many large commercial sets, it is a light that I now rarely leave home. It is a great way to capture images that look better than just a regular smartphone photo. So far, everyone that I had photographed using the C1 was impressed by how much “better” the images looked, though keep in mind they are not photographers and are used to iPhone images looking poorly lit.

I absolutely love the light because it enables me to do casual/personal photography at a higher level, something I missed since starting to shoot professionally.