“Why don’t my beauty and fashion images look this good?”
Many beginning photographers ask this question. Sometimes, an apparent lack of quality is caused by a missing piece of equipment or using the wrong photography technique. A ring light provides a solution to both of these issues. Beauty and fashion photographers have long used ring lights to create stunning images. What makes a ring light so special?
Benefits of Using a Ring Light
- Flattering Facial Close-Ups
- Eliminating Harsh Shadows
- Pleasing Eye Catch Light in Portraits
- Evenly Distributed Lighting for Close-Up or Macro Subjects
- Soft Light Quality
Let’s examine these benefits a little more closely:
Flattering Facial Close-Ups
Taking a flattering close-up is one of the more common uses of a ring light. Unless a photographer is aiming for a very specific type of image, our portrait subjects generally want the most flattering image of themselves. Using a ring light is the most effective method for achieving flattering results with your portrait images.
Eliminating Harsh Shadows
The lack of harsh shadows is possibly the primary reason ring light portraits look so pleasing. Since the illumination from a ring light is basically coming from every direction, there are no shadows that can exaggerate negative features. The result is a halo of light surrounding your subject.
It should be noted, though, that not every portrait suffers from having shadows. Certain lighting techniques, such as Rembrandt lighting, require a relationship between light and shadow. A close up image of a person’s face, however, will often look much better with a ring light.
Pleasing Eye Catch Light in Portraits
The catch light is a hallmark of using ring lights. This is the little twinkle or spark of light that is reflected in a subject’s eyes. In portrait photography, any frontal light source is likely to produce this effect. It appears in the image as the shape of the light source. A softbox will produce a square or rectangle catch light, while an umbrella shows as a star.
A ring light will show as a circle of light, commonly called a halo light. Since our eyes are circular, this gives a very natural appearance. Some portrait and fashion photographers will even add ring lights to a full lighting setup simply to create this halo-shaped ring light reflection.
Evenly Distributed Lighting for Close-Up or Macro Subjects
The even distribution of light is the reason the ring flash was invented in the first place. A macro ring light doesn’t have to be flash– it can be continuous light, too. In fact, ring lights were actually invented for dental and other medical professions, where having a steady, clear view of the subject matter is of vital importance.
As photographers, we also benefit from the evenly spread output of ring lights. In macro photography, the short distances can become rather extreme, making it difficult to place lights. Additionally, lights placed to the side or above our subject can effectively obscure a good portion of the frame. The front facing, virtually shadowless effect of a good ring light allows us to achieve the best exposures.
Anyone selling small items online will greatly benefit from a ring light. When selling online, the product needs to be clearly recognizable. If the buyer can’t be sure of what they’re ordering, often they will look somewhere else.
Soft Light Quality
Soft, gentle lighting is a basic feature of ring lights. As you may already know, the quality of the light, ranging from a hard point to a soft wash, can greatly affect the final image. Since the ring light shines from virtually all directions, the light quality is soft.
It may not be suitable for all subjects, so you should probably just try it out and see what results you achieve with the different subject matter. If you ever end up needing a harder light, there are several other ways to accomplish that.
Best Types of Photography for Using Ring Lights
Beauty and fashion photography benefit the most from the use of ring lights. If you have ever seen a makeup advertisement in a magazine, online beauty blog, or even at a makeup counter in a store, you have seen an image that was lit with a ring light.
Take a look at the next eye makeup advertisement you find. See that round catch light in the model’s eyes? Note how the soft, even light allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject of the image. These attractive, effective images create an advertisement that will motivate a customer to make a purchase.
Ring lights are helpful in the cosmetics industry, even without the use of photography. They are an invaluable tool for makeup artists and other aestheticians for applying cosmetics. For home use, when applying makeup to one’s own face, a vanity with lights surrounding the mirror uses this same concept.
Videography, such as a YouTube vlogger, can also be enhanced by ring light usage. Search for makeup tutorial blogs and vlogs, and you will often see them using a ring light. A videographer might also use a ring light when filming nature, such as a flower or insect.
Nature photographers, in general, find ring lights useful. A close-up view of a small object can look amazing when seen enlarged on screen or hanging on a wall. It doesn’t have to be a flower— that interesting rock you found while hiking could become quite the picture when imaged with a macro lens and a camera ring light.
Other businesses and interests that can benefit from ring lights include hair stylists, jewelry makers, stamp collectors, clothing vendors with accessories, auto mechanics, and teachers. Basically, anyone who wants to depict an idea or product involving smaller things or close-up views can make good use of ring lights.
Types of Ring Lights
There are several different types of ring lights. Each has its unique benefits depending on the photographer’s subject and goals of the project.
Flash Ring Light
Most flash ring lights mount directly to the front of the camera lens, often connecting to the exposure metering of the camera for perfect exposures. This type of light is battery powered and primarily used in macro photography.
Ring Light for Phones
This small battery-powered light clamps onto a smartphone and typically provides continuous light output. It’s great for selfies and smartphone video.
Free-Standing Fluorescent Ring Light
This type of ring light has a larger diameter opening and mounts directly to a light stand. A camera or phone can be positioned to view through the opening. Offering continuous light, this fluorescent ring light is also used for non-photo applications, such as by makeup artists and hair stylists. It uses a single color temperature which can be modified by supplied filters and requires an AC power supply.
Free-Standing LED Ring Light
Like its fluorescent cousin, this free-standing light has a larger opening and mounts directly to a light stand. A camera or phone can be mounted to view through the opening. This LED light often includes variable power settings, and has either adjustable color temperature, or can be modified by filters. This type of ring light is also popular with makeup artists and stylists and uses an AC power supply.
How to Use a Ring Light
When using a lens-mounted ring light flash, macro exposure calculations can quickly get very involved and complex. This is why many camera and flash manufacturers have designed new versions that are dedicated flashes. “Dedicated” means that they are linked to the camera’s exposure meter. Typically, the method used is called off the film (OTF) plane metering. Like the standard on-camera flash known as a speedlight, it is the most common metering control. While this technique uses automatic mode, there is nothing amateur about using dedicated flash metering. Professionals from all photography jobs have heartily embraced the benefits provided by a dedicated flash.
A selfie ring light, or a ring light for phones, is very easy to use and does not require a tripod or additional stand. Just clamp it to the phone, switch it on, and fire away. It’s hard to get it wrong, but be aware that the range is rather limited compared to other phone lights.
For the larger ring lights that mount to a light stand, you have to decide whether you want to attach your camera directly to it or hold the camera by hand. If holding the camera, be mindful to keep the lens in the center of the ring light opening (unless you’re going for a different lighting effect). Experiment with camera and light placement to see how different positions affect your images. Be aware that almost all of these ring lights are AC powered, so you will need to be near a source of electricity.
The larger ring lights, both with fluorescent tubes and the LEDs, provide continuous light output. Thus, you can adjust your exposure as needed with your camera controls. Many of these lights also feature variable power settings. The proper exposures should be easy to calculate, even with older, all-mechanical film cameras. Understanding your camera’s ISO is helpful in this situation.
Color temperature can be adjusted by means of filters attached to the ring light, or by adjusting it with the ring light controls, provided the light has those features. Diffusers can be added as well, if an even, softer light output is desired.
Some post processing will likely be necessary after the exposure. Ring lights can sometimes enhance certain optical effects that may or may not be desirable. Phone photographers can use an app such as Snapseed to make adjustments. DSLR or mirrorless photographers can make use of the abundance of controls in programs like Photoshop or Lightroom.
Ring Light Brands
Most of the major camera manufacturers market their own dedicated ring light flashes for macro photography. Some even have specialty lenses with a ring light flash built into the camera lens itself. Name brand ring lights are usually proprietary: Canon ring lights are usable on Canon cameras, Nikon ring lights on Nikon cameras, and so forth. Pentax, Fuji, Sony, Olympus, all make ring lights for their own cameras as well.
Third party brands such as Sunpack, Vivitar, Metz, Yongnuo, or Profoto are also an option and can be purchased either new or used. Many of these third-party brands have special features usable for a variety of situations. The cheaper ring lights will be manually controlled. Dedicated versions will approach the prices of name brand units.
For smartphones, Stellar Diva ring lights are easy to use and relatively inexpensive. Other brands have flooded the market with choices, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them.
The free-standing, larger ring lights from Neewer, Profoto, and Flashpoint are setting the standards for features, quality, and affordability. Some of these are extremely versatile and can be used for many types of photographic and non-photographic situations.
Should I Get a Ring Light?
Many photographic enthusiasts, both professional and amateurs alike, have asked the question, “Should I get a ring light?” The answer is yes, by all means. A ring light will certainly improve every photographer’s imaging efforts.
To start out, purchase an inexpensive ring light for your smartphone to give you an inkling of just what it can do. Alternatively, a good free-standing ring light will fit nicely into your gear pack if you are a more serious photographer.
The dedicated ring light flashes will be the most expensive, and they are going to be limited to some very specific uses. For those in need of these specific features, the price is less of a deciding factor.
In order to get professional-quality results like those found in magazine and beauty photos, you just need to jump in and give it a try. Purchase a ring light that fits your budget and have fun shooting with it. You will soon be amazed by your own stunning images!