You’re Using Your Ring Light Wrong

You’re Using Your Ring Light Wrong

tl;dr If your camera lens isn’t in the center of your ring light, you’re using it incorrectly.

At some point during the history of the influencer, the ring light became an accessory de rigueur, fueled by the availability of cheap Chinese-made devices. The original ring light was invented for dentistry by Lester A. Dine in 1952 because of its ability to cast an even light with diffuse shadows in a confined space. An ideal solution for photographing teeth and gums.

The same concept can be found in make-up mirrors, which surround a magnifying mirror with a ring of light. This combination provides a pleasing contrast to overhead lighting that tends to exaggerate lines, wrinkles, and sunken eyes. The advantage of a circular design is that the subject is equidistant from the light source, providing even illumination.

Department store make-up counters often make use of ring lighting and magnifying mirrors. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

In fashion photography, the ring light flash had a run of popularity because of the distinct circular catchlight in the eyes combined with the even illumination of the subject.  But the lighting pattern fell out of favor to more naturalistic patterns which use light to sculpt facial features.

I used a ring light combined with a beauty dish and rim lights to create a very even illumination of the subject. A faint shadow around the entire model is characteristic of ring flash. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced vast swaths of the population to resort to video conferencing, many people purchased supplemental lighting – and often ended up purchasing ring lights without understanding how they work.

Amazon sells dozens of different types of ring lights like this one from Rovtop. Note the correct position of the camera phone lens in the center of the ring light.

As professional portraitists know, larger light sources result in softer light if the subject to light source distance is maintained. When used properly (i.e. camera in the center of a ring light and placed relatively close to the subject), a ring light can produce a very pleasing effect. But the arrangement of built-in computer cameras disallows the proper use of a ring flash. Most consumers position their ring lights off to the side, incorrectly assuming that it will provide a diffuse, pleasing light.

But a ring light’s surface area of illumination is small. So if you really want to look good, you need a bigger light source. Many YouTube creators use large octagonal diffusers to create a soft, but directional light. For most desktop users, this is an impractical solution due to the amount of space required.

Many YouTube creators use large circular or octagonal softboxes like the Aputure LightDome SE. Photo courtesy Aputure.

A number of companies produce flat LED panels like Fotodiox, Elgato, and Neewer of varying sizes that can significantly improve your on-camera appearance. You can position the light to create varying degrees of shadow on the face, but the “classic” position is slightly elevated above the head to create a small “butterfly” shadow beneath the nose. You want to avoid placing the light source below your face because it creates “monster light,” where shadows are cast upwards.

The Elgato Keylight and similar products are a better solution than a ring light for most video conferencing and streaming applications. Photo courtesy Elgato.

If you’re seated near a white wall, you can also bounce light (ideally two lamps on either side of your head) – effectively creating a very large light source. 

Video conferencing is here to stay, so ditch the ring light! When it comes to looking good, bigger lights are better.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. L at 4:05 pm

    How can we get a nice beauty light/ clam-shell style. Or create a look of a ‘ring lite’ by having a lite that wraps around the edge of the monitor … or an interesting app for the desktop – create a bright flattering light on the desktop

  2. Tim Cuff at 4:47 pm

    “I used a ring light combined with a beauty dish and rim lights to create a very even illumination of the subject. A faint shadow around the entire model is characteristic of ring flash. Photo by Allen Murabayashi”

    What crap. If you look at the eyes of the model you’ll see there’s a flash on camera and another light above. Even if that is a ringflash, it’s not being used as said. This post doesn’t say much for PhotoShelter’s expertise…

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 8:34 pm

      the flash on camera is the ring light. I took this photo with a Profoto Acute 1200 + ring flash, and a Profoto beauty dish off camera.

  3. Fotograf nuntă at 7:27 pm

    If we refer to catchlights, then yes, we do not have that beautiful circle around the iris, unless we place the camera in the center.
    However, the ring light can also be used as a kind of beauty dish, and then it can illuminate the face and skin more beautifully than a small lamp.

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