Ring Flash Week: Getting Past Cliché

Nothing I blog about, save maybe Jill Greenberg, is as polarizing as is ring flash. You either love it or you hate it.

(The haters are in the minority, BTW, as the RF posts are consistently among the most widely read pieces on the site.)

That said, I'll play Devil's Advocate for a moment.

(More after the jump.)


Little Tommy G., of Burtonsville, MD, (USA) writes in to say:

" ... I just don't like the look of ring flash, and I'm not sure why all your readers are so excited about this terribly unflattering and uninteresting form of light. Granted, it's new and trendy, but it's not much better than the "3-stops overexposed direct flash" look that was big in all the fashion mags 2-3 years ago.

And it's neat to build stuff, but it doesn't seem worth the time investment to create something that so limits your shooting flexibility. ..."

Well, Tommy, your problem is simply that you are 100% wrong.

(Kidding, of course.)

And I only did the "Little Tommy" thing because this particular person used to rule over me with an iron fist as my assignment editor at The Sun. Actually, those are all valid points, even if coming from a guy whose idea of "shooting flexibility" used to be asking for a weather feature squeezed in between assignments at 2:30 and 3:15.

I digress.

And I'll admit to being a little schizo about the whole ring flash thing. For me, it comes down to how the thing is used.

I think the "up-against-the-wall" one-source ring flash shot is overused and pretty one-dimensional. (That said, I never do get tired of that Lenka photo...)

But I'll admit right here and now that after I finished building my ring light a few days ago, I shot darn near everything and everybody in the house that was up against the wall with it. The cat won't even stay in the same room with me these days.

But the new car smell wears off pretty quickly on that look. Although it is always there to pull out if you need it once in a blue moon.

What does interest me -- fascinates me, actually -- is the idea of a ringlight as an on-axis, secondary light source. And to be honest, I plan on using it more for still life than for people. I like the idea of hard edge light, filled by that 3-D, wrapped light coming from the ring flash.

I start to get more excited when I think of color contrast between the frontal and edge light, too.

More than anything else, the work of Dan Winters has gotten the ring light stuck on my brain. He uses it in a variety of ways -- as a sole light source, a primary source in a multi-light setup, or as subtle fill.

I could look at Winters' photos for hours on end. (And I have.) I would really like to be able to experiment with some of his techniques on the cheap. A DIY ring flash is not gonna make me Dan, of course. But it will allow me to play with some of his methods and see how I can apply them toward my own style.

If you are into really cool, quiet, cerebral photos, I'd highly recommend a walk through his site, BTW. And if you are a photo editor, you should hire this to shoot something for your mag in every issue. He can make anything look interesting.

Closer to home, for example, reader Michael Hui is doing some neat stuff, too. He is playing with an Alien Bee ABR800, which he uses both alone and in conjunction with other light sources. In the photo at left he used an additional bare Vivitar 285HV from camera left.

It's the latter look that I am drawn to, and I sometimes have to keep myself from faving Hui's pix automatically, as soon as they appear.

In addition to combining the RF with a hard sidelight, Hui is also using it with a multi-source, wrap-lighting scheme that is totally working for me, too.

In short, where some people see a one-trick-pony light, I see a jumping-off point for more creative looks that I simply cannot get with any other light source. So, to that end, I want to learn as much about it as a possibly can.

For now, I am a total newb. But I hope to be doing cool stuff with it soon.

NEXT: Designing the DIY HD Ring Flash


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Blogger Jacob said...

Blast you, Hobby! Using the same bagel-flash photo for both posts. I nearly skipped right by this one, thinking it was a has-been!

I suppose I'll let it slide this time. Moreso due to my affinity for the bagel...

November 13, 2007 11:55 AM  
Blogger easymovet said...

A large ring flash like this one (added construction info) also works great to light something from behind so that you get a rim light all around a subject with just one light. Get the ring light off the camera.

November 13, 2007 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as I recall the ring light first came into use in fashion/glamour photography in the mid-nineties and has seen a recent surge in popularity. I think the way people used it alone back then was much more creative than used today. That said, I do think the ring light used in conjunction with other light sources is an amazing way to add that extra "pop" to an image. Look at Lionel Deluy's work for some great use of ring light with other light sources. I'm not a big "wrap around" light fan but when it's done well I applaud it.

--Matthew McMullen Smith

November 13, 2007 12:20 PM  
Blogger Coyotebd said...

Also, a ringflash circle makes a cool catchlight in the eyes, if you've made one and are bored of all the other things you can do with them.

November 13, 2007 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Light_Reading said...

I like Dan Winters' work (btw the link above doesn't work b/c it's missing the t) but too bad his website is so annoying. Do the pics on the bottom scroll incessantly for everyone else, or is it just me? Trying to click on the thumbnail I want is like the "Whack the Gopher" game at the state fair!

November 13, 2007 12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Mr. Hobby, the first two links are broken for me. I don't know if that's for everyone. Perhaps just double check. Thanks.


November 13, 2007 12:38 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

@light_reading: Dan Winter's scroll thingy just isn't centered very well. The sweet spot is about 2/5 to the right of center. If you place your mouse there, everything should stop scrolling. Move it right or left, and the pictures will come to you. Annoying, maybe, but tameable. And worth the effort to browse those shots. Wow!

November 13, 2007 12:59 PM  
Blogger Will Foster said...

The guy picture looked like Chase Jarvis at first glance... I was a little confused why he would have his shirt off... but it was Lance Armstrong after all... :)

November 13, 2007 1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just don't get what is so great about Dan Winters stuff? I think JG is amazing though! Why is DW better than Jim Fiscus or even Michael H?

DH you still havent clearly explained the advantages of the ringthing over using a couple of umbrellas. Against a wall i get it and it makes a cool catchlight but otherwise cant we use what we have with some modifyers and smarts?


November 13, 2007 2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think people many times are reluctant to see tools as new ways to do new stuff, http://lithiumpicnic.deviantart.com/art/The-Heist-54994993
check this photo, this guy uses the ringlight off camera to get a great effect for the face and eyes of the model.

New gear is as useful as the imagination to put it to work that the photographer has ;).


November 13, 2007 2:33 PM  
Blogger easymovet said...

It's not just about the catch light, it also allows you light head-on without making the subject look flat, it accentuates topography of the subjects by highlighting surfaces that are parallel to the sensor and quickly, but smoothly dropping off on sides of features. It makes a relief map, based not on distance to the flash but angle of the surface!

November 13, 2007 2:58 PM  
Blogger bmillios said...

Jacob -


You, sir, have offended a large number of people. 1) those that like bagels, and 2) those that love and honor that epitome of culinary perfection:

The Krispy Kreme Donut

(best served fresh and hot)

November 13, 2007 3:35 PM  
Blogger ArtSchotz said...

There's a Vivitar ring flash available at B&H I think. It's relatively inexpensive and doesn't require additional work.

Is there some down side to that unit?

November 13, 2007 4:03 PM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

Yeah I was fooled too, thinking you hadn't updated when I saw the bagel pick again. I personally can spend hours on end looking at Jill Greenberg's site trying to figure out her post processing technique since I already see how she lights it now. Like you've said I'm not that big of a fan of the ringlight against the wall even though I've attempted it somewhat here Like Andrew Smith, 'cept mine wasn't as close. Before this weeks post I'd already ordered an ABR800 and should have it by Thursday and can't wait to try the Greenberg and Dave Hill lighting setup on my four year old (he loves to take pictures) and my wife with my other lights. I do want to see what you come up with for a ring flash because I know my ABR won't be as portable.

November 13, 2007 4:05 PM  
Anonymous New Light said...

Winters shot the Dali Lama with a ring light. That's bold...

November 13, 2007 5:10 PM  
Anonymous scubajunkie said...

@jacob... what makes you think it's a bagel? How about a glazed doughnut?

@all... Brings me back to the day, y'know. 35mm FILM cameras. I had a girlfriend in college who got a ringflash shortly after I met her. It had four small strobes placed around the lens. I think she said she paid over $200 for it (in 1983!).

So that memory and this recent discussion on ring flash got me thinking. I've found a number of web sites demonstrating how to make your own flash, or how to modify a disposable camera flash as a slave, but has anybody taken 4 or 8 disposable camera flashes and turned them into a ring flash?

November 13, 2007 5:27 PM  
Anonymous Thomas said...

Little Tommy G here... I should amend my comment to say that it's not entirely new... I remember looking at magazines in the early 90's and thinking "hey, that's a cool circular catchlight in her eyes." It seemed shooters were using the Nikon ringlight, originally designed for shooting with the 55mm macro, in their lighting setup. But it was never the main light, which is what I'm seeing waaayy too much of now. I suppose it has a place (I could see using one, say, once) but because it's such a specialized item I just can't see the value in worrying about bringing it in to my big ol' big of lights and accessories.

And I have to disagree with the notion that it creates a topographic representation of a face, because when it's used straight on it primarily flattens everything out. Maybe you're hoping and imagining that you see depth in those photos, and that's a common psychological/tromp-l'oeil error, but if you want to get depth you gotta get your lights off to the side. It does give a nice Boris Karloff look to some images, I guess.

Let me lastly say that I don't hate ringlights, I just don't get excited about them. And I am disappointed whenever I see technique supplanting rather than supporting content and creativity, which is a mighty easy hole to fall in to as an artist. Believe me, I've found myself in it far too many times.

Dave, there's plenty of weather between 2:30 and 3:15.

November 13, 2007 6:10 PM  
Blogger andy m said...

funny, I've been going through Winters' work in the past few days and checking out how he uses RF in his setups and Boom, you post about it.
I agree it's overused, but by those who have no creativity and make it look so cliché and bland.

November 13, 2007 7:53 PM  
Blogger RootyB said...

ArtSchotz, if you're talking about the vivitar 5000 macro ringlight, that's made for macro photography, and isn't really strong enough for normal shots. Its guide number is only 16'/5m. That's practically nothing.

November 13, 2007 7:57 PM  
Blogger Uncle Mike said...

For what it is worth...I think the ringlight as used in the "Lenka" photo is the only point in using ringflash. It has that no-other-way-to-get-it look! Yes it can be and is overused...but it is a cool look. Taking a ring flash off camera is well...I don't see the point.

And speaking of points, do I get any for using all three versions of RingFlash?

November 14, 2007 1:42 PM  

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