5 Lighting Setups You Can Do Using an Octabox

5 Lighting Setups You Can Do Using an Octabox


Choosing a lighting modifier is always tough because it’s inherently limiting. Do you go for a large soft source or something with a little more contrast? Or something that plays well with the modifiers you already own? One modifier that appears limiting is the Octabox, because generally, they’re a pretty large source.

You could literally point them anywhere in the region of your subject and get an acceptable photo. I’ve even heard them referred to as “idiot lighting” because they work so well, you don’t have to be clever to use them. It’s not really an insult, it’s more of a reflection of how easy they are to use.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use them more subtly though. That’s what we’re going to look at in this article. Your first setup will be the default one most beginners use with lighting. This is a good thing. It gives you a good handle on what the light looks like. But before you begin, let’s talk about the quality of light.

Quality of Light

Generally, when you refer to the quality of light, you’re referring to how hard or soft is the light source.

There are two parts to it though. First, there’s the actual size of the light. A large source is softer, like your typical 4-5 foot Octabox, while a small source, like a 7″ reflector is quite hard.

Soft light

Second, you have the distance to the source. An Octabox placed far from your subject will appear as a smaller source, and become quite hard looking. It’ll also need more power to reach the subject because the light will fall off. This brings us to the concept the f relative size of the light source.

Relative Size of a Light Source

The larger the source of light is in relation to your subject (you may be lighting a still life), the softer your light will appear. A medium source close to your subject will appear softer than a large one further away. So how do you make a larger source softer? Easy, bring it as close to your subject as you can without it appearing in the frame.

Which Octabox?

I currently own three Octaboxes. An Elinchrom 135cm (53″), a Godox 120cm (47″) and an Elinchrom Deep Octa 70cm. For this article, I’m using the more expensive, but really versatile 135cm. You could use the much cheaper Godox. It’s not as soft, but still more than useable.

Setup #1: Light Position to the Front and Side

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

The Octabox lights both the face and the background in this position.

This is the basic one-light setup. It’s the typical light at 45º to your subject arrangement. Put the light in front of your subject and off to the side (either side, though I opted for the right side for my example).

Your subject can be straight on, or face either direction and still be lit acceptably. You could use a meter aimed towards the light to determine your aperture, but as it’s one light, you could just look at the back of the camera to determine your preferred exposure.

Depending on your preference, anywhere from f/4 to f/11 will work fine, just set the light power to match what you want. The larger aperture of f/4 will give you a softer look overall, while f/11 will have much more in focus.

It should go without saying, but you should always focus on the eye that’s nearest the camera for the most pleasing look.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

A behind the scenes image, shot from the side.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Setup #2: Light Position to the Back and Side

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

With the octabox moved around, the light on the subject is more dramatic. Because it’s no longer aimed at the background, the background goes dark.

For this setup, you just move the light 90º towards the background. This time you have to be more careful about your subject position. They’ll need to be turned towards the light more.

This gives us a short lighting pattern, which is more dramatic. You’ve seen this look before if you’ve read my article about lighting positions. It’s a really slimming look that adds more drama to a portrait.

You’ll also notice that compared to the previous setup, the background is much darker. Because the light is now angled away from the back wall, less of it is lit by your light, rendering it much darker. In the case of these two shots, the subject hasn’t moved, just the light.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Setup #3: Lighting From Behind (Backlight)

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox
This a little more exotic, as you’re letting the light wrap around the subject. Your subject will need to be right against the Octabox for this. Allow the light to wrap around and expose for the subject’s face.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Behind the scenes shot.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Bonus Tip:

You can also add a second light to create a high-key portrait here. Technically high-key has all tones above middle grey, so really, you’re just using the Octabox to create a white background.

Move the subject away from the Octabox a little bit. Make sure that the light from the back isn’t flaring over the shoulders to lose definition. If you use a light meter, make sure the aperture reading aimed at the Octabox is the same or lower than the one aimed at your front light.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Adding a second light will create the white background look that’s currently popular. Technically with high-key, all the elements are above zero, so the black in the dress means this isn’t actually a high key shot, though this lighting can provide that look.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Two lights and one reflector used here.

Setup #4: The Tabletop

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

This is a very popular look with fashion and editorial portraits. The front of the Octabox should be parallel to the floor above your subject.

The subject should be placed at the edge of the octa, even back from it slightly. This allows the light to wrap down and around the body. A reflector should be used to aim light back into the face as well to fill in shadows.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Setup #5: Lighting From the Front with No Diffuser

For a much edgier look, pull off the front diffusion panel. As I’m using an Elinchrom, I’ve swapped my inner diffusion panel for the white deflector that comes with the 135cm. You can just use the inner diffusion panel. With the Godox, just remove the diffusion panel.

How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Stand in front of the Octabox and make sure your body or head is blocking the center of the light to minimize any hotspots from the light. Because you’ve allowed the silver part of the Octa to be visible, you get way more contrast in the light.

It’s still a large light source, but you get more highlights on the skin from this look. It also acts like a huge ring light, so you get diffuse shadows all around the subject, for a very cool look.


How to do 5 Lighting Setups Using an Octabox

Get Shooting

Even if you’re just running with a speedlight and a Godox, you’ll still be able to get more options from your light using these five setups.

Remember to keep the center of your light above the subject’s face where possible. Have fun and feel free to post your octabox shots in the comments below!

An Octabox can be used on location as well.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Sean McCormack is a Fuji X Photographer and author based in the Galway in the west of Ireland. He's the author of The Indispensable Guide to Lightroom CC. When he's not writing or creating YouTube content, he shoots people, places and even things.

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  • Stereo Reverb

    Don’t forgot the 6th one, having it directly overhead, which gives some of the most amazing looks. Jeff Rojas over at Fstoppers has a nice short 2 min video of 3 looks done with the softbox directly overhead. Btw, as an owner of elinchrom softboxes myself, they’re an unholy PITA to set up and use. I hate them.

  • Sean McCormack

    Um, that would be number 4. The Rotalux are a joy to use over others that require you to insert each rod from scratch every time you want to set it up.

  • Stereo Reverb

    #4 isn’t set up directly overhead on top of the model as Rojas demos in the link. Your setup is front facing, but angled down slightly, so the look will be different.

    And you’ve never used a Paul Buff softbox, which opens like an umbrella. Fully assembled and ready to go in under 5 seconds. Same for the Westcott RapidBox series, as well as other manufacturers, that use the same method. Though you aren’t required to insert a rod from scratch every time you set up an Elinchrom softbox (actually you do exactly that on the elin Litemotiv series paras), you are required to bend each rod under high tension while trying to slip it into into the locking slot… so essentially you *are* inserting a rod from scratch every time you want to set it up.

  • Sean McCormack

    I’m sorry that you don’t get it, but #4 has the front diffusion panel parallel to the floor. It’s over the model, with the model right on the edge, or close to the edge of the light depending on various things like the depth of the eye socket etc. The diagram software doesn’t allow for overhead angles of light modifier unfortunately or it would look identical to the one in Jeff’s video. The only difference is Jeff had the slight down angle at the front, but as I’m using a larger softbox, it still radiates to give wraparound.

    As to setup. It probably takes me ten minutes to set up a basic octa taking the rods from the bag and building it from scratch. The Elinchrom takes a minute. That could just be practice, but there’s rarely any issue even with the high tension. My old 5′ Octa was such a PITA to set up and breakdown, I would just leave it up and move it around the studio instead of packing it down.

    I have a few umbrella boxes, including a 95cm Octa that was far cheaper than either of the Elinchroms, but I rarely use it-unless I need a grided octa specifically. The light is just much nicer from the Elinchroms. But yes it is quick to set up, but it also has high tension to get a lock in place, and often needs an extra push down to get the clip to release. In the case of both, it still takes the same amount of time to put the diffusion layers on-though I rarely take them off the Rotalux completely to speed that up.

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