Playing With a New Light: Two Approaches

Thousands of miles apart (and brought together by the magic of Photoshop) readers Tanya Shields and David X. Tejada both made ring flash adapters recently. Then they proceeded to test them out on a nearly identical subject. I found the differences in the way they tested their new lights to be very interesting.

More after the jump.

Canadian amateur photog Tanya Shields, (left) built her ring light adapter out of common household items. It's a neat approach, as attested to by the fact that I immediately went out and ripped the design off. I built mine in about three hours (one good movie, one so-so movie) from cardboard, parchment paper, foil-backed tape, gaffer's tape and glue.

Total (prorated) cost: Under $5.00.

Yeah, yeah, I know: "What about the cost of your time, David?"

Well, first of all, I like making stuff like this. I also like watching movies. And my accountant will tell you that my time does not in fact appear to be particularly valuable in the monetary sense anyway.

Long-time pro David X. Tejada, (right) whose lighting videos have spent so much time on Strobist that they keep a toothbrush here, made a spiffy new hardware store ring flash. (He shows you how to build it here.)

While the two ring lights are very different in construction, they create fairly similar light sources. What you'll get from these designs is a typical ring flash look, flavored by the fact that the ring will likely be a little hotter on the side closest to the flash.

Some may see the lack of absolute consistency as a hindrance, but I would prefer to think of it as a feature. The ring is going to fill all the way around, with likely about a stop or so difference between the flash side of the ring and the other side.

Since the rings are very portable and hand-holdable, you can choose to put the hot side on the top or bottom by rotating the ring. The hot bottom will give you more of an in-your-face ring shot look, whereas a hot top will give you more of a subtle ring look.

(Incidentally, this is the first time that the terms "David X. Tejada" and "hot bottom" have ever appeared on the same web page.)

Anyway, through some freakish and coincidental force of nature, both Tanya and David both proceeded to test their new ring flashes out on a young man wearing a hoodie. The similarities in light source and test subject matter struck me as interesting, and made me think about two completely different approaches to thinking about the same light source.

Tanya did exactly what very many of us would have done: Walk around here house shooting anything or anybody who would sit still long enough. Her self portrait up top was done with her ring flash, too.

When I made my first ring flash, I did just about the same thing. The light just puts a whole new spin on just about everything. And you are like a kid in a candy store -- a weirdly 3-D, flattish, wrapped-shadow candy store. You go out and shoot a memory card full of photos that each like all of the other ring flash pix out there.

Nothing wrong with that. You just can't help yourself. It's too fun.

But someone like David, who has been around the block a few times, tends to think of the ring flash a component in a multi-light scheme. This is an approach that many of us can learn from.

Take the example above. David shot his nephew (and fellow Strobist reader) Ian, using a similar ring flash to Tanya's model.

But David is using the flash as part of a triangle lighting setup, with two other speedlights positioned about 20 degrees behind Ian on each side. In doing so, he is completely wrapping Ian with light. Working about two stops above the ambient exposure (as David is) means that Ian is effectively being lit on another plane than the diffuse, grayish ambient.



Q: How would I know David is working about two stops over the ambient?
A: Because on a cloudy day, properly exposed snow would be rendered a couple of stops over medium gray - bordering on white. But David's snow is very close to medium gray. Bringing his subject up with strobe allows him to put the snow at any tone that he wants, from near-white to pitch black.


Okay, back to the photo: Which means that not only can David get this cool separated (dare I say, almost Dave Hill-ish) look, but he could also do the warm gel / cool gel thing, or make that dropped-down ambient any color he wanted.

Mind you, this is not a typical look that will pop up every week in one of David's oil-rig annual reports or brochures. But one day when he needs to amp a boring portrait, will be able to whip this technique out to save the day and look like a hip young Gen-Y shooter in the process. (Don't worry, Dave. You're better lookin' than that Lawrence kid.)

Here's the point: The first thing someone like David T. does with a new light source is to get past the obvious and start to experiment with it as an integral part of a lighting scheme rather then as an end to itself.

To be fair, my first experiences with the ring light were much more similar to Tanya's. But I am learning to think more like David T. as I go forward.


UPDATE: Australian reader Sam Webster took his new ring adapter into the bathroom to shoot underwater portraits. I thought that was a neat twist, and a cool look for the water-themed series of shots he was doing for a local band.

He did a video of the shoot here. More of his pics are here.


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Blogger Gamaliel said...

Love this kind of light is very adventurous, cool post.

January 14, 2008 12:33 AM  
Blogger greenwoodimages said...

I also made a ring flash, and I also shot a guy in a hooded article of clothing.
There is something in the water!
And yes, this stuff is too fun!

January 14, 2008 2:46 AM  
Blogger n506 said...

I find the ringflash very useful where you need to get light into a tight spot. Perhaps that's why it's been chosen for people wearing hoodies, because it prevents any shadows around the face being caused by the material covering the face.

I use it in similar situations where I want to get light into a spot on a product. I posted an example of a spirit level on my blog using it to brighten up the bulb and then used another light combined with a reflector to bring the product's shiny surfaces up to scratch.


With that example, you'd never realise a ringflash was involved, but keeping a hold of the ringflash "look" can also pay off. It can give an edgy look to the light on a product, especially a slightly shiny one.


January 14, 2008 5:19 AM  
Anonymous TanyaShieldsPhotography said...

Holy cow. Happy Monday to me!!!! Wait until my son sees this ;)

January 14, 2008 7:05 AM  
Anonymous Dean said...

I LOVE the pop quiz. Please keep putting those in. I think it helps to remember to think about the lighting and not get so caught up in the story. Keep the quizzes going!

Oh yeah, of course I made a DIY ring light. Went to the dollar store and used plastic bowl, plastic cup, foil tape and textured paint. NICE!


January 14, 2008 7:59 AM  
Anonymous hunta said...

Not wishing to take anything away from David, but is this pic not a self-portrait by Ian? The link to the flickr page would suggest that... Apologies if I've missed something.

January 14, 2008 8:33 AM  
Blogger NTLemon said...

Oh man, I'm dieing here with the David Tejada & hot bottom Google search. The ideas in your head...

Anyways... thats the one cool thing I love about the ringlight look, and it has nothing to do with the typical person against a wall shadow wrap either. Its when its combined with other lighting where it really pops out. I need to get on the ball and build one of these finally.

January 14, 2008 9:39 AM  
Anonymous Halifaxtruth said...

I really think that the lady from Canada has a bit to learn on posing, especially head shots. The images seem very boring, and lack finesse.

But with that said, It is nice to see David experimenting as most of us do. Great shot David! I look forward to seeing more of your work with this "tool".

January 14, 2008 10:47 AM  
Blogger Wade said...

Great article, PS I love the pop quiz and DIY articles.

January 14, 2008 10:51 AM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

I have intentionally done a Google search on "David X Tejada" "hot bottom" just so it shows up in the Google Analytics.

January 14, 2008 10:56 AM  
Blogger David said...

@halifax truth-

I would think we all have a bit to learn on posing, FWIW. I doubt any of us have reached the point where we are ready to stop learning, except maybe the ones on the wrong side of the grass.

January 14, 2008 11:00 AM  
Blogger Tanya Shields Photography said...


Of course I do. That's why I'm still an amateur and David is a professional.



January 14, 2008 11:12 AM  
Blogger G-force said...

Excellent post, once again!

I'm curious, how would one fire 3 flashes, like in David's pic? Assuming he is using PW's, you would have 2 strobes hooked up to a PW each, with the 3rd stobe on-camera, attached to the ring light. So... where does the transmitting PW go?

Not being familiar with how PW work, my assumption is that it's mounted on the hotshoe on the camera, and then you have a sync cable running to (what would have been) the on-camera flash, so Dave is holding the DIY ring in his hand?. Do I have it right? :)


January 14, 2008 11:14 AM  
Anonymous Thiago said...

I've been trying to resist the urge to build a ringlight...but I guess I've just failed.

A curse on the lot of you!

January 14, 2008 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Bill said...


What's up with teh centered text? It's killing me! and all of the nav drop-downs are now at teh bottom of the page!

January 14, 2008 12:04 PM  
Blogger Gordon Buck Jr. said...

David, have you seen this "macro diffuser" for your G9? It's really a DIY ringlight working from the built-in flash.

January 14, 2008 12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


First, David T. isn't using PW's in that pic, but Nikon's IR-based flash trigger system. (Really named "Advanced Wireless Lighting", but most people call it "CLS") The thing on his hotshoe is a "SU-800" commander unit.

If he had been using PW's, he could probably have done it the way you describe, but he's a little bit smarter: The ringflash is fastened to the tripod screw hole on the bottom of his camera. Check out the first blog post he did about his ringflash design too, it shows the finished design a little better.

January 14, 2008 12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember that really cool picture you posted of your extremely beauteous home-built amplifier?

Your ringlight is at the complete other end of the spectrum. Would you PLEASE spend a little more time working on the aesthetics of your projects.

January 14, 2008 1:26 PM  
Blogger i.n.galbraith said...

nah...we used pw's to fire the two 800's on either side of me..

January 14, 2008 2:36 PM  
Anonymous Yong said...

i just made a ringflash out of a plastic pie saver container, aluminum bar, 4" pipe, foil tape, and the usual brackets, screws, and bolts. total cost was like $22. the DIY threads are the greatest!

January 14, 2008 3:02 PM  
Blogger David said...

@ Anonymous (@1:26) -

The amp was built first and foremost to sound great. The asthetics were secondary, and mostly due to the WAF principle.

The ring flash is designed to produce the light that I want. In building it, I did not have to consider a Wife Acceptance Factor, and did not anticipate a "RAF."

January 14, 2008 3:32 PM  
Anonymous Photendo said...

Anyone else getting really bored of the ring light *look* yet? It's totally lost any and all edginess for me.

January 14, 2008 4:52 PM  
Anonymous Sam Webster said...

Thanks for the feature David. I"m already stunned that my cover shot for the band was #1 on explore and skyrocketed to about 4000 views over night.

I'm sure i'll see a couple more views coming my way now that i've been on the illustrious strobist website.

THe last time you featured me (Cloud Control - Photo of the Week some time ago) that shot became my most popular, and remains it.

You truly blow the flickr 'interestingness' filter out of the water when you show someone off.

So thanks. Maybe sometime i'll get to meet you at a seminar! More videos coming soon!

January 14, 2008 6:25 PM  
Blogger El Gato said...

Must add ringlights to the list named 'Things that do not please all the people all the time'

January 14, 2008 6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have two words which aptly describe "The Shot" =

"It SUCKS!!!"

Throughout the past year i was waiting for something like this to surface, knowing that the 'digital revolution' is the Sure Shot towards enticing another television producer (idiot) to deceive the general populous into thinking that "Reality TV" is real photography. My question is: How is Reality TV affecting an upcoming generation?


January 15, 2008 8:26 AM  
Blogger Michael Zahora said...

Both are great executions, but I prefer the metal design. It looks more professional and is definitely more durable, but heavier!

January 15, 2008 1:03 PM  
Blogger LesMizzell said...

Interesting ring flash design.

I bet you could use a large aluminum bunt cake pan or jello mold. Hmmm - off to see what's hiding under the counter in the kitchen...

January 15, 2008 7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished up my own home made flash ring and am blown away by the results. This is a great tool for product photography giving flat shadowless lighting effects. Thanks to the Strobist site for giving the inspiration to construct my own free lance low budget flash ring.
Here is a photo link to the construction of my flash ring and photos taken with the ring.

January 15, 2008 10:35 PM  
Blogger Aki Korhonen said...

I made my ringflash a couple of weeks ago and it came out quite similar to Tejada's one. I actually saw his version after I finished my own so it was a funny coincidence.

My ringflash (link to workflow on the description and sample photos can be found from the photostream):

January 16, 2008 10:11 AM  
Anonymous Chris Yarrow said...

I'm based in the UK and in the middle of making a variation of Davids ringlight.

Wouldn't have been up to it if I hadn't been reading Strobist so I just want to say a huge thanks for the inspiration and smarts to do the job.

Details of my build are here:

January 17, 2008 5:09 AM  
Blogger zoule said...

this is really inspiring quite some time ago, and i was one of the 'victim' .

did one myself, n here's the result .

January 21, 2008 2:03 PM  
Blogger Geoff Johnson said...

I love ring lights. Check it out I just built a continuous ring light.

January 21, 2008 9:34 PM  
Blogger Sebastian Kubatz <<#...aka...#>> L.E.Photogrpaher said...

Hey guys,

I made another ringflash the last days.
I discribed it on the strobist flickr group and on my own blog (german):


So maybe you can add a link or a picture of my version on your next thread about ringflashs.

Thanks a lot for this great site!

February 05, 2008 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Petar said...

A Czech company has invented (and is selling) what we all make out of carton boxes, but then nicer. Here's their site for anyone who may be interested in their product:

I had to smile when I read it's patented... :)) But still - might be of use for the non-DIY people.


February 26, 2008 6:04 PM  
Blogger inspectorfegter said...

There is a great new tutorial on creating a flash ring from disposable cameras. It's at:

March 02, 2008 12:16 AM  
Blogger Herson Rivera / ProPixel Photography said...

Good stuff. I just came up with a DIY ring flash for under $20. It works great! You can check it out HERE

August 21, 2008 8:52 PM  

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