Lords of the Ring Flash

Sept 2, 2010
By Dan Havlik

Lords of the RIng Flash
Photo Credit: © Gregory Heisler
Gregory Heisler uses ring flash as a fill rather than a key light to create a more subtle look in his portraits, such as this image of Bruce Springsteen. When ring flash is overused, it can become cliché, Heisler says.
It's amazing that a lighting solution originally created for dental photography continues to find a place in fashion and portrait photographers' bags today. That's the case with ring flash, a deceptively simple device designed to create bright light without direct shadows.

Along with photographers continuing to use ring flash, manufacturers continue to churn out variations of the device. Some ring flashes we've looked at in the Tech section of this magazine include the Metz Mecablitz Wireless Macro Ring Flash which syncs to your camera's pop-up flash; and the Ray Flash, an odd-looking device that converts your attached strobe into a ring flash. Also intriguing is the Orbis, a similar contraption to the Ray Flash which you attach to your flash gun and hold in front of the lens.

More important than the gear is the look it creates: intense, revealing illumination that's surprisingly flattering (and a bit surreal) because of the dramatic, shadowy halo behind the subject. While the style is distinctive, it can become cliché if overused, according to Gregory Heisler, a portrait photographer who's been using ring flash for 30 years.

"It's so recognizable that it risks becoming a bit of a trademark," Heisler says. "There are photographers who use it all the time and it's easily spotted."

To prevent falling into a ring flash rut, Heisler says he only uses it "sporadically" and mostly as a fill light rather than a key light.

"When it's a fill, you get this very unusual quality that provides light without an identifiable source. It's everywhere and it's nowhere," he explains, adding that he typically sets it a stop and a half to two stops under the main light.

The portability of ring flash is also an appeal, Heisler says, as well as its "no-brainer" useability. And since you don't need a light stand, ring flash can be a relatively inexpensive device to own.

On the downside, the powerful, direct light can be unkind to the person you're shooting. "It sucks for the subject. It's very bright and since it's right on the lens they can't avoid looking at it. They see images that look like donuts for ten minutes after you shoot." He adds that it can also give your subject "red eye" in the image.

Heisler used to use the Orbis but currently shoots with Profoto's ring flash. "It's more cumbersome but it's more powerful. You can use more lenses with it and I shoot it handheld a lot. It's a wonderful tool."

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