The ring flash is ubiquitious, too much so if you ask me. If not used creatively the picture ends up looking, well... just like every other ring light picture. It took me a long time before I decided to pick one up and try it. After using it at various productions and experimenting with positive results, I realised that when mixed with other light sources it contributes a lot to a good photograph.
I now regularly use my ring flash, a Profoto Pro-7. I want to share with you the results of my experiments and the different setups I discovered. I want you to know what interesting options are available and illustrate my setups with pictures produced at some of my photosessions. Hopefully you find this information useful and discover new ways to use your ring flash!
"It actually has gotten a bit of a bad rap, probably from overuse in those downtown magazines with catchy names that usually last for about two issues and run page after page of disaffected, outlandishly dressed young people, apparently high on some form of illegal substance, staring vacantly at the camera with a circular highlight in their overlarge pupils."
— Joe McNally
Joe McNally has a point: the ring flash can give your images a look which might not be what you are looking for. The ring flash on its own produces images which are well known and easy to recognize. You get a strong halo effect around the model and a nice 3D appearance. When used on its own, you risk getting stuck in that typical ring flash look, where all that people see is the halo. So make sure you are creative and have a special model which can stand up to this type of lighting.
Here are two examples of the standard ring flash on the camera. One example illustrates the ring flash in studio and the other on location.
Just as you can use any strobe outdoors, you can also take your ring flash out with you. Shooting outdoors mixing natural sunlight with a ring flash gives you good pictures. The same theory applies as when you are using strobe flashes outdoors. You have to ensure that your aperture and speed values are correct so that both the sunlight and the ring flash light have an effect on your picture.
Here are two pictures which illustrate using a ring flash outdoors in the middle of a cloudy day. The halo effect is still apparent but not as strong.
Things get more interesting when you start combining the ring flash with other strobes in the studio. One of my favorite combinations is using the ring flash together with a fill light and a hair light behind the model.
As fill light I use a big softbox. It minimizes those halo shadows, giving you the benefits of the ring flash's lively colors and three dimensional touch, without so much of that standard look. I don't like that halo too much, so adding a softbox is an important factor for my photography. The hair light highlights the model's hair. This is a technique often used to add more volume to the hair make it appear healthier, nicer and more glamourous.
This is what the lighting setup produces:
and here is the setup:
You can push the whole thing further by adding even more light! The previous setup is pretty good but to make it look even better, you can also add two strip lights behind the model. One on the left and one on the right. That creates a very plastic but impressive look. The setup us is easy, here the results and the diagram.
and here is the setup
This is definetly my favorite way of using the ring flash. It produces very professional results and works perfectly when photographing extravagant models with an interesting style.
The ring flash is a special light source. Famous photographers like David LaChapelle or Jill Greenberg use it as an integral part of their style. The different setups I described here are only some variations, but with some imagination and experimenting you should be able to discover other ways to get the most of the ring flash. If you want your photography to look unique, then I am convinced the ring flash can play an important role!
Keep shooting and please share your ring flash pictures and setups. I would be very interested in seeing what other options are possible!