Octaboxes are a great way to improve your portraits, still lifes, and product shots – but what exactly is an octabox, and how can you use one for beautiful results?
In this article, I share everything you need to know about octabox photography, from the absolute basics (how do you pick the right octabox for your needs?) to more advanced concepts (how does octabox size affect portrait quality?). I conclude with a handful of octabox lighting setups you can use to achieve consistently stunning effects.
So if you’re ready to become an octabox master, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
What is an octabox?
An octabox is a lighting modifier with eight sides (hence the name!). It attaches to the front of a speedlight, studio strobe, or continuous light and creates a beautiful diffused (i.e., soft) effect.
Note that octaboxes come in many different sizes, from small, 12-inch options all the way up to huge 5-foot or greater models. Here’s one of my octaboxes, a medium-sized model from Rotalux:
Now, octaboxes are used by plenty of studio photographers, including portrait, product, and still life shooters. They’re a highly versatile type of lighting, and some photographers even call them “idiot proof” thanks to their flattering, diffused effect. While I wouldn’t go that far, I do agree that octaboxes are very simple to operate (which makes them a great modifier choice for beginners).
In fact, while I offer a handful of advanced octabox setups below, the simplest way to get started is to simply mount your octabox to a flash, put it on a light stand, point it at your subject, and start shooting. The result is bound to be decent – simply because octaboxes are so powerful!
Choosing the right octabox
If you’re getting started with octaboxes (or perhaps even studio photography in general), you’re likely struggling to pick an octabox model. As I indicated above, octaboxes go from quite small to absolutely massive – with plenty of options in between. So which do you buy?
That depends on the result you’re after. You see, octabox size affects your photos in one key way:
The bigger the octabox, the softer the light.
So if you want very soft, diffused, flattering light that produces very gradual shadows, you should go for a big octabox (in the area of four to five feet). Here’s a softly lit shot taken with a large octabox:
But if you want harder, higher-contrast light, then you should go for a small octabox (e.g., two feet and under). Here’s an on-location shot that features harder octabox lighting:
While neither big nor small octaboxes are necessarily bad, if you’re not sure what kind of effect you want, I would recommend a model on the larger side. Diffused light is great for most portraits, products, and still lifes, whereas high-contrast light is more niche. Make sense?
It is worth remembering, however, that larger octaboxes do cost more, plus they’re less portable and they take up a lot of space.
Also, consider that light size isn’t absolute; it is measured relative to the subject. So if you move your octabox close to a portrait subject’s face, the light will get soft (even if you’re using a small octabox). And if you take a huge octabox and put it on the other side of a gymnasium, the light effect will be hard, even if the octabox is eight feet wide!
Of course, it’s best to get an octabox that most closely aligns with your needs – most of us don’t shoot regularly in gymnasiums, and it’s not always feasible to put an octabox right next to a person’s face when shooting – but just bear in mind that you do have some level of flexibility, even if you can’t afford a huge octabox right away.
How to do stunning octabox photography: five easy setups
In this section, I share five octabox lighting setups you can use to achieve beautiful results. Note that nearly all of these setups can be done with a single octabox, so no matter your gear, you should do just fine.
Also, while I share portrait examples, you can also use these setups to capture product and still life shots.
Setup #1: Octabox in the 45-45 position
A great octabox setup for beginners is the simple 45-45 arrangement, where you position your light about 45 degrees from your subject, elevated slightly above eye level:
Your subject can look directly at the camera – or they can face in either direction for slightly different effects. The goal here is to position the subject near the background, so the octabox lights both the subject’s face and the backdrop:
Note the beautiful, soft light falloff on my subject and the lovely backdrop vignette.
As for technical recommendations: Make sure you focus on the eye nearest the camera for the most pleasing look. And choose an aperture between f/4 and f/11; f/4 will give you a softer effect, while f/11 will keep the subject completely in focus.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes image shot from the side:
Setup #2: Light slightly behind the subject
This lighting setup is similar to the one I shared in the previous section, except you’ll need to position the light 45 degrees behind the subject, as indicated by this diagram:
Note that you must be more careful about your subject position – make sure your subject is turned toward the light. You want at least half of their face illuminated by the octabox, as you can see in the photo below:
This effect is known as short lighting, and it looks wonderfully dramatic. Because the light is no longer aimed at the background, you may even get a beautiful low-key effect.
Setup #3: Light from behind
This octabox setup is a little more exotic, though it’s very easy to pull off and looks amazing:
Simply ask your subject to stand directly in front of your octabox (a large octabox is a big help, here!). Make sure they get very close:
Also, allow the light to wrap around the subject’s body. And make sure your subject’s face is well exposed (and that the octabox background is blown out).
By the way, you can modify this setup to create a brighter image, like this:
Just ask your subject to move away from the octabox, then place a second light in front of the subject:
Make sure the light from the back octabox isn’t flaring over the subject’s shoulders, and be sure to keep the back octabox at an equal or lower power level than the front light.
Setup #4: The tabletop
Here’s a setup that’s very popular in fashion and editorial circles. It’ll give you a glamorous effect with highly sculpted cheekbones:
You’ll need to position the octabox directly in front of your subject (so it’s perpendicular to the floor). Then raise it up high above your subject’s head:
Make sure the light wraps down and around the subject’s body, and position a reflector to aim light back into the subject’s face and fill in shadows.
Setup #5: Hard lighting from the front
If you’re after a much edgier look, then remove the front diffusion panel on your octabox. (Some octaboxes will be left with an inner diffusion panel, which is fine, while others will completely lack diffusion.)
Position the light directly in front of your subject. Then stand in front of the octabox and make sure your body or head is blocking the center of the light; this will minimize hotspots.
The result will be both contrasty and flattering:
Octabox photography: final words
Hopefully, you’re now inspired to capture some octabox photos of your very own!
Even if you’re working with a speedlight and a single octabox, you’ll still be able to get gorgeous results.
So get out that flash, get out that softbox, and start shooting!
Now over to you:
What octabox do you plan to use for your photos? What do you plan to photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!