Using a Ring Light in Your Photography

Using a ring light can add some serious pizzazz to your portrait shots and, if you’re into macro photography, create the perfect illumination for capturing minute detail on tiny objects. 

A ring light is simply a set of bulbs or a single fluorescent lamp positioned in a circle that the camera then shoots through. In the world of portrait photography, it provides a diffuse, even fill light devoid of any shadows, making it easy to add into any close-up portrait scene. As a bonus, it also creates a distinctive catch light that brings the viewer’s attention straight to the eyes of your subject. In the world of macro photography, they can function as a either a primary (key) or secondary (fill) lighting source that is perfect for the close-in shots that macro lenses require. Overall, ring lights are best used for close-up work with a single subject.

photo credit: Dani Diamond

Most professional ring lights screw onto the actual lens itself, but many DIY ring lights are created as stand-alone elements and can vary in size from tiny to larger than a hula hoop. (These aren’t used for macro photography.) You can choose between a flash version or a continuous light version. Both yield the same effects, so it simply depends on your overall set up and what you’re more comfortable using. 

Using a Ring Light for Macro Photography

Ring lights that screw onto your lens are perfect for macro photography because they provide a nearly shadowless diffused light and allow you to get closer to your subject than using standard lighting fixtures. The lighting effect is similar to that of a soft box and works well with both critters and inanimate objects. (I.e. there’s no harsh flash shadow that conventional on-camera flashes create.) Because they’re small and travel with your camera, they’re ideal for field use, providing that extra bit of light to allow you to gain a stop or two and catch that much more detail. 

photo credit: Tony Jeeves

Using Ring Lights for Fashion and Portrait Shots

Recently ring lights have become popular in with both fashion and portrait photography, mainly because of their distinctive, flat, almost shadowless light and, even more importantly, the unique catch light that shows up in the subject’s eyes. It’s distinctly circular and can make the eyes look like a light is glowing form within, not just being reflected.

Additionally, using a ring light will provide a diffuse fill light that softens shadows while creating no shadows of its own. And of its positioning (right in front of your lens) and lack of shadows, ring lights are ideal for any kind of portraiture that’s close-up or taking place in narrow, confined spaces. They’re versatile enough to be used both as a key or a fill light (though they’re most often used as fill light). When used as the key light, the circular light creates a unique, shadowy halo on the subject. 

Of course, once you’ve got the portrait shots you like, you can add any final touches using Luminar’s portrait filters

photo credit: Catherine Ritchie Park

Alternately, you can also set up the ring light as an off-camera flash and use it as a key light separate from your camera. In that case it will function the same as an off-camera soft box. For more creative, unorthodox ideas, you can check out Adorama photographer Gavin Hoey’s tutorial on a few alternative uses of ring lights.

Professional ring lights can be expensive, but if you’re strapped on cash a basic version is not particularly difficult to make. A single search on Youtube will yield a number of inexpensive DIY tutorials on how to create your own, some for under $25. If you’re not someone who likes DIY projects and/or you prefer professional gear, you might want to play around with one first before investing in one. Their distinctive look is not for everyone.

One thing to note, however, is that because ring lights have such a short throw, they’re generally only good for photographing individuals, not groups. Single-subject, close-in work is where these lights shine. 

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