Lights, lights and more lights. As a full time wedding and portrait photographer I have a vast array of lights; 8 or 10 speed lights, 5 or 6 high powered strobes, half a dozen LED panels, 3 or 4 florescent lights and I’m sure a few more I can’t remember. Yeah, seriously! Why then has a simple, inexpensive, 19″ ring light become my go to light more than any other over the past two years? Because it’s insanely simple to get gorgeous flattering shots; and why work harder than you have to? Right?
Every single shot your going to see in this post is lit with one simple 19″ ring light. Either in combination with the ambient room light or more often with the single ring light alone. It’s almost impossible not to get great results with this light. It’s truly like cheating the system.
My favorite way to use this light is to set it up just a few feet in front of my model, push the model right back up against the backdrop and use a 50 or 85mm wide open. A 50mm f/1.8 works perfectly. What this configuration will allow you to do is light your model at the same time you are creating a separation light behind them. Yep, with the subject and background being so close the ring light is actually illuminating your model and the backdrop at once. Remember your rules of light fall off; for every doubling of the distance light has to travel its intensity is decreased four times. Keep it all close and there’s no space for the light to disperse; viola, background light. Get too much room between your model and the backdrop and your backdrop will fade to black no matter how reflective your background is.
The shot above of Linda was done with a single ring light blended with a very subtle ambient light in the room against a reflective textured wall. The lighter the wall or background the more effective the single light can be as a separation light. In this particular shot I did not shoot though the ring but just outside and to the left. Because I now shifted the balance of light slightly to the left you can see there was a touch of shadowing to the right of Linda’s features; most easily seen around the nose and shoulder. This is simply creative choice. I like to mix it up; I will shoot both outside of the ring or right though the middle if I want a more shadow-less look as in the image below.
Here I used an even more reflective background of gold sequins, but still just a single light. The house lights were turned completely off for this shot, so Hana and the background were lit solely with the 19″ ring light. (see video clip at the end of the blog)
Here in this shot of Jessica I used a much darker background and pulled the model away just a bit. You can see it results in a more dramatic look but there is still just a hint of separation so that Jessica’s hair does not simply become indistinguishable from the background. The separation and it’s value are more easily seen here in this larger high-res post on Flicker.
You may have noticed by now that every single portrait I’ve shown is of a single model. So, you may be wondering if this light can be used to light more than just one person. The answer is “yes”. I’ve used my ring light to light light entire groups of people. However, at that point only to give a little bit of punch to a group that is already fairly well lit with ambient room light or another light source, ie it’s no longer my key light, just acting as a mild fill. I would say as a key light your good up to about 3 or 4 people as in this sample below.
Once again the only light in this shot aside from the dim ambient room light of this temple was a 19″ ring light. Which brings me to another point. Constant light can be very easy to balance with ambient. I simply turn up or down the intensity of the light itself or move the light forward or backward, until I get the ratio of key light to ambient I want. It’s a true “what you see is what you get system”. Conversely, had I been using a flashgun, now I’m adjusting the flash manually or counting on my TTL to get a proper reading and then using flash compensation to force it to balance with the background off in the distance. Start bringing in things like high speed sync and various modifiers and it can get very complicated very fast; no such complications with the ring light.
So why then would I not simply sell all my speed lights and use this guy for all situations? Simply put, constant LED or florescent lights, are not powerful enough to balance with the sun, let alone overpower the sun… but that’s a topic for another time.
I’m going to close with this fun little time-lapse of my headshot session for the girls of the 2017 Miss Vietnam Sacramento. The curtains were drawn and the house lights were off and at the end you’ll see that we were shooting in complete darkness aside from the one 19″ ring light. You may notice that behind the models is a small LED panel that I sometimes use if the backdrop is too dark This time I set it up and never turned it on. The ring light reflecting off the gold sequin curtain was all I needed. Like I said… so easy it’s practically cheating.
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