Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Ringflash technique

200706we_ringflashsholik Ringflash becomes a more versatile lighting tool

By Ellis Vener

Popular with fashion and celebrity photographers, ringlights create a singular look. Typically ringflash illuminates the subject in a clinical light that looks like the camera was mounted in the center of a spotlight, leaving nothing concealed. The effect offers none of the tricks of shadowing and highlight and chiaroscuro we normally use to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth in a two-dimensional medium.

Until recently, most ringlights were designed the same way, with a circular or pair of semi-circular flash tubes wrapped around the barrel of the lens. Some ringlight manufacturers include a larger outer reflector and inner deflector to spread the light out a bit more and soften the light's hardness. But now at least three manufacturers—Broncolor, Profoto, and AlienBees—are looking to make the ring a more versatile lighting tool. AlienBees has been especially creative in this regard, devising an entire set of light modifiers to use with their ABR800 AlienBees Ringflash and the similar head for the forthcoming Zeus system. I’ve used the ABR800 for this tutorial.

AlienBees Ringflash photo above ©Stan Sholik

200706we_ringtut01  200706we_ringtut01det

Figure 1 (above, with detail):
For a traditional setup, position your subject relatively close to the background and choose a moderate telephoto to wide-angle lens. Mount the camera to the bracket on the ringlight. Take a meter reading and adjust the power level on the light if needed. Take another reading and start shooting. For this image I used the removable diffusion dome modifier that covers the flash tubes. In the detail, notice the shape and size of the catchlight as well as the texture of the skin (photo is not retouched). Click the image for a larger view.

200706we_ringtut02  200706we_ringtut02det

Figure 2 (above, with detail): This is a variation on the standard setup. Here I’ve exchanged the diffusion dome for the inner reflector of the Moon Unit 30-inch soft box and added the 10-inch outer reflector.  Click the image for a larger view.

The ABR800 has two light modifier attachment bayonets, one around the inside of the ring and the other surrounding the outside rim of the ring. Both are locked and unlocked by a lever on the light's control panel. You use the inner bayonet to attach the diffusion dome, the Moon Unit reflectors and the umbrella holder.

I found that combining the Moon Unit reflector (optional) with the 10-inch ring reflector (included):

  • blocks direct light from the flash tube
  • reduces specular reflections because the effective light source is slightly further from the lens axis.
  • makes a better signature ringflash catchlight
  • changes the shadow pattern on the background

To get an even softer and more flattering light, use the Moon Unit soft boxes. In addition to the 30-inch Moon Unit, AlienBees plans to offer a larger one in the future.

200706we_ringtut03  200706we_ringtut03det

Figure 3: Using the Moon Unit with the front diffusion scrim removed didn’t change the light quality as I expected, but created a more complicated catchlight. Also notice how the quality of light, the highlight reflections, and the shadow on the background have changed. The essential quality of the light changed from a hard, relatively small light source to that of a large, shoot-through softbox. This technique can make for a smoother key light or a near-invisible fill light when the ABR800 is used in conjunction with other light sources.  Click the image for a larger view.


Figure 4: Here I positioned a Balcar U head fitted with a Balcar V-PLB 65 Prismalite Box to the right rear of the set and aimed at the subject. On the left side of the set I aimed an ABR800 with the Umbrella adapter at a large white wall to make fill light from that side and to  illuminate the background. The front fill came from a second ABR800 equipped only with the 10-inch ring reflector. This frontal fill was set close to a 1:3 ratio (one and a half stops under exposed relative to the key light).  Click the image for a larger view.