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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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