PHOTO CREDIT:© Gregory Heisler
Gregory Heisler uses ring flash as a fill rather than a key light to create a more subtle look in his portraits, such as this image of Bruce Springsteen. When ring flash is overused, it can become cliché, Heisler says.

Lords of the Ring Flash

SEPTEMBER 02, 2010

By Dan Havlik

It's amazing that a lighting solution originally created for dental photography continues to find a place in fashion and portrait photographers' bags today. That's the case with ring flash, a deceptively simple device designed to create bright light without direct shadows.

Along with photographers continuing to use ring flash, manufacturers continue to churn out variations of the device. Some ring flashes we've looked at in the Tech section of this magazine include the Metz Mecablitz Wireless Macro Ring Flash which syncs to your camera's pop-up flash; and the Ray Flash, an odd-looking device that converts your attached strobe into a ring flash. Also intriguing is the Orbis, a similar contraption to the Ray Flash which you attach to your flash gun and hold in front of the lens.

More important than the gear is the look it creates: intense, revealing illumination that's surprisingly flattering (and a bit surreal) because of the dramatic, shadowy halo behind the subject. While the style is distinctive, it can become cliché if overused, according to Gregory Heisler, a portrait photographer who's been using ring flash for 30 years.

"It's so recognizable that it risks becoming a bit of a trademark," Heisler says. "There are photographers who use it all the time and it's easily spotted."

To prevent falling into a ring flash rut, Heisler says he only uses it "sporadically" and mostly as a fill light rather than a key light.

"When it's a fill, you get this very unusual quality that provides light without an identifiable source. It's everywhere and it's nowhere," he explains, adding that he typically sets it a stop and a half to two stops under the main light.

The portability of ring flash is also an appeal, Heisler says, as well as its "no-brainer" useability. And since you don't need a light stand, ring flash can be a relatively inexpensive device to own.

On the downside, the powerful, direct light can be unkind to the person you're shooting. "It sucks for the subject. It's very bright and since it's right on the lens they can't avoid looking at it. They see images that look like donuts for ten minutes after you shoot." He adds that it can also give your subject "red eye" in the image.

Heisler used to use the Orbis but currently shoots with Profoto's ring flash. "It's more cumbersome but it's more powerful. You can use more lenses with it and I shoot it handheld a lot. It's a wonderful tool."

 Florida-based photographer Christian Behr, who uses the AlienBees ABR800 ring flash, says he's drawn to the "honest" look it produces.

"With different types of lighting, there is a different kind of mood and the mood you get when you're shooting with a ring flash is very much exposed," Behr says. "There are no sneaky little shadows. It's an 'all will be revealed' type look. You can't hide anything from a ring flash."

(Photo Credit: © Christian Behr)
Christian Behr tries a range of modifiers with his Alien Bee's
ring flash and experiments with placing the device in varied
locations to created unexpected results.

Behr frequently modifies the AlienBees ABR with an attachable, full-size softbox or a shoot-through softbox to create a softer look. He finds the ability to add modifiers to the ABR an appealing solution that expands what you can do with a ring light.

Unlike the Orbis and the Ray Flash, the ABR requires A/C power to run. That hasn't stopped Behr from bringing it on location, though, powering the device via a Vagabond portable power pack.

"One of my favorite things to do is go to a wallpaper store with a ring flash and a model and ask if we can do a couple pictures. Then you just flip the wallpaper to create different backgrounds. You can create an entire editorial spread from that."

He generally uses the ring flash as the main light but will also crank up a kicker light to create a hard shadow in the background. If it looks too contrast-y, he'll power down the ring light to bring out more detail in the shadows.

Another technique Behr uses is to hang plastic painters' wraps in the background and set the ring flash behind them. Then when his main light is triggered, the ring flash blasts out the background to create a flashy, superstar look.

"I love the versatility. It's a low cost light and it has enough power and durability that you can abuse it without panicking."


While New Zealand-based photographer Aaron K doesn't consider himself "a ring flash guru," he says he carries his Orbis with him at all times.

"It's just another lighting tool really," K says. "And as a pro photographer, the more lighting tools I have at my disposal, the better."

He uses the Orbis with an accessory arm that attaches to the bottom of his camera so he doesn't have to hold the device. The set-up came in handy during an extended shooting session backstage during Fashion Week.

(Photo Credit: © Aaron K)
The bright light from a ring flash creates a distinct effect that looks
nothing like ambient light. According to Aaron K, that's part of its
enduring appeal.

"If you tried that with a traditional studio ring flash set-up, your arms would probably fall off," K notes. "And you'd need a couple of assistants to drag the pack after you."

Ring flash's lineage as a device for macro work carries over to beauty photography where it shines for close-up work. K finds himself using the Orbis more often these days as a fill light to open up shadows on a face.

Though ring flash can be harsh on a subject's eyes, he says the Orbis actually serves as "a good icebreaker" with a model because it's such a strange-looking device. Plus, since the Orbis is powered by a flash gun, it's not as powerful as a studio flash and, consequently, it's less blinding. "Most subjects seem to find it quite intriguing because it's not something they would encounter on a regular basis."

While it's been around since the early 1950s, K thinks ring lighting will endure.

"The ring flash look seems to come in and out of fashion," he says. "I think its enduring appeal comes from the fact that it looks completely different from any [other] kind of natural or ambient light source. It is obviously 'fake' or 'unreal' light. As a result, it works well for photo assignments that require a certain contrived or artificial quality."

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