How To Get Started With Ring Light Photography

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ring light photography featured image

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you want the photograph you’re taking to look professional, but the light is too low or the shadows are too harsh. For these situations, you might want to use a ring light photography to get a soft, even light for a portrait or for a macro photograph. 

What is a Ring Light? 

A ring light is a type of flash or continuous light source, but it’s designed as a circle that can either be attached to the camera lens directly, like a lens hood, or it can be used as an off-camera flash. Basically, it’s a ring of small LED bulbs that are designed specifically to distribute light evenly. And, they are made of warm, white bulbs that are designed to mimic daylight in an indoor setting.

large ring light.
Ring lights come in variable sizes–some fit on your camera lens while others are larger, and you shoot through the ring of light.

You can get ring lights in multiple sizes, and the larger sizes can be used the same way you would use a flash to fill in areas of dark shadows with light. There are two configurations of ring lights, one provides continuous light, and the other type is the same as your flash. Either of these types can be used to create beautiful portraits or well-lit macro shots. 

What are the Best Uses for a Ring Light?

Ring lights can be used for a number of reasons, including the following: 

  1. Portrait Photography
  2. Macro Photography
  3. Food Photography
  4. As a Softbox
  5. As a Key Light
  6. To Expose Details

Let’s take a closer look at these uses. 

1. Using Ring Lights for Portrait Photography

The most common use for a ring light photography is in portraits. Using a ring light will instantly help to eliminate harsh shadows, and for portrait photography, you want to provide an even light that falls softly on the face of your subject.

The circle of light provided by a ring light widens the source of light ,thereby illuminating the face from above, below, and from directly in front of your subject. And, because they mimic daylight, they bring out the subject’s natural skin tone.

Using a ring light also creates an interesting effect–it produces a circular reflection in your subject’s eyes. If you look closely at most fashion magazines, you’ll see they frequently use ring lights, as you can tell by this telltale reflection in the eyes. 

Related Article: Explore 13 Creative Portrait Photography Lighting Techniques.

2. How to Use Ring Lights for Macro Photography

Another common use for ring lights is in macro photography. The main benefit of using a ring light like this is to eliminate harsh shadows. For macro photography, a small, portable ring light is perfect, and you can wrap it around your lens to prevent any distracting shadows as you get closer to your subject.

ring light photography macro shot.
Using a ring light can help you get in close to your subject without casting distracting shadows. Notice how this image of a bumble bee is evenly illuminated without any hint of a camera shadow.

Another great feature is that these lights are small and easy to carry, so if you’re heading out on a nature trek and want to take some macro shots, you’ll easily be able to carry these along. 

3. Food Photography

Ring lights are great for food photography because the soft light allows you to illuminate the food all around and helps create an editorial look for blogs and restaurant marketing.

image of an artichoke.
Using a ring light off to one side can create a beautiful effect for food photography.

But, using a ring light is most beneficial for food photography when you use it off-camera to light your subject from the side. So, if you’re using it for this purpose, you should get a handheld ring light or one on a stand. 

Related Article: Explore 3 Essential Tips for Food Photography Lighting Setup.

4. As a Softbox

Because ring lights throw such a soft light, they’re great for use as a softbox. Like a softbox, they create a pleasing, soft, and even light. 

5. As a Key Light

Using ring lights as a key light means you can see the “signature” ring lighting pattern at its best. When used around your lens, it will create a halo of shadow around your subject. It’s a distinctive pattern that works particularly well for portrait photography

6. To Expose Details

You can use ring lights as fill to contrast with hard strobe lights. It’s an interesting way to make use of these versatile rings of light. 

portrait of a woman with a ring of light shining on her face.
Ring light helps illuminate your subject.

Getting Started with Ring Light Photography

So, now you know a little bit about how to use these lights, but what about getting started? The first thing you have to do is decide whether you want to purchase a ring light or make one yourself. If you’re thinking about using ring lights as a continuous light source, it’s pretty straight-forward to make one yourself. For approximately $20, you can make one yourself using LED lights and inexpensive materials. Here’s a list of what you’ll need: 

  • White LED strip; 
  • White plastic drain hose; 
  • White gaff tape; 
  • Scotch tape (optional).

Begin by folding the LED so it has lights on both sides, and if the strip doesn’t have an adhesive back, you can use Scotch tape to fix that. Once the strip has been folded, thread it through the drain hose and attach it with white gaff tape. Now, shape the drain hose into a circle, and seal everything with white tape. Next, just plug the LED strip in, hang the light on your camera, and start taking photos.

If you don’t want to make your ring lights yourself, here are a few things to look for when shopping for the right ring light for you. There are numerous models on the market, and it will ultimately come down to your photographic genre and your budget, as well as how much you intend to use it. The main factors to consider are: 

  • Cost: Most ring lights start at around $100, but if you’ll be using it frequently, or if your photographic genre is portraiture, macro photography, or food photography, you should consider making a bigger investment in this kind of lighting. 
  • Quality of build: Of course, lower-priced models are likely to be of lower quality. Sturdier, better quality ring lights will cost you more, but they also will hold up better over time. Think about your general habits and where you usually work. If you work frequently in the studio, your gear might not take as much of a beating as if you work outside of the studio. 
  • Accessories needed: It’s also important to consider if there are other items you will need for the particular ring light you’re considering. You might want to know, for example, if replacement bulbs are expensive or difficult to find. Do you need a mount for the light? What about a charger? Being fully informed will help you make a better decision.
  • Light settings: One of the things you might want to know is if you can adjust the light, and if so, how many settings does it have, and will that be sufficient for your needs? It’s also good to check what kind of options are available for adjusting the light temperature.
  • Size/portability: Finally, you’ll want to consider the size and portability of the ring light. This is particularly important if you shoot macro photography and you work outside of a studio. If you shoot mostly portraits or food photography, you’ll want to consider larger ring lights that go on a weighted stand. 
small ring light with a brush and a small tripod.
When buying a ring light, it’s important to consider the size and portability as well as any accessories you’ll need.

It’s important to consider all of these factors when you’re getting started with ring light photography. It’s a type of lighting that can help you capture beautiful photographs, but you have to consider your own style and what you need for your particular photographic niche.

There are a number of different ring lights on the market, and there is always the DIY option. The ring light that is right for you depends on your unique situation. Whatever you choose, however, ring lights can add beautiful lighting to your images, and they are well worth the investment. 

How to set up a ring light?

There are several options. As we discussed, you can wrap it around your camera lens, but you can also put it on a mount and either point it directly at your subject or set it off to one side. In fact, you should experiment with what produces the best light for the shot you want and for your subject. 

How to adjust a ring light?

Dedicated flash ring lights are linked to the camera’s exposure meter, and that helps with any adjustments. For larger ring lights that mount to a light stand, you’ll have to decide whether to attach it directly to your camera or hold the camera by hand. If holding it by hand, keep the camera lens in the center of the ring light opening for a direct lighting effect. Adjust your exposure with your camera controls. Color temperature can be adjusted by using filters attached to the ring light. Diffusers can also be added for an even softer light. 

How to bring out more eye color with a ring light?

The key to getting good photographs of eyes is to light them well so that they have great catch lights.  A ring light can do that very well, and they create the signature circular catch lights. By getting in close to the face of your model, the ring light will create circular catch lights that really bring out the eye color. 

Can you use a ring light without it being your main light source?

Yes, ring lights can be used like a softbox or as a fill light to brighten areas of dark shadows. They need not be the main light, but you can use them that way as well.

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Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.
Catherine Gaither is a professional photographer and bioarchaeologist. She has traveled the world photographing archaeological sites and artifacts, and studying human physical remains. She has written numerous professional publications. She continues to work as a forensic consultant and author.

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