Over the last few years, several companies have been actively producing accessories for smartphones. The majority of these accessories have been for iPhones and for the most part the accessories haven’t been overly significant devices. What I mean is that the accessories most manufacturers produced have been small LED flashes or add-on lenses. This seems to be changing with what Profoto has done and I wonder if this is the right direction for the market.
Not so long ago, Profoto released the C1 and C1 Plus flashes for the iPhone. For many photographers, this was a strange move from the company. Since then, the company has leaned further towards the smartphone industry. They have since made their B10 strobe fully compatible with the iPhone. You now have the ability to use pro-level lighting equipment with a smartphone and it’s actually pretty good.
Smartphone cameras have improved so much now that they can produce meaningful results. Most smartphones now give you the ability to shoot raw and also control many of the settings you’d see in dedicated cameras. Their portable design means that most people always have their smartphones with them.
In many cases, it is far easier and quicker to take a picture with a smartphone, than it is to shoot with a more dedicated camera. Smartphones are also far more connected than most, if not all, current dedicated cameras. It takes little effort in comparison to snap a photo with a smartphone and then share it with friends or on social media. These are some of the reasons why the vast majority of images are being taken on smartphones.
When you look at the market itself, there are far more smartphones in circulation than there are dedicated cameras. The difference in numbers is incredible. For example, in 2019, more than 1.52 billion smartphones were sold worldwide. The number of cameras sold in the same period is tiny in comparison.
For this reason, it may make sense for companies to want a piece of that market. Producing accessories or devices that are compatible with smartphones, makes complete sense when you look at it from that perspective. Having said that, there some other points to consider too.
One of the main reasons smartphones have become so popular is because they’re easy to use and portable. Adding accessories to them tends to counter these features. A Profoto B10 is not portable in the same way. It’s pretty impractical to have to set up a light if you’re planning on shooting with a smartphone. If you’re carrying and setting up lights, you may as well just use a “proper” camera. I imagine very few people would buy a B10 primarily because it’s compatible with their iPhone.
Most smartphone accessories tend to overcomplicate the process. In my personal experience, I’ve bought a bunch of accessories and addons for my smartphones, only to find them collecting dust after a few occasions of use. This seems pretty common across the board. Most people that shoot with smartphones, prefer not to be over-encumbered with large accessories.
Effectively, you end up spending a similar amount of time and effort to produce worse results, than what you could have produced with a dedicated camera.
The number of smartphones being sold is extremely attractive, however, the market and mentality are quite different. Even something as small as the C1 is a bit of a hassle to have to charge and carry around; especially if you only plan on shooting with a smartphone.
Plenty of hardware manufacturers have produced accessories to help you produce better images. Additional lenses, addon flashes, hand grips, and so on. It’s very uncommon to see them being used out in the public and even less common among photographers. The accessories that tend to work well within the market seem to be phone cases, screen protectors, and skins. Accessories for the camera or for photographers, rarely do extremely well.
Currently, there are very few companies that are doing well by producing smartphone camera accessories. In fact, the only company that I can think of is Moment, and they seem to be diversifying pretty quickly away from just smartphone accessories.
The main issue is that most people don’t particularly care about taking good quality images; photography is a niche. Even among the photography crowd, most people tend to prefer to shoot with more dedicated cameras as opposed to using accessories to improve images from their smartphones. For this reason, the huge number of units being sold does not really mean a great deal if you’re planning on producing smartphone camera accessories.
This is even more of an issue if you’re only supporting iOS devices because the number of iPhones being sold is significantly lower than the total market.
The point is that when you start breaking down the market, it’s not as attractive as it may have initially seemed. Not so long ago, disposable cameras were the most popular cameras in the world. It was probably a bad idea to produce pro-level equipment for those types of cameras too.
In a discussion I had with Profoto CEO Anders Hedebark, he made a point that really stuck with me.
“We don’t make lights for cameras; we make lights for creatives,” he said.
In essence, Profoto does not care what device a creative person wants to shoot with, Profoto just wants to be compatible with that device. It doesn’t matter if it’s Canon, Sony, Phase One, or the iPhone; all that matters is that its lights need to be compatible. On that basis, having the B10 compatible with iPhone is simply a matter of widening its compatibility. Effectively, if you already own a Profoto B10 light, it is now compatible with more cameras than it was previously, therefore offering greater value.
I’m completely for this expansion towards the iPhone because when you consider it from that perspective, it makes complete sense. The only slight chink in the armor is the fact that Profoto literally does produce lights for cameras. The perfect example of this is the C1 and C1 plus lights. These are explicitly described as smartphone studio lights and they’re currently only compatible with the iPhone. Based on that, it does feel like Profoto is leaning quite heavily into the smartphone industry and I’m not entirely convinced that this is a good move.
One of the trends that we’ve been seeing over the last few years is how camera equipment has dropped in price. Good quality lighting equipment is much less expensive now than it was around a decade ago. Cameras are also becoming less and less expensive and this due to manufacturers like Canon with its EOS RP, Sony with its a7 III, and even Fujifilm with its medium format cameras. The majority of income seems to be made from the budget photographers.
This makes sense because the industry has had a huge influx of new photographers, but most of these photographers probably don’t have the budget to buy super expensive equipment. Maybe catering to this market is a smarter thing to do.
Companies like Godox seem to be doing really well in this market and the products they produce are of a high standard. Budget doesn’t necessarily mean cheap; it generally means less expensive.
Maybe it’s a better idea for Profoto to consider this section of the market instead of the smartphone industry. This way, they can attract photographers that may be starting out and then bring them into the ecosystem.
I’m not convinced yet that the smartphone photographer is the one to be targeting with high-end lighting equipment.
It’s important to mention that Hedebark is an extremely capable CEO with a proven track record. Through his leadership, Profoto has seen a great deal of success. It’s likely that Hedebark is seeing something that I’m missing, and this may be the reason Profoto is leaning so heavily into the smartphone industry.
What are your thoughts, do you think Profoto is making the right move towards smartphones, or should they focus on the budget market instead?
About the author: Usman Dawood is the lead photographer of Sonder Creative, an architectural and interior photography company. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Dawood’s work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube.