Guide to Ring Flash Photography

Find out how to give your flash photography the edge in our guide to ring flash photography

02/11/2012 - 00:00

ring flash for fashion

The ring flash has become a popular form of illumination for many types of photography. It was invented back in the 50s for dental photography, but macro photographers soon found uses for it and it wasn't long before it was scoring points with portrait and fashion photographers.

The ring flash is, as the name suggests, a flash with a tube that's shaped like a ring. The ring is positioned around the lens so the light produced comes from all angles and not just above or to the side like conventional camera mounted flash. The benefit is that you get a form of shadowless lighting. 

ring flash used on bellows Doi ring flash
Here an old Doi ring flash is seen in a bellows set up (left) and as on the front of a macro lens (above). You do need to compensate for bellows extensions when using an older set up like this as the flash isn't TTL. Use a modern flash and the exposure is automatically controlled. The batteries on this type are housed in the pack on top of the camera so less strain is put on the lens.


 

The original units were small, as the concept was to bring flash close to the macro lens being used to photograph dental work. This small flash was also fine for macro photography as the subject is usually small too. It can be used for shooting coins, stamps, jewellery and even insects.

ringflash for insects
If you look closely you can see the ring shaped highlights.

Ring flash ant
Sometimes the ring shapes can be really obvious!

While many nature photographers enthused about the ring flash others didn't like the flat, harsh light the flash gives or the ring shaped catch lights that appear on insects with reflective surfaces so they started to find alternative options. Specialists started to use brackets and small flashguns set at different exposure ratios to produce a more natural lighting. Kennett Engineering (the people behind the Benbo) made a bracket that allowed small flashguns to be mounted around the lens.

cokin macro flashSome of the more modern ring flash manufacturers realised the advantage of controllable light and developed macro flash with multiple tubes that could be individually switched off. Cokin even had one in the 80s that attached on an A series holder and had three flash tubes that could be angled. The trouble with these is they're not really ring flash as the light comes from three or four points.

While all this was going on in the macro arena studio and portrait photographers were liking three specific characteristics of ring flash. Firstly, although harsh shadows are removed, a ring flash can leave a very soft shadow all the way around a subject in an outlining shape. This look proved to be popular in fashion shoots.

Also the light tends to be like a spotlight so it's more circular and falls off quicker resulting in a natural vignette...and thirdly the catch lights in the eyes are an interesting doughnut shape.

These features can be enhanced by having a larger ring so lighting brands began to develop ring flash for their studio kits and most of the big names such as Bowen's, Hensel, Elinchrom etc have a ring flash to plug into their studio power packs.

Strobists who didn't like the power of the conventional macro flash started to modify their Speedlights with Blue Peter like creations and a few companies such as Ray latched onto this and developed flash modifiers that direct the flash through a ring shaped diffuser that is placed over the lens. These give almost studio style ring flash light at a fraction of the cost. And makes use of your existing flash.


The Ray Flash adaptor produces a perfect circle catch light unlike many flash tube variety, but you have to be close to get one that's as large as this.

Pentax Af160 Ring FlashThe original ring flash concept became quite mainstream in the 80s when independent brands such as Centon, Starblitz, Vivitar and Cobra each had their own badged version of a low cost macro flash, while Sunpak and Metz hooked into the world of TTL and provided more automated options.

All the camera brands introduced a ring flash system and Pentax was no exception. The current model is the Pentax AF-160FC with a guide number of 16 (twice that of the basic models from Vivitar, Cobra etc) and TTL control with full ¼ and 1/16 power reduction. It also has a modelling light to help you visualise the lighting effect before taking a photo.

Like many of the more powerful ring flash, the battery pack / control unit is split and is mounted on the camera hot shoe allowing the much lighter ring to be attached to the lens without any risk of strain that the older all-in-one units might bring to modern SLR lenses with AF mechanisms in the lens.







rose lit with ring light
The ring flash shadow can provide an interesting 3d lift to still-life subjects placed near backgrounds.

Rust using ring flash
When the background is darker the shadow is less obvious but still enough to give a distinct emphasis on the three dimensional aspects.

Recently we've also seen the introduction of ring lights. These are like ring flash but instead of having a ring shaped flash tube they have a series of white colour balanced LEDs in a ring shape. These are much less expensive than ring flash, but are less bright so wider apertures are required and slower shutter speeds.

And finally if you're a bit of a dab hand with electrics you could build your own using a ring tube style household fluorescent tube. These are not that powerful but give a lovely soft ring flash style light with a large catch light in the eye. Only attempt this method if you are a qualified electrician.

home made ring lightThe home made ring light gives a lovely soft light but the circle is not complete as the tube has a start and end point with a gap between.



Related Photos

vic cross

Link Posted 02/11/2012 - 08:20
It would be nice to see a few more photos of ringflash/ringlights. Home made etc.
CHEERS Vic.
Born again biker with lots of Pentax bits. Every day I wake up is a good day. I'm so old I don't even buy green bananas.

johnriley

Link Posted 06/11/2012 - 08:07
The ring flash gives quite flat lighting, especially on teeth. Many dental photographers use an additional small flash to one side to add a sliver of highlight to the teeth.

This livens up the image and could be used for other ringflash applications just as well.
Best regards, John

Redcow

Link Posted 15/12/2012 - 21:36
I love my ring flash and have used for macro shots. It does a great job. I have also used it for portraits and indoor photography and although I have a lot to learn, am enjoying exploring it's potential!

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