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Everything You Need to Know About Using a Ring Light for Photography

Ring lights are an important part of any fashion photographer’s toolkit. Although they can be a little pricey, they’re key to achieving that “glow” on your model’s face in a studio shoot. What’s so cool about ring lights? Because they’re shaped like a circle, you can put your lens through the ring light, eliminating any shadows and glare that would otherwise fall on your subject.

Ring lights were originally designed in 1952 for dentists to get well-lit shots of patients’ teeth. A typical ring light is made with fluorescent tubes, but these days, many ring lights are made up of multiple LEDs instead, which allows them to last longer and use less power. You can use them for either continuous or flash photography, as well as for YouTube videos.

In addition to glamour shots, ring lights can be used for weddings, headshots, and portraits of all kinds. You can even use a ring flash for macro photography, such as taking closeup photos of flowers, jewelry, and other small objects when a traditional lighting setup just isn’t practical.

Let’s take a look at some of the most important things to keep in mind when using a ring light for photography, including where to get one to how to put it to use. If you’re feeling creative, you can even make your own DIY ring light out of a plastic hose! 

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Purchasing a ring light

The type of ring light you purchase will depend on what kind of photos you plan to take. If you’re taking portraits of models in a studio, you may want to get a larger ring light, such as this 18-inch ring light with a six-foot stand. It comes with a 5400K fluorescent bulb that can dim to 20% power, a diffusion cloth, and a gooseneck stand for easy adjustments.

YouTubers and beauty bloggers may prefer a tabletop ring light, which has a desktop stand and fully-dimmable LED bulbs. You can even find ring lights designed for selfies that clip right on to your smartphone. These are the cheapest and most portable options.

If you’re a professional portrait or fashion photographer using a ring light for photography, then you’ll probably want to get a ring light that’s designed for use with a DSLR. This LED ring light attaches right to your lens, making it perfect for on-the-go macro photography.

Remember to factor in the cost of replacement bulbs into your purchase. LED lights typically last longer and use less power. Fluorescent bulbs produce more heat and are more likely to break, but they are more diffuse and provide a slightly different color temperature.

Setting up your ring light

The most common way to set up a ring light is with your camera inside it, as we’ve seen with the DSLR and smartphone setups described above. With this type of lighting set-up, you’ll be using the ring light as your primary light source, aimed directly at your subject.

If you do it right, you’ll end up with a soft, diffused light that illuminates your subject without any of the harsh shadows caused by other lighting sources. Ring lights are especially useful if you want to draw attention to your model’s eyes, although they are known for creating “catch lights” that can be distracting in some circumstances. You’ll want to avoid a ring light is if your subject is wearing glasses that reflect the ring light or create unwanted glare.

You can also use a ring light in other ways, including as a hair light above the subject’s head, or as a background light to separate them from the backdrop. Because a ring light creates a distinctive circular shape, it isn’t often used as a lone light source, unless you want your model’s face to be surrounded by shadow. Most of the time when using a ring light for photography, you’ll want to use additional studio lights or natural sunlight.

Other uses for a ring light

In addition to portraits, ring lights are also great for product photography, as you’ll be able to highlight the details of an object without casting any shadows. Use the gooseneck to point your ring light directly at your table or workspace. You can also use ring lights to take closeups of tattoos, jewelry, eyes, hands, and other body parts or accessories.

In fact, many makeup artists and hairstylists use ring lights when applying makeup, since they provide the most even lighting. Simply set up a round mirror in the center of the ring light where you would ordinarily put the camera lens. Use it to apply your makeup, then swap it out for the camera to take glamour shots for your Instagram page or website.

Ring lights aren’t just for still photographs either. Many YouTubers use ring lights to illuminate their videos. This creates a soft, flattering look that doesn’t require a lot of setup and can be used even when natural lighting isn’t available. You’ll typically want to have both the light and camera at eye level, but you can experiment with other positions to find the right look.

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Flash or continuous?

One of the great things about using ring lights for photography is that you can use them either as a flash or as a continuous light source. Using them as a flash will save you on power, especially if you’re shooting outdoors and relying on battery. But you may have to take several pictures and adjust the lighting multiple times until you get the intensity and diffusion just right.

If you’re using LEDs and aren’t worried about overheating or running out of battery, then you can keep them on continuously and make adjustments as you go.

In summary

Purchasing a ring light can be a big investment, but it will pay off in the long run by allowing you to take better pictures for your clients or your social media following. Ring lights for smartphones and DSLRs are becoming more affordable than ever, and their portability means you can carry them around with you to shoot in a variety of environments.

Whether you’re taking glamour portraits in a studio or macro shots of flowers and wildlife, adding a ring light to your lighting kit will dramatically improve your lighting options. It’s a must-have tool for amateur and professional photographers alike.

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