The Secret to Great Close-Ups That Most People Overlook
These days, anyone can take high-quality photographs and video without breaking the bank on professional equipment. And thanks to image-editing software, we all have powerful post-production tools at our fingertips.
So why do so many selfies, product shots, and videos look so amateurish? Much of the time, the answer has nothing to do with the subject, the equipment used, or any after-the-fact adjustments.
It’s the lighting.
Professional photographers and videographers never forget that cameras are really just recorders of light. Even the best equipment is no better than the light it receives, so professionals make sure that every shot is lit exactly the way it needs to be.
Until now, professional lighting equipment was out of reach for the rest of us. That’s all changed with the Exo Ring Light and other consumer-friendly ring-lighting solutions.
What Are Ring Lights?
As their name suggests, ring lights are circular. This allows for more diffused light than other approaches, which allows the subject’s natural contours to emerge without being washed out by harsh directional lighting or being unnaturally set off by heavy shadows.
Some ring lights are designed to work with single-shot cameras, and to flash only when the aperture opens. This may prolong bulb life, but limits the light’s usefulness. Other ring lights are designed for constant illumination, and some are hybrids capable of operating in either mode.
Ring lights are designed for close-up images of single subjects where the balance of details caught by the camera’s lens is especially crucial. Fashion photographers have long used ring lights to convey garments in the most representative light. Food photographers find ring lights especially helpful when they need flattering images of complex dishes. And videographers filming indoors rely on ring lights to create a natural sense of depth in their subjects without over- or under-lighting complex facial features.
Most modern ring lights are powered by LED bulbs. Advanced models like the Exo Ring Light line feature wide ranges of color-temperature settings including the full spectrum of temperatures that mimic natural daylight.
What Makes Ring Lights Different?
Ring lights are appropriate as the sole source of light for close-up photography, including product photography and selfies. Because they surround the subject, ring lights can create a ring of shadow around the subject that can be used to creative effect or easily mitigated by image-editing software (even when you get the lighting right, Photoshop can be handy).
Human subjects benefit from a phenomenon known as catchlight when illuminated by ring lights. Catchlight is a flattering reflection of a light source in the subject’s eye. Catchlight has been standard practice in portrait photography for more than 80 years, and without it, subjects can appear flat and dull. When it is applied wisely, catchlight appears as a lively glint, rather than a glare (or worse, as red-eye). Ring lights aren’t the only way to add catchlight, but they’re among the easiest.
Ring lights also complement other lighting sources by balancing the shadows created by directional lighting.
Videographers rely on ring lights even more commonly than photographers do. For vlogs, product demonstrations, and other single-subject videography, there may be no better lighting solution than ring lighting. Professional makeup artists use ring lighting almost exclusively for its ability to capture a balanced image of both facial contours and the full spectrum of colors represented by the cosmetics they apply.
How to Choose the Right Ring Light
In recent years, ring lights have become available to all of us. Choosing the best light for your purposes can be daunting, but here are a few things to look for while narrowing the field.
- Smaller ring lights—those around 10 inches in diameter—can easily be attached to smartphones for quick-yet-professional selfies or fitted to a tripod for more demanding shoots. On the other hand, smaller lights are only ideal for close-ups, and may not offer the best lighting for larger subject matter, such as product demonstrations that require a fair amount of desk- or counter space. For those purposes, a ring light of up to 18inches may be best.
- Color Temperature. Overly soft or harsh illumination may defeat the purposes of your ring light. Lights that produce colors of less than 3,000 Kelvins may look flatteringly soft to the eye, but won’t pull out the balance of detail that ring lights were designed to accomplish. Lighting of over 5,500 Kelvins or so may appear overly harsh, similarly to the way intense direct sunlight washes out details in some subjects. Look for a dimmable light that can work within 3,000 and 6,000 Kelvins or so, and consider using gels with high-temperature settings for even more creative control.
- Flash or Constant Light? For videographers, this is an academic question. But for still photography, many users may be tempted to invest in a flash-style ring light. This can be an economical choice for experienced photographers, but for the rest of us, the freedom to easily adjust lighting settings before the shot can more than offset the savings in bulb life offered by flash lighting.
One example of a ring light that checks all the boxes is the Exo Ring Studio Light. At 13 inches, the Studio Light is small enough to provide consistent lighting even at high zoom settings, and large enough to illuminate an entire workspace without losing the edges in shadow or compromising on detail or depth.
A ring light that can handle any task should also be flexible enough to offer more than one kind of light. Exo takes that premise to its limit by offering a huge 3,300K range of color-temperature settings.
For subjects that can use a bit of warmth, color temperatures in the low 3,000s bring out a healthy glow without harsh overtones or murky shadows. Raise the temperature into the 5,000s to imitate neutral sunlight, or bring it all the way up to 6,500K for a clinical look that doesn’t sacrifice a natural sense of depth and nuance. At higher settings, the Studio Light pairs wonderfully with gels, giving you an unlimited range of creative possibilities.
And that’s just the light itself. The Studio Light comes as part of a kit that includes a heavy-duty 78-inch tripod, a camera-mounting bracket, and a cable-mounted remote control. The light itself is attached via a ball-style mount that allows it to articulate freely for even more creative freedom before being fixed securely in place, and the camera mount accommodates both portrait and landscape positioning.
It’s a setup that rivals professional gear, available for the first time to the average consumer. To learn more about the Studio Light kit, please visit its page on the Exo web site.
How to Use a Ring Light
The typical ring-light setup involves shooting directly through the center of the light. For a professional, balanced lighting approach, start by mounting the ring light and camera together, either by connecting the ring light to your smartphone or connecting your ring light and camera to a tripod.
If your ring light has adjustable settings, try various combinations of color temperature and distance until you’ve achieved the look you’re after. If you’ve chosen a flash-style ring light, you’ll need to take sample shots of each setting to accurately gauge the effect of each approach.
Once you’ve found the right settings for your project, you’re ready to shoot as usual. Well, better than usual.