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How to Use a Ring Light for Gorgeous Photos (+ 5 Creative Ideas)

how to use a ring light for gorgeous photos

A ring light is a simple, relatively inexpensive way to get started with studio photography – and with the right approach, it can look really, really good. Here are just a few photos I’ve taken using a ring light:

examples of ring light photography portraits
Ring lights can create bold and vibrant images.

But how can you use a ring light to create portraits like these? And furthermore, how can you go beyond standard ring light photography to capture photos that stand out from the crowd?

In this article, I’m going to take you through all the ring light basics. I’m going to explain what a ring light is and how to use it. Then, for those who are interested in more advanced ring light applications, I’m going to share five unconventional approaches (such as using a ring light as a prop).

So by the time you’re done with this article, you’ll know how to use a ring light like a pro – and you’ll even have a few tricks up your sleeve for the next time you’re after unique images.

Let’s jump right in.

What is a ring light?

A ring light is a circular, ring-shaped light designed to be placed directly in front of a subject. You then position your camera in the center of the ring and capture your photos.

Here is a standard external ring light, photographed from the back (left) and front (right):

the front and back of a ring light

Generally speaking, ring lights are used as on-axis, even lighting. Because the subject is illuminated from every direction, ring light photography tends to be a bit flat.

Check out the example below, where the bright ring illuminates the subject from all sides:

a ring light in action for a portrait
To create a standard ring-lit portrait, I would simply move my camera forward until it fits through the ring.

Ring-lit portraits don’t feature interesting shadows – for that, you’ll want to look at options such as Rembrandt lighting and loop lighting – but they have a certain flat, vibrant, in-your-face charm. Some photographers love the flat look, and other photographers hate it; it’s really all about personal preference, and it’s certainly possible to use a ring light to great effect.

By the way, continuous ring lights offer a major bonus for portrait photographers: Because the output is constant, your subject’s pupils get constricted. That way, you’ll see more of the color of their eyes in your photos – which generally looks great!

constricted pupils caused by ring lights
Thanks to the brightness of a continuous ring light, your subject’s pupils will be constricted, allowing you to see more of the color in their eyes.

The two types of ring lights

There are two types of ring lights you should be familiar with:

Off-camera ring lights, which attach to an external light stand, offer a wide band of illumination, and include a large aperture into which a camera can fit. This is the type of ring light featured throughout the article.

And on-camera ring lights (sometimes called ring flashes), which mount to the front of your lens and provide a narrow band of light.

For portrait photography and videography, off-camera ring lights (as pictured throughout this article) are more versatile; you can position them however you like, plus they offer a wider band of light, which is helpful for larger subjects. Off-camera ring lights also generally offer continuous lighting only, which makes them highly useful for videography and studio photography, but less useful for situations where you need a powerful burst of light in a dark setting (e.g., when photographing a frog at night).

On-camera ring flashes are more commonly used by macro photographers or for scientific purposes (you’ll sometimes see crime-scene photographers shooting with a ring flash on TV!). You mount an on-camera ring flash to the front of your lens, then you can easily carry the entire setup into the field (to photograph insects and flowers or, yes, dead bodies). Because a ring light sits on the end of the lens, there’s no concern about the camera or lens barrel casting shadows on your subject, and it lets you shine light in dark, shadowy places.

Note that ring flashes often offer some sort of flash (i.e., strobe) setting, and some of them only work as flashes. If you’re after a powerful burst of light, this is ideal. But be careful before purchasing a ring flash for videography, as you won’t be able to use it unless it offers a continuous setting.

How to do ring light photography: the basics

As you’re likely now aware, using a ring light is insanely easy. It can be boiled down to a simple, four-step process:

  1. Mount the ring light to a light stand or on the front of your lens (depending on the type of ring light you own).
  2. Position the ring light in front of your subject (and if you’re using an off-camera ring light, put your camera through its center).
  3. Manually dial in your camera’s exposure settings (I recommend f/5.6 at 1/160s as a good starting point).
  4. Take a shot. If it looks good, then fire away. If it’s too bright or too dark, make the necessary adjustments, either by darkening/brightening the ring light output, or by increasing/decreasing your aperture, shutter speed, or ISO.

And that’s it!

But what if you want to take your ring light photography to the next level? What if you want to create unique, more unusual ring-lit photos?

As long as you own an off-camera ring light, one with a continuous output, you can use the 5 unconventional ring light techniques I share in the next section:

5 unconventional ideas for ring light photography

It’s time to get a bit experimental – and have lots of fun with ring lights in the studio! Starting with option number one:

1. Use your ring light as a standard studio light

Despite their circular shape, ring lights work great as normal lights; simply raise the light, angle it toward your subject, and it essentially becomes a small softbox!

A standard 45-45 lighting pattern looks great:

dramatic ring-lit portraits
Placed at a 45-degree angle and angled downward, ring lights work well as a normal light source.

Though you can also use other basic lighting patterns, such as loop lighting:

woman with ring light nearby

If you have more than one ring light, you can use them together to create just about any two-light setup that you can imagine. And if the ring lights you own offer an adjustable output, managing your key-to-fill ratios should be pretty easy.

ring light with flags and a woman posing
You are not limited to the shape of the ring; use flags to block off portions of the light and create whatever shape you like!

2. Use your ring light as a prop

LED ring lights don’t get very hot – so if you own one, test out the temperature, then feel free to let your subject pose with the ring for some unique images.

woman posing with ring lights as a prop
Having your subject pose with the light can create some interesting and fun portraits. It can also help to lighten the mood during a session.

The results will vary with ring lights of different sizes, and you do have to worry about the plug and the cables, but it’s still a fun technique. Just make sure not to overuse it (the light has a tendency to illuminate your subject from below, which isn’t the most flattering angle).

3. Use your ring light as ambient fill

These days, ring lights are pretty darn powerful – so you can add them into a studio lighting setup as a gentle, natural-looking fill light.

woman with ring light as fill light
Modern ring lights are quite powerful. It is more than possible to use them as fill lighting in conjunction with a studio flash.

A couple of things you’ll want to keep in mind:

While ring lights are powerful, your strobes will probably blow them out of the water if left unadjusted, so set the power (both on the strobes and on the ring lights) accordingly.

Also, if you’re going to be mixing light sources, you’ll probably want a ring light with an adjustable color temperature.

For an even more experimental approach, you can try using the ring light as your primary light source and your strobes as fill. To make this work, however, you’ll need to take the strobe power way down, so make sure the power on your strobes can drop that far before committing to the technique.

person posing with ring lighting

4. Use your ring light as a compositional device

I love creating compositions that actually include the ring light in the shot; check out this photo, where I framed my subject’s face with the circle of light:

woman with ring light in background
Putting the light behind your subject creates an interesting compositional element. Also, it may just be me, but I love that rim light!

And you’re not limited to putting the light behind your subject. You can place it anywhere in your frame to create cool effects – try putting a ring light above your subject for a halo effect, or placing a ring light at an angle just inside your frame for a curved band of light running through the composition.

5. Try dragging the shutter

black and white ring-lit portrait
When you’re mixing a ring light with studio flash, it opens the door to some interesting techniques like dragging the shutter. Here, my shutter speed is set to 1/15s.

Dragging the shutter is a fun technique that can result in beautiful photos, but it generally involves the use of both a flash and some ambient light.

However, with a ring light and a strobe, you can let the ring light act as ambient fill, fire your strobe, and decrease the shutter speed for some stunning effects.

dragging the shutter woman portrait
This technique is not for everyone, but it can produce some interesting results.

A little warning: If you’re a technically-minded photographer, you’re probably going to hate this tip, as the results tend to be a little soft. Also, while dragging the shutter can be used for some striking photos, you still have to be careful with controlling the movement of your camera.

movement when dragging the shutter
You must manage camera movement while using this technique. When in doubt, use a tripod.

Because the power output on your flash is not affected by shutter speed, you can drop the shutter as low as you need to make this work. You may want to use a tripod for really slow shutter speeds, though.

Ultimately, it’s a technique that produces cool effects in its own right, but no two attempts are going to be the same.

How to use a ring light for gorgeous photos: final words

Well, there you have it! You can now confidently use a ring light – and you can even create unique photos with some unconventional techniques.

So go have fun with a ring light or two!

Now over to you:

Do you have other ways that you use a ring light? Do you have any tips for ring light photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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