A fluorescent studio light that doesn't suck, or drain your wallet

Constant lights are cool–literally. No longer do we need to use those searing "hot" lights that melt fingers while inducing sweaty faces for us to practice portrait retouching on. Fluorescent and L.E.D. studio lights are more common, and highly efficient. LED lights are still relatively expensive–especially in sizes powerful enough to add light modifiers to–like a softbox. For those that love the look of diffused light through a medium softbox, and prefer the WYSIWYG ability of constant lights, the Octacool from Impact is a great option. It is also very useful as a video light for interviews and talking head setups.
The Octacool is available in a 9 bulb or 6 bulb configuration. It comes with a dish reflector and a 3 foot octagon shaped softbox with 2 separate diffusion faces that can be used individually or together. Each of the 9 standard base bulbs is 32W and daylight balanced. Replacement bulbs are available in slightly higher wattages (I've seen 42W bulbs of the same size on B&H) potentially increasing the output significantly–not that the output is all that bad to begin with. You can turn off sets of 2 lights at a time via the 5 switches on the back. What is truly amazing about this light, however, is the value. The 9 bulb Octacool is only $259. A comparable unit from another manufacturer, with only 6 sockets and no bulbs or softbox included, is $419! With the 9 bulb unit being so cheap, it really doesn't make sense to scrimp and get the 6 bulb Octacool ($200). You will eventually need the extra power and can easily turn a few bulbs off if you need less.
The Octacool is surprisingly well made, especially at this price point. The base unit is solid, with very sturdy switches and connections. I have a pet peave with cheap-o switches so this makes me happy. There is a removable handle for tilting and making adjustments. I found it useful for carrying the unit around too.  
In my light output tests, I discovered some interesting things. The unit comes with both the softbox and a dish reflector. Dish reflectors generally give the highest light output and the most direct (non-diffuse) light. Oddly, when used with the reflector the output from the unit is actually the same as it is with the full, double-diffused softbox. This really surprised me and must be due to mediocre design of the reflector. I'm assuming that at this price point the reflector was not designed by highly schooled lighting engineers, but by someone looking at other reflectors and making something similar.
The highest output actually comes from using the softbox, but without any diffusers–which provides bright, even light. This actually made me happy too because putting either the softbox or the reflector on is somewhat time consuming and I did not want to have to change them often. Now, I can just keep the softbox on the unit all the time and simply add or remove diffusion faces when I want to alter the light quality.
Here are some of the output numbers, all measured with a light meter at ISO 100 and 1/30th second from 5 ft. Keep in mind that fluorescent bulbs take some time to warm up and there can be about 1 f-stop difference between startup and 60 seconds later.
  • Softbox with no diffusers - f4 - 3/10th
  • Softbox with inner diffusion only - f4 
  • Softbox with both diffusers - f2.8 - 7/10th
  • With metal reflector only f2.8 - 7/10th
Even after warmup, the light output does occasionally fluctuate slightly–up or down by up to 2/10ths of a stop. I'm not sure if this is the nature of fluorescent bulbs or the electronics in the base unit itself. Commercial shooters looking for absolute 1/10th stop repeatability might need something more consistent. For portrait and video work, however, this should rarely be noticeable.
What could be improved:
  • Softbox is somewhat difficult to put on. Release tabs on the pockets at each corner would help. Don't plan to assemble this at the last minute, with a client watching. Plan ahead :-)
  • Dish Reflector is poorly designed for efficiency
  • Would be nice to have a traditional "speed ring" design that would allow adding/removing the box and the ring from rear of the unit as a separate, assembled piece. Currently you must assemble the box around the bulbs (unless you partake in the tedious task of removing all bulbs each time you put the box on) and you could bump and break a bulb if not careful.
What I like: 
  • Great price!
  • Good output power
  • Beautiful light quality with full softbox and diffusion
  • Sufficient power adjustability
  • Sturdy build

Impact Octocool 9 9

With the softbox attached it is as compact and portable as a typical studio strobe setup. The kit I got did not come with the light stand, but they offer a kit with a light stand for only $40 more.

Impact Octocool 9 10

The front diffusion face easily slides over the edges of the box and secures with velcro. It is really quick and easy to attach or remove.

Impact Octocool 9 8

Great controls over the pairs of light bulbs for a total power range of about 3-1/2 f-stops from minimum to maximum.

Impact Octocool 9 11

An internal diffusion panel adds additional softness to the light quality. The included clips are not ideal for quickly attaching and detaching, but they are adequate.

Impact Octocool 9 12

The highest output from this light is achieved by removing the two diffusion faces and using the softbox solo around the bulbs. It is broad, even light.

Impact Octocool 9 13

The included dish reflector is not designed well for maximum output and 5 of the bulbs have to be removed to be able to install or remove it. Because of this, I don't see myself ever using it unless I needed to work in a tight space and couldn't fit the softbox. 

Impact Octocool 9 1

This image was made using the Octacool with both diffusion faces and the box placed about 2 ft. from Alycia. The ambient light in my studio created the fill light and the Octacool was the main light. A window created the hair light and accent on her cheek. 85mm f1.4 lens at f2.5 and 1/250. ISO 200

Impact Octocool 9 2

Outside on the deck in open shade, the light was pretty sad...

Impact Octocool 9 3

Adding the Octacool with the softbox changed everything. There is enough power to add a nice kick, even outside–as long as you aren't in full sun. 85mm f1.4 lens at f2.5 and 1/500. ISO 200

Impact Octocool 9 5

In a darkened studio, without any fill, the Octacool softbox creates a nice main light–although some fill is needed. 

Impact Octocool 9 4

Here's a cool setup. I kept the Octacool softbox as the main, but added a fluorescent ring light as my fill light–nicely opening up the shadows. 85mm f1.4 lens at f2.8 and 1/400. ISO 200

Impact Octocool 9 ringlight eyes 1

The ringlight adds a great twinkle to her eyes, further enhancing her natural twinkle ;-)

Impact Octocool 9 ringlight eyes2 1

This is the headshot setup with the Octacool as my main light and the ringlight as a filler, twinkler. A version of this ringlight with dimmer control can be found here on B&H.  

Impact Octocool 9 7

Color balance, when the camera is set to daylight, is very good. The bulbs are rated at 5300-5800K. My glitter covered skeletal remains retained their natural tones and flesh-less color. The other stuff rendered nice too.

One of my favorite strobe lighting modifiers is a 36" Photoflex Octodome. The shape, size, and softness are just right for many of the looks I like to create. Thankfully, this Octacool with its 30" softbox gives me the same look and feel in an easy to use constant light source. I think its one of the best values in lighting (some 3' octagon shaped soft boxes alone can easily cost the same as this entire unit–base, bulbs, and box included.) Videographers should love this system due to the relatively high output, broad, even light, and flexible output level switching.
If you need WYSIWYG lighting or are learning about light and love immediately seeing how angles, distance, power, diffusion, and feathering affect your image, then using a constant light source can be the answer. This is one of the first high quality lights I've tried that fits the bill and is actually quite affordable. I think I'll be ordering a second one.
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