A few months ago I wrote a quick "first look" article on this modifier. Since then I have had a chance to use it in a variety of situations; my studio, in the rain, under a waterfall, on a river, at the bottom of said river (not intentional that one), etc. and I thought I'd share with you my impressions so far.
"All portraits, all the time" seems to be the philosophy Gamilight was going for when they designed the new Octave 53. I had already been using Gamilight's Square 43 modifier and grown quite fond of it so I was curious if the more obvious focus on soft portraiture lighting would warrant giving the Octave series a home in my studio. To start, let's review what's included in the package.
For about $70USD you get the modifier itself, two diffusers (and internal plastic one and an external fabric diffuser), a strap for mounting to the speedlight and, like all of Gamilight's top-end modifiers, a pretty nice carrying case. Often little cases like this just end up cluttering my shelves but I actually found myself using it every time I went out on shoot, mainly because they are big enough to hold more than one modifier. Just shove all of the modifiers in there and go... easy!
Assembly is pretty simple, just unfold the modifier, snap the internal plastic diffuser (which gives the modifier it's shape) in place, then pull over the fabric diffuser (be sure to put the diffuse tab in the slot on the modifier body) and you are ready to go.
Mounting the modifier, however, is another story. To be honest it's really only a tiny bit more challenging on the Octave 53 than with Gamilight's other modifiers, which are generally pretty easy, but the way it mounts has proven to be my only real complaint with this modifier. As I pointed out in my first look article, the Octave 53 snaps onto the side of the speedlight mount rather than top and bottom like the Square 43.
Aside from that making it a little more challenging to actually get the buttons to snap into place it robs the Octave 53 from having support from underneath the modifier. This allows the modifier to droop when mounted to the speedlight. Does this affect the performance at all? No, it doesn't, it just doesn't FEEL as well sorted as the Square 43 design. Why didn't they just add top and bottom mounts as well?
Let's look at some of the other differences between this modifier and their previous portrait modifier, the Square 43. The sizes are quite comparable and both employ internal plastic diffusers (the Square 43 using the optional Soft+ diffuser while the Octave 53 comes with one and requires it to hold it’s shape). The Square 43, however, makes use of highly reflective silver panels to bounce the light inside the modifier, while the Octave 53 simply has white reflectors.
This design gives the Octave 53 a tiny advantage in overall output when compared to the Square 43 (1/3 stop loss compared to 1/2 stop, at least according to the manufacturer), but, more importantly, in practice this affects the quality of light that is produced. All other things being equal I found the light from the Octave 53 is, overall, "softer" than that from the Square 43 (with the Soft+ diffuser) when the two modifiers are placed at equal distances from the subject. Considering the Octave 53’s focus on studio portrait photography the design makes sense, with everything working to create the softest, most diffused light possible without increasing the overall size of the modifier itself. Speaking of size, let's take a closer look at that. The "numbers" in the Octave 53 and Square 43 names can be a bit deceptive when comparing the two. The "53" represents the diameter of the Octave at it's widest point (tip to tip of the octagon), which is 53cm. The "43" represents the overall width, one side of the square, which is 43cm. While the Octave 53 is wider than the Square 43 (53cm to 43cm), the Square 43 actually has a larger surface area facing the subject (1452cm for the Octave 53 vs 1849cm for the Square 43). The Square 43 is "technically" a bigger light source than the Octave 53! Why is that important? Well, all other things being equal, the "softness" of the light hitting your subject is determined by the relative size of the light source in relation to that subject. The "bigger" the light source is to the subject the "softer" the light. Here we see where Gamilight other design features have greatly affected the quality of light produced by the Octave 53. The white reflectors, the larger internal diffuser, etc. all work together to produce softer shadow transitions (prenumbra) at equal distances to the subject despite having around 400 square centimeters less surface area. ofter light from a smaller modifier, cool.
So what is it like to use on a shoot? I had the opportunity to try it out in two very different scenarios, one an "on-location" shoot in filtered afternoon sunlight at a waterfall located in the Columbia Gorge, and the other a nighttime portrait shoot in downtown Portland, OR. First up, the waterfall:
In this senario we were shooting around 6PM (9PM sunset) at a waterfall tucked deep within the forests of the Cascade mountain range. So there was bright sun filtered through a thick forest canopy. I used one Yongnuo 560mkIII flash and it's purpose was to just to help Alexandra "pop" against the beautiful scenery.
The Octave 53 worked great but I have to admit this wasn't exactly an opportunity for it to really show off it's talents. Most of the time I was shooting full body and simply had to have the flash too far away from the subject for it to really demonstrate it's more "portrait" oriented qualities (although the first shot above will give you a pretty good idea of the light quality). That being said, it did a great job of focusing light exactly where I needed it and I can't say enough about how big of a difference using these light, foldable modifiers made to the logistics of the shoot itself. They fold completely flat and weigh next to nothing so all my gear fit into a single backpack. That maded a world of difference when the location is a few mile hike into a forest and you have no assistants to help! Set up took seconds, tear down was just as fast. It really changes the context of a shoot when you can focus on the creative aspects rather than wrestling with your equipment!
So when it came to scheduling the nighttime portrait shoot I wanted to make sure we really put the Octave 53 through it's paces. "What is it like if it's now the ONLY source of light on my subject?" In a word: excellent!
For this shoot we really were in this modifiers sweet-spot, working at much shorter distances and specifically taking portraits, headshots, and close-ups. As you can see, I placed the modifier just above eye level, to camera right, in a "loop-lighting" configuration about 5 ft from Alexandra. Here is the result:
Shadow transitions are quite smooth and, to me, quite flattering. Lighting across Alexandra's face is even with very few pronounced specular highlights. One thing to keep in mind when working with a smaller modifier like this is light falloff. As you can see, the light falls off quite quickly as you move away from the Alexandra's face. You can see this in the first photo showing the placement of the light, as the second photo is a little deceptive because the shadow you see at the bottom is actually a huge girder I was shooting over. That's part of the package when you use a smaller light source, the close you bring it to your subject the "softer" the light, but the more dramatic the light fall-off as you move away from center. That being the case, I still found the Octave 53 to be quite directional, with not a lot of light spill away from where it was being pointed.
Next we tried some shots blending the Octave 53 with ambient light in a long exposure situation. This was in an underground railway depot which, as you can imagine, was NOT very well lit. I needed to set the camera to gather enough light for the background and capture the motion blur of the train, while using the flash to freeze Alexandra and pop her from the background. It took a few tries but ended up working pretty well. I have the flash pretty far away in this shot in an effort to reduce light fall-off and cover Alexandra head to toe, in hindsight attaching two Octave 53's on the same stand and bringing them closer would have been a better solution. Thankfully the equipment is small enough that bringing a second flash and modifier would be easy.
And finally, I wanted to know exactly how these would perform in a studio situation. I had been contacted by a local model, Lulu Ngo, to shoot a photo series for a calendar being published, so I decided to use the Octaves for the project.
The concept for the shoot involved having Lulu posing on top of a 1996 Ducati 916 Pro-Twins race bike. This proved tricky right from the start, shooting a very shiny, glossy vehicle with flash is always a bit of a challenge. We knew we wanted a very dramatic shot with "contrasty" lighting, but we also wanted Lulu herself bathed in very soft, even light as well. We tried a couple lighting setups before finally deciding to simplify our approach; 4 lights total with two open flashes behind the bike for the background and two Octave 53s at opposite ends. We moved the lights in close and took advantage of the Octaves dramatic light falloff to allow the motorcycle to gradually fade into black. Here is how it turned out:
I think the Octaves worked very well in this application. The speedlights were significantly lighter and more maneuverable than studio strobes, which made it easier to set up and tear down our different lighting setups, allowing us to quickly try different configurations until we landed on one we really liked. Having much smaller modifiers allowed us to position the lights closer to the model, just outside of the frame and, even though we didn't end up using this in the final shot, the lightweight flashes and modifiers made positioning lights on a boom above the model significantly easier... and Lulu much less nervous!
So there you have it, my experience with the Octave 53 in pictures, both out and about and in the studio. On-location shoots are where I think the Gamilight products really do well. Having a durable modifier that produces great light, folds flat, and weighs practically nothing really makes a difference and the Octave 53 is no exception. And, even though I'm not nearly as fond of the mounting design on the Octave 53 as I have been with their other modifiers, it's still easy to set up and take down, saving a lot of time and headache on a shoot. That being said, while Gamilight's other modifiers have proven to be unbreakable so far, enduring multiple trips down stairs, gullies, and the like, the Octave 53 has not, with it's latest trip into a river resulting in a small rip near, you guessed it, the mount. But don't let that deter you too much, it still has endured a level of abuse that would have destroyed most modifiers long ago... just don't throw it headlong into rapids and you should be fine.
In comparison to the Square43 I think it boils down to this; for portraits the Octave53 is the way to go, hands down. A round catchlight and very soft, very even, very forgiving light for it's size makes this perfect for flattering headshots and upper body portraits. The Square43, on the other hand, is the more versatile of the two allowing you to remove diffusers to steadily archive a more dramatic, "glamour" oriented look with more pronounced specular highlights. It's not that the Square43 can't do portraits, it's just not quite as forgiving in the light it produces.
And finally, in the studio. Gamilight markets their modifiers as a direct replacement to expensive studio softboxes and strobes. Are they? The answer I found is "yes," but it really depends on what kind of shooting you plan on doing. For our shoot with Lulu we ended up providing eight out of the twelve months for her calendar, along with the front and back covers. Out of those ten shots we used Gamilight Octave 53s for seven of them, natural light for one, and the Paul Buff 64" PLMs on studio strobes for the last two. During that time I found myself reaching more and more for the Octaves for the simple fact that they were so easy to use. No cords, no huge modifiers, no 10lbs strobes on poles, seconds to set up. It really did make a difference, but the limitations of the Octaves we clear as well. You simply can't replicate the effect of a 64" modifier with a 20" one no matter what the design, so you need to be mindful of the shooting you intend to do. Be aware of the proximity the Octaves need to be to the subject, and the light fall-off that is going to produce. In the end it was never a problem, and the flattering light of the Octaves never let us down. There are a lot of modifiers in this segment of the market, but I would be hard pressed to find one that is as easy to work with, folds as flat, packs as light, is as durable (white-water rapids not withstanding) and produces as forgiving a quality of light. For a portrait photographer setting up a studio on a budget the Octave53 is a perfect fit.
Thank you to my two increadibly talented models, Alexandra Renee and Lulu Ngo. You can find Alexandra work on Model Mayhem, and see more of Lulu's work at www.lulungo.com.