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.
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.
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
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.
Setup #2: Light Position to the Back and Side
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.
Setup #3: Lighting From Behind (Backlight)
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.
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.
Setup #4: The Tabletop
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.
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.
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.
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!