Lighting Basics: How to Light Portraits with an Octabank

Octabanks are one of the more recent light modifiers to hit the scene. They’re an interesting and odd combination of an umbrella, softbox and beauty dish. Most popular amongst fashion photographers, they’ve been growing in popularity with many other types of shooters.

In fact, they’re one of my favorite light modifers.

How Octabanks Work

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer How a Softbox Works Diagram (1 of 1)

If you paid attention to our previous post on how softboxes work, you should know that the general concept of an Octabank is the same thing. A flash outputs light at one end, it gets diffused by an interior diffuser, then bounces around and comes out the front where it is diffused again.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tamron 85mm f1.8 review sample portraits Natalie (4 of 4)ISO 1601-800 sec at f - 2.5

Where Octabanks differ is with their shape. They’re called Octabanks because they’re eight sided vs being four sided like many softboxes. This results in a rounder light but with a few hard edges–kind of like looking at a lens’ aperture. Indeed, Octabanks are kind of like a fusion between a beauty dish and a softbox due to this. This more edgy light is also a result of the silver interior–which adds more punch to the light. This extra punch is very valued in the fashion community, but it’s also been making big waves more and more in weddings and portraits as of late.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Octa Phottix review (5 of 6)ISO 4001-50 sec at f - 6.3

Additionally, this shape lends itself to one of the biggest strengths of an Octabank: the exterior diffuser. Many times, photographers remove the exterior diffuser to get even edgier light coming around like a full circle shape. This isn’t very possible with an umbrella and while it’s surely possible with a beauty dish, beauty dishes don’t have the versatility of an Octabank and also end up requires less light output due to the way that they’re designed to work with more directional light output.

If you do this with a softbox, oftentimes the light output is just too hard and jarring.

Shape, Look and Variations

Octabanks, like softboxes and umbrellas, will deliver a softer light output depending on their size. The larger the light source is, the softer the light will be. Here’s a recent shoot showing you this. In this shoot, what’s also happening is the exterior diffuser is on the front of the octabank. This is the most common way of shooting with Octabanks because it makes the lighting soft.

Extremely soft light.

Extremely soft light.

Like a softbox and other light modifiers, the size of the light modifer directly effects the way that the light will be rendered. Because this is such a tight headshot and the light modifier is around 42 inches large, it gives off very soft light. Why? 42 inches is way larger that the area on Jenn in the image above.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tamron 85mm f1.8 Di VC extra sample images Jenn's portraits (2 of 4)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 3.5

To make the light look more edgy though, you can take off the front diffuser of the octabank. When you do that, you create harder shadows and more specular light (which means it renders more details.) The light is also harder here because of the fact that the area being photographed is over 48 inches.

Something else that the Octabank does: with the diffuser off the light is less directional and so it works a bit more like an umbrella with an interior diffuser.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 70-200mm f4 OSS Eli Samuel portraits (2 of 2)ISO 32001-80 sec at f - 4.0

The natural look and light output of an octabank will always be a bit more edgy than a standard softbox even with the diffuser on (as in the image above) but where it really takes on aspects of a beauty dish and a softbox combine is with the exterior diffuser being off.

Note that the light here is also again pretty hard because of the hard falloff. The light isn’t wrapping around Eli but instead giving direct illumination. What you’ll also obviously notice is that the edgy light makes colors pop quite a bit.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 55mm f1.4 Otus with Grace (6 of 6)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 3.5

Diffuser on

Laying Down. One arm draped over the hips, stomach not against a surface. One leg slightly behind the other.

Laying Down. One arm draped over the hips, stomach not against a surface. One leg slightly behind the other.

Diffuser on

Model: Susan Vengance; and an effective use of color

Model: Susan Vengance; and an effective use of color

Diffuser on

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Diffuser off

Where to Place Them

While Softboxes can be used slightly more towards camera left or right of the subject and you’ll have very soft light, the Octabank will have edgier light when put in the same areas. Generally speaking, I strongly recommend that the octabank be placed with the light source itself slightly above the eyes of the subject. Because of the very directional quality and the specific shape combined with the interior, it will be harder light in the areas where it doesn’t really reach. You can see this very clearly in all of the images. You may even want it right next to you as you’re shooting.

But if you want the edgier look, then you’ve got the option of panning it to the left or right of you even more or even taking off the exterior diffuser.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.