Can you use your iPhone to trigger a flash to take watch photographs? Peter Nievaart explores how you can improve your watch photography using your iPhone and the Profoto App with the Profoto C1 Plus pocket flash.
Using The iPhone for Watch Photography with the Profoto App
For day-today photography the iPhone is a wonderful creative instrument. With apps such as Spectre you can create long exposures during the day or light trails at night. With other apps you can instantly apply a specific look before sharing photos on social media. But how effective is the iPhone for watch photography? We never really bothered beyond wrist shots until Profoto announced an app that can be used to trigger a flash with your phone. In this article we will share our findings with respect to using an iPhone 11 Pro with and without a C1 plus pocket flash from Profoto. We will discuss the iPhone camera pros and cons compared to other systems, the role of articificial light in watch photography (aka when additional light is relevant), the Profoto app and the flash systems that can be used with the Profoto app, watch photography with the Profoto app and last but not least post-processing.
Pros and Cons of using an iPhone compared to other systems
It won’t come as a surprise when we say the iPhone’s main advantages are convenience (ease of use and transport) and large depth-of-field. The large depth-of-field directly relates to the tiny sensor as well as the wide angle lens. There is no need to stack photos unless you use a macro lens with your iPhone. This is especially helpful when taking a photo of watch which is running (moving seconds hand).
The 12MP resolution is more than enough for display of photos on your iPad and iPhone, especially on social media. The newer iPhones such as the iPhone 11 Pro and the 12 series feature three lenses. A standard 28mm FF equivalent lens, a 14mm FF equivalent lens and a 50mm FF equivalent lens (focal length as an approximate value). This broadens the use from dramatic landscape to portraits.
The iPhone makes use of computational photography to greatly enhance the pictures it takes. This firmware/software solution may well be the most impressive feature of an iPhone. When you shoot an outside scene with a large dynamic range, the software compensates instantly, I.e. it creates a natural HDR look automatically. Note: if you don’t want that and want to darken your image, you need to compensate exposure when using the Camera app or adjust ISO value and/or shutter speed when using apps such as Halide or the Profoto app; You cannot change the aperture which is fixed. Skies are also automatically corrected. Not too long ago it was easy to see if a photo was taken with a phone, especially in photos with skies and clouds. Such photos would show blown-out clouds. This has much improved in the latest iPhones. The tonal variation has become much more subtle, thanks to the software. It is not up to par with full-frame systems but definitely has come closer to some micro four third and small sensor camera systems.
There are also disadvantages in the iPhone for use to take watch photographs. One is the focal length of the lens. Using a wide angle lens presents some challenges. You need to shoot really close to avoid other objects or backgrounds being distractions in your photo. The closer you get, the greater the challenge to avoid the direct reflection caused by the phone and your hand(s). In addition, the wider field of view increases the risk of unwanted direct reflections from light sources or objects nearby. Although this can be avoided by moving the light source to the side, in watch photography this creates an additional problem: dust particles become more visible. These photos show two common problems:
By using the ±50mm equivalent lens, some reflections can be avoided. However… the current release of the Profoto app only works with the standard ±28mm equivalent lens. So when using the ±50mm lens, you need to have good daylight or use continuous light. A polariser mounted on the light source can also be used but this introduces new problems as we will discuss in the next paragraph.
Perhaps the most important disadvantage, especially compared to full-frame systems, is the limited dynamic range leading to easily blown-out highlights.
Some may say that the lack of a macro function is a disadvantage. If you are interested in photographing details of movements, an add-on macro lens for the iPhone might be an option. Being able to shoot at the distance shown in this photos works fine for us when using the iPhone for photography:
The role of light in watch photography
Having sufficient amount of light is critical to capture the subtleties of the watch design and materials used. The dynamic range of today’s full-frame systems provides a lot of flexibility in dealing with lower light environments. The small sensor of the iPhone is much more demanding when it comes to light. This is perhaps mitigated in modern phones, where special settings make it able to shoot in low light and the software does a great job in filtering out noise without destroying sharpness. But the quality of a watch photo – especially the tonal range – degrades when there is not enough light. This is clearly visible when you look at a photo on a larger screen. Artificial light can be also be used to articulate certain aspects of the watch or the props used:
There are three things to be aware of when using artificial light for watch photography:
- The size of the light source determines to what extent shadows are visible: the larger the source, the softer the shadows. A light source becomes larger when you move it closer to your object or when you use a large modifier such as a softbox.
- Three types of reflections have to be dealt with in watch photography: direct reflection from steel and glass, diffuse reflection from the dial and polarised direct reflection from glass and black surfaces (such as a black case and dial).
- Reflections can be altered by positioning the light differently (closer vs further away and angle) and the position of the camera as well as by using a polariser in front of the light source.
- The wider the lens, the larger the likelihood of unwanted reflections in glass and case of the watch.
Knowing the (reflection) characteristics of the watch you want to photograph and the light sources available, helps to determine how the light source and the camera should be positioned. If you want to show texture or depth or the domed shape of the glass, the light source should be positioned at a wider angle than when you want to show the design of the dial (which requires avoiding reflections). Polarisers help reducing the direct reflections of glass and case but may also block the reflection of a black case and the subtleties of the dial. Texture can be emphasized by using a smaller light source.
If you are interested in learning more about the importance of light in photography, the book “Light – Science & Magic – An Introduction to Photographic Lighting” by Film Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua is highly recommended.
Especially during trade shows and other events, you typically want/have to make sure the light of – the usually many – artificial lamps are not visible in the watch. A diffuser, light box or a paper can work as flags, and helps in hiding those lights. Additional flash or continuous light are helpful in controlling light. A small light box may not work because of the limited distance between watch and phone. Use modifiers, including GOBOs (go between objects such as diffusers and cards) to modify the reflection.
The Profoto app and compatible flash units
Taking a photo with an iPhone required using continuous light or natural light. The tiny iPhone flash is available, but it is too harsh, and not recommended. Available continuous light is often sufficient, but in some cases more powerful light is needed. Until recently you want to use a flash, you had to use a “regular” camera, as there is no way for the iPhone to trigger a flash. The Profoto app changes that since it allows to use flash as well. The Profoto app is available for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
Currently the app recognises the Profoto B10 and B10 plus, the Profoto C10 and C10 plus, the Profoto Connect and the Profoto A10. You can also use the Profoto app as a remote control for setting flash power and channel when you shoot with your camera and trigger your flash via the Connect wireless trigger. A neat feature is the ability to update firmware of your flash units via the app. These are the main screens in the app:
The file format can be selected in the settings (to be found on the top right side). Three options are provided: HEIF, jpeg, jpeg + raw. The HEIF (High Efficiency Image File) format takes about half the space of an equivalent quality JPEG file and uses 16-bit color compared to the 8-bit JPEGs. HEIC is a container that holds a compressed HEIF image. I noticed that just selecting HEIF in the settings results in a jpeg file being stored. So if you want to capture a raw file, select jpeg+raw. Profoto uses Adobe’s DNG format for raw files. Frankly, I have not noticed much difference between the jpeg file and the raw file. Note: I read about issues with reading .heic files in Windows but I don’t know the status. Heic files are recognised in CaptureOne 21 (not in older versions) and in Lightroom.
For watch photography during trade shows, collector events, vendor events, and so on, the obvious flash unit of choice would be the Profoto C1 or C1 plus. This is a small flash that works great, especially when you use the dome and/or modifiers to soften the light and/or GOBOs to prevent certain reflections and blown out highlights.
The recently announced A10 flash would be another great choice, especially with the also recently announced OCF adapter and a modifier. The B10 and B10 Plus work even better, especially with proper modifiers, but we fail to see the advantage of bringing a large flash unit and soft box while leaving the full-frame camera at home. (Editor’s note: The B10 and B10 Plus are similar size and weight to the Compact 600 that we carry around the shows. These are large and heavy units which are able to give out bursts of light which are consistent in power and colour temperature, and able to work all day long. We use it with full sized cameras). However, a possible advantage is that you can use the phone setup to check light set-up and composition (syncing occurs almost instantly), and to quickly share an example photo with others via social media or mail.
Using the Profoto app to take watch photos
This is where it gets interesting! As said earlier, use of artificial light is often helpful when you shoot indoors, especially on a trade show. When using the Profoto C1 or C1 Plus, you can opt for continuous light or flash. Personally I found that I use the continuous light of the Profoto C1 Plus together with the iPhone’s camera at ±50mm when I use a white light box. With the Profoto app, I can also use the flash of the C1 plus.
The process of taking a watch photo with the Profoto app is as follows:
- Turn on bluetooth on your phone.
- Turn on the C1 flash unit (or other unit)
- Set power level(s), channel(s) and color temperature.
- Select the camera exposure settings (manual or auto. Manually you can only set shutter speed and ISO) and, if necessary, the white balance.
- Fire away!
- Correct exposure and power settings, where necessary.
Most time is spent on positioning the watch, your flash unit and your phone. A small tripod for your phone might be useful when you have to use both hands to hold a light modifier. Start with positioning the watch, then look for an interesting angle to be followed by positioning your light. Although I have not been using the phone much yet and need to experiment more, I found that the best way is to lay the watch down in a 30 degrees angle slightly turned to the left (or right), hold the camera lower to avoid a reflection in the glass and position the light source on the left (or right) just outside the “family of angles” (see the reference in sources for an explanation) to avoid a direct reflection or slightly inside this range to generate a soft reflection.
Assuming you use your iPhone – with the compact flash – to quickly shoot, process and share images, the easiest way to process and share photos, is by using Apple Photos. If you are a Lightroom user, Adobe allows a free download on iPhone when you are a subscriber, and I hear it works great too. I do not use Lightroom and will not comment further.
The current version on Mac OS offers an impressive amount of features that were available in Apple Aperture but not in iPhoto. Even local spot healing is now possible. Raw-processing is also possible. It has become a reliable tool for storing, processing and sharing photos…. assuming you are committed to the Apple ecosystem. So for basic retouching work, tools such as Photoshop are no longer necessary. If you need more tools, Affinity Photo is an affordable app available for the iPad. It offers more or less the same functionality as Photoshop at a fraction of the cost.
Apple Photos allows to share photos within seconds/minutes after taking a photo with the Profoto app, another app or the native camera. Photos taken with the Profoto app show up automatically in Apple Photos.
From Apple Photos you can export the original unmodified raw or jpeg file as well as the processed image for archiving and further processing. If you shoot with the Profoto app, the raw file will be in DNG format. When you use Apple’s camera, the “raw” file will have a .HEIC extension. Exporting makes these files available to a variety of apps to further process or share your photos. Note: I used to find it easier to copy the original files from the library to my generic photos library. But recently, Apple has made it tougher to find the original files. If you still want to use this method, you could do the following:
- Right click on the Photos Library and select “show package contents”
- Select the “originals” folder.
- Go to the Search window in the Finder and type “heic”.
- Select “originals” as the to-be-searched-folder hierarchy.
- Sort the result by date
- Select all files you want to copy and save into another folder.
- Copy and paste.
Post-processing iPhone photos is actually more fun then I initially thought. Especially when you have your MacBook with you, tools such as Luminar AI provide you with templates to instantly change the look of your photo before sharing it. A not-really-creative-but-easy-to-create example introducing light effects with Skylum Luminar AI, which can be triggered directly from Apple Photos on a Macbook:
The Apple iPhone is a wonderful instrument for day-today photography, now including the possibility to use flash. It works well with the Profoto app, but it is not quite ready yet for critical watch photography beyond wrist shots. Nevertheless, it opens a new world of creative opportunities to quickly process and share images during trade shows and events via social media. Practice is required, even when having flash/continuous light at one’s disposal. However, when you accept the challenge, the results can be satisfying enough for social media sharing. We believe the combination of the Profoto app and the C1 or C1 plus will also be a wonderful tool for food photography, something we may explore further in the future.
I found that there is no real advantage of working with raw files instead of jpeg except for when you open and close files regularly, which slightly degrades the quality of a jpeg. Files do look somewhat different: more contrast in jpegs, more brightness in raw files. Jpegs also seem to brighten the edges. However, shadow and highlight recovery and color accuracy do not really benefit from working with the raw file. Noise starts to be visible pretty quickly in raw files (ISO 64).
You may have noticed we did not mention Godox’s A1 smartphone flash and Bluetooth remote control unit. The flash of the A1 could be triggered from an iPhone and a limited number of Android phones. The small size of the flash requires the use of a modifier to soften the light. The A1 was launched in 2017 and has been discontinued in 2020. Due to its limited use we never bothered testing the A1 and the related app.
I would like to thank the people who borrowed their watches for this article.
Photo Notes: All photographs taken with iPhone, with or without the Profoto app and C1 flash units.
Light – Science & Magic – An Introduction to Photographic Lighting by Film Hunter, Paul Fuqua and Steven Biver.