After posing, one of the most critical elements of a good headshot is the lighting.  But what kind of artificial lighting works well for headshots?  In this post, we’ll discuss using ring lights for headshots.

Are Ring Lights Good for Headshots?

Ring lights can be a great lighting source for headshots.  When used correctly, in the right setting, a ring light can produce an evenly lit, clean headshot for a client.

Of course there’s more to using a ring light than just turning it on.  You’ll also want to know:

  • How are ring lights different than traditional lights?
  • What makes a ring light good for headshots?
  • What are the shortcomings of a ring light?

How are ring lights different than traditional lights?

Ring lights are shaped like a donut, with light along the outside of the structure and a hole in the middle.  The hole is there so the camera can shoot through the middle of the ring light.  Some ring lights are built to attach to the front of your lens or clip to the top of your phone. Most, however, are built to sit on a stand and position the lens to shoot through the middle.

Other speedlights and strobes are a single square or round bulb that is enclosed in a smaller space.  The camera cannot shot through a traditional light, but must instead shoot above, below, or next to the light.

Ring lights also put a very distinct donut shaped catchlight in your subject’s eyes.  A traditional modifier has a solid round or square catchlight instead of a donut-shape.

What makes a ring light good for headshots?

Easy-to-use

Most ringlights are a continuous light.  You can see the results of its position or brightness immediately and don’t need additional triggers or receivers to talk to your camera.

Economical

Ring lights can be a more economical lighting source when compared to buying a strobe, stand, modifier, trigger, and receiver separately for soft light.

Eliminate shadows

Ring lights eliminate harsh shadows on your subject’s face.  The shape of the ring light puts light above, below and right onto the face, giving even lighting on your subject.  Because of this bright, even light, they are a favorite of fashion and beauty photographers.  Ring lights help eliminate wrinkles and emphasize facial details like makeup.

Ringlights for headshots

Interesting Catchlights

That donut shaped catchlight can be a really pleasing feature in a headshot, especially if you are going for a more modern look.

Great for Fill Light

Even if you’re working in a well lit area, your headshots might benefit from a ring light.  They can provide just enough fill light to boost the shadows on your subject, such as those under the chin or on the far side of the nose.

What are the shortcomings of ring lights for headshots?

Ring lights aren’t perfect, of course, or no one would ever need other types of softboxes or umbrellas.  So where do ring lights fall short?

Glare

Ring lights can be hard to use on a subject with glasses. The glare from the light overtakes the subject’s eyes and can be hard to eliminate in camera and in post-production.

Aberration

Used incorrectly, a ring light can cause a halo effect or chromatic aberration around your subject.  You’ll need to fix the chromatic aberration with post-production software like Lightroom or Photoshop.

Small and Directional

A ring light is a relatively small and directional light source when compared to an umbrella or large softbox.  It won’t spread light as wide as other modifiers, so it won’t work well for a group of people.  And while a ring light can be used in other ways, it’s meant to be aimed at the subject with the camera shooting from inside the donut.  So it’ doesn’t work very well to accomplish more advanced lighting patterns like Rembrandt or side lighting.

Hard to Shape

A traditional speedlight or strobe can be modified with umbrellas, softboxes, snoots or grids.  A ring light can’t really be modified.  It can be dimmed, but not really shaped.  So what you see is what you get.  If you need just a bit of light in a certain area or a lot of light across a big space, a ring light can’t accommodate those needs.

Can’t Overpower the Sun

Ring lights aren’t usually powerful enough to use outside in strong backlighting.  They lack the brightness to light your subject enough to match bright ambient with shadows on your subjects

Other Uses for a Ring Light

In addition to a main light for headshots, ring lights work great for acting as a fill light or hair light when shooting headshot sessions.  They are also a great tool for macro photography, food photography and video.  

Conclusion

There’s no singular best light for headshots.  The right light to use depends on your goals for the image and personal preference.  But ring lights can be a valuable tool to have in your arsenal as a headshot and portrait photographer.