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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ring Around The Lens

Ring lights have become increasingly popular with a number of fashion and beauty photographers due to the unique catchlight they make and the often stark and direct look they give to the illumination in the image

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The ring-light look is pretty hot right now. Some people have called it a “deer in the headlights” effect, and we heard one pro recently refer to it as lighting that makes skin look harsh and shadows look more harsh. A lot of other professionals have embraced ring lights more enthusiastically, though. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that ring-light fashion and beauty photography is in, and it never hurts to have an “in” look as part of your portfolio.

Ring lights are actually one of the simpler lighting tools. It’s really just a light that attaches to the front of your camera so that the illumination comes from all around the lens. The result is light that comes directly from the lens axis, which can reduce or eliminate shadows on the subject dramatically. The effect is unmistakable. Imperfections in skin are much reduced, and the light is uniform across the subject. As an example, think of the moon. When it’s full, we’re seeing the sun fully light up the one side directly, and it’s very difficult to see any surface features. We can see lighter and darker areas, but that’s about it. As the moon goes through phases, we’re seeing the sun light it up more off-axis, and as a result, we can see more of the shadowing from mountains and crater ridges.

There’s another reason a lot of pros like ring lights. They produce a distinct and pleasing catchlight in the eyes of the subject. Some describe it as giving definition to the iris, while others just like the fact that it doesn’t look like a softbox or an umbrella setup.

The deer-in-the-headlights description comes from the direct, on-axis nature of the light. Some hate it, while others find the effect cool and edgy. It has become popular to position the subject in front of a somewhat shiny background, which creates a uniform glow from the reflection. Liking or hating that look is a matter of taste and personal style, but even if you don’t love it, the images are selling these days.

When used as a “one-light solution,” the on-axis ring light can create a pretty distinct shadow around the subject (assuming the background isn’t reflective and it’s perpendicular to the camera). To defeat that shadow, it’s often a good idea to put another light on the background.

Ring lights work well alone, and we’re advocates of simple “single-light” setups as much as possible, but when you start combining a ring light with other light sources, you can make some cool images. At a recent photo shoot in Southern California, we met a fashion photographer who was using a ring light as his main light, and he had a softbox with an egg-crate grid as a secondary source. The images were stunning (because the shoot was for a client, we were unable to publish them in this article), with the softbox adding just a touch of definition to the models’ faces, while the egg crate helped to keep the softbox from making a distinct catchlight.

Just about every maker of professional lighting gear offers a ring light. Depending on what you like to shoot with, you’ll find the right ring light for you. Here are some examples.


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