Last Updated on 11/11/2021 by Chris Gampat
If you’ve been looking into lighting at all, then chances are that you’ve looked into ring flashes. The popular flashes are used to give a multitude of looks depending on what you’re going for–but they all have on specific characteristic. Ring flashes are known for giving a subject a ring in their eyes like in the photo above. It’s a beautiful catch light that adds extra emphasis on the eyes: which is what so many portrait photographers try to do anyway.
This post give you a brief overview of the flashes, but for even more we recommend that you check out our Introductory Guide to Lighting Modifiers.
Who Uses Ring Flash?
Ring flash is typically used by party photographers, photo booth shooters, and fashion photographers. The method is loved by many models and many photographers as well. However, today’s fashion trends emphasize more of a use of direct flash vs ring flash to give off hard shadows behind the subject. It is something that was made famous by photographers like Terry Richardson.
However you can still get that effect with a ring flash when combined with a fast shutter speed and a lower ISO plus also get the effects of the catch light.
What is a Ring Flash?
If you really, really want to get basic, then a a ring flash is an actual flash that is designed with the flash tube going around in a large circle. The center is hollowed and is typically where a photographer sticks their lens to get the maximum effects of the ring flash effect.
The flashes were originally designed for dental use so that dentists could evenly illuminate a patient’s teeth–and they worked pretty damned well for a while. But then they were adapted for more commercial photography reasons. For years, the flashes were contained in full units that were big and bulky. Many of the best ones are still quite big and bulky and often require being plugged into the wall or a battery pack. These ones are also the most powerful and used by many high end commercial fashion shooters editorial photographers. They allow a photographer to shoot at the lowest ISO setting that they could possibly want. Some of the best are made by Broncolor, Profoto, Elinchrom, and Paul C Buff via Alienbees.
A more recent development is one of flash modifiers. Most folks tend to go for these alternatives because of the fact that they are cheaper and they prefer to work with smaller flashes. Combined with the performance of modern day cameras at higher ISOs, they can still be really effective. While many won’t crank their ISOs up above 400 or even 200 when using these, some folks might go up to 800 or 1600 because of the fact that speedlites and other hot shoe flashes are typically weaker than monolights and battery pack strobes. Additionally, despite the fact that many of these modifiers are incredibly portable and durable, they have a major drawback–light loss. Many of these units have around a one to two stop loss of light output. If that isn’t a big problem to you, then go for them. But on a given basis, it will mean that your flash will need to work harder. If you’re shooting in TTL mode, you might want to set your EV compensation to +1.
Again though that depends on your own unique vision.
Then there are what are known as ring lights–and these are often constant lights. They tend to have the weakest output of any of them and we often recommend not using them unless a deer happens to walk into your studio.
Get it? Deer in headlights? No? Okay…
When is Ring Flash Best Used?
Typically when you spring for using a ring flash, you’re going for a very specific look. You obviously want to get the ring-shaped catchlight look in the eyes. The most colloquial use of a ring flash is to get an image that is totally shadowless. In order to achieve that, you’ll need to not only have the correct flash output, but you’ll need to mix the light output with the ambient light. This can sometimes prove to be tougher than it sounds. A search on 500px for the word Ring Flash (WARNING NSFW) will show you images that are using the more typical and modern methodology. Instead, it emphasizes having a bit of shadow and instead utilizing the fact that a ring flash and really enhance and create what are called specular highlights.
Specular highlights are the extra fine details that come out on a subject when a flash is used. You’ll probably be using a very sharp lens to begin with. But when you combine it with a flash ring, your perceived sharpness of the image will be greater because of all the hidden details that you’ll unlock.
How Do You Use Ring Flash?
The answer to this question really depends on the application that you’re going for. Let’s start with a couple of starters here. The most accepted and known way of using a ring flash is to put it around your lens. That is the best way to get the ring-like look in the subject’s eyes. But if you’re feeling very experimental, you can try taking it off of the camera and placing it to the side. If used correctly and the ring is the right size (remember that the smaller the light source the harsher the light is in relation to the subject’s size) it can mimic the look of a softbox–making it an extremely versatile light source. However, this is an extremely unorthodox way of using it and we recommend not doing this unless you really feel experimental.
Using a ring flash (or modifier for it) requires lots of trial and error to get it totally right. If you’re using a hot shoe flash modifier then we have one key tip for you: get close. Everything that they taught you about using an 85mm lens in tutorials needs to be thrown right out the window. Since the flash modifier is killing one to two stops of light, you’ll barely see the effect unless you get closer to your subject and for the best results we recommend using a 35mm or 50mm equivalent lens. The further back you go the more you’re going to need to either crank us your ISO setting or open your lens’s aperture. As it is, we recommend that you never stop down beyond f5.6.
This is a much different game if you’re using a real ring flash. These are the units that plug into a wall or a battery pack. They can be heavy sometimes and many photographers use them with tripods. Those that don’t use them with tripods often have a section of the flash connect to the tripod socket of their camera. These flashes have an all manual light output–so if you’re shooting with a human subject that isn’t the most patient then we strongly advise you to get your hands on a handheld light meter that will tell you the exposure of your light.
Because of their significantly more powerful output than hot shoe flashes, you can keep your ISOs down and you can also shoot at a longer focal length such as 85mm. That means that you’ll have less work to do in post-production and your subject won’t have anything distorted at all. However, these units are considerably more expensive than hot shoe flash modifiers–but they’re worth it.
Paul C Buff Zeuss Ringmaster Flash Head: This flash head is only $299.95–which is significantly more affordable than most hot shoe flashes and is also infinitely more powerful at 2,500 watt seconds (most hot shoe flashes are around 80 watt seconds.) It requires their Zeus powerpack which then plugs into a AC power source.
AlienBees ABR800 Ring Flash: Though this unit is significantly weaker than the Zeus Ringmaster, it can plug directly into a wall and have have no issues. It will connect to your camera’s hot shoe with ease and can be used with other power packs as well. We love the Paul C Buff Vagabond mini.
ExpoImaging RayFlash: The RayFlash is the most durable and sturdy ring flash attachment that we’ve ever used. Plus it gives some incredibly punchy light due to its thin size.
RoundFlash: Many of the images in this blog post were shot using the Round Flash. We reviewed the first version, and after the company read our review they went back and revamped the product. Version two has some of the most incredibly even flash output that we’ve seen and can also deliver the softest light. It collapses down for easy use and storage–but we also recommend being more careful with it since it is made of cloth and metal rods.
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