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Lights, Camera, Action: Best Ring Flashes

Rings flashes, sometimes stylized as "ringflash" by manufacturers, are extremely popular in fashion and portrait photography and have been since their inception in the 1960s since photographers appreciate them for their unique lighting profile. If you ever see a well-lit portrait devoid of facial shadows and catch lights centered on the pupil, it might have been taken with a ring flash.

Ring flashes are known for their ability to make "shadowless" images, even though they do actually produce shadows. In fact, another tip off that the image was show with a ring flash is a noticeable dark outline around the entire subject when they aren't far from a backdrop or background surface - that's the shadow! They do, however, eliminate almost all of the shadows on a face when used in portraiture. This is one of the reasons they remain so popular among professional fashion shooters when they want a model flatly lit.

Another reason portrait and fashion photographers use ring flashes is because ring flashes create specular highlights which are bright spots caused by reflected light. You see them all over shiny objects when a bright light is pointed at them. Ring flashes create a unique specular pattern or shape that many fashion photographers find appealing.

Let's not forget to mention, ring flashes give a very desirable catch light, centered right ont he subjects pupil. It's a very striking effect! You commonly see this effect exaggerated in beauty product ads with the model's face close up. It can often makes eyes pop all the more. Macro photographers also find ring flashes to be an essential part of their kit. Since a ring flash is typically mounted flush with the front of the lens, the lens won't cast a shadow on the image, which ruins macro shots.
Many ring flashes can even take modifiers to further change the quality of light they produce making them flexible and adaptable to a variety of artistic lighting styles.

One caveat of note, however, is that since a ring flash is mounted so close to the lens, when a portrait subject looks at the lens they are also looking at the flash. Indeed, one of the cardinal rules of off-camera flashes is to get them AWAY from the lens, such as with a flash bracket. Ring flashes defy this rule in the most severe way and this close flash-to-lens proximity will very often cause red-eye, on top of the drastic shadow behavior. Be prepared to remove unwanted red-eye in post production when using these types of flashes. Good quality ring flashes are dependable and will last you a very long time. Ring flashes also offer a platform to grow and change styles thanks to light modifiers.

The ring flashes listed here were chosen for their predictable light quality. You don't want to spend a lot of extra time monkeying with color temperature fixes after-the-fact in you can help it. These best ring flash in 2021 are also extremely well-built and should stand up to the rigors of repeated use, either in the studio or in the field. These flashes also offer unique options or modes that make them good tools for their intended purposes, like portable battery packs for fast-paced location work or perhaps TTL functions that allow you to work faster.

What are the Best Ring Flashes of 2021?

best Paul C. Buff AlienBees ABR800 Ring Flash

Paul C. Buff AlienBees ABR800 Ring Flash - Best Ring Flash Overall

The Paul C. Buff AlienBees ABR800 Ring Flash did for the ring flash segment what the first Canon Digital Rebel did for consumer DSLRs, it opened up the market with professional quality performance for a price even casuals could afford. What was once almost strictly in the domain of the upper-end professional fashion photographer became accessible to everyone. For the first time a hobbyist could get professional results for their portraiture using similar tools professionals had without taking on a second mortgage to pay for the privilege.

The AlienBees ABR800 packs 320w/s of power, which is significantly more than the most powerful speedlight. While that's not enough to overpower the sun (don't expect to go out on a sunny midday and have your way with the light) you can expect far more creative freedom than what a speedlight modified with a ring flash attachment will offer; in fact, this is a true and powerful ring flash for the price of a nice speedlight.

As a self-contained unit, the ABR800 can plug right into the wall for unlimited power. However, if you need to get mobile, and why wouldn't you want to, Paul C. Buff (PCB) offer a Vagabond lithium battery that pairs with the ABR800, making your ring flash setup all the more powerful and creative. The ABR800 even directly links into PCB's CyberSync system of remote triggers, allowing you to control the flash remotely if you so choose. The ABR800 is well built to last quite a while and replacement flash tubes are relatively inexpensive. All in all, this unit checks all the boxes for those who are just getting into ring flash photography and seasoned professionals looking to broaden their artistic options.

MEKE MK-14EXT-N I-TTL Compatible Macro Ring Flash - Runner Up

Profoto is a Swedish company known for their exceptional, quality-first products relied upon by countless professionals the world over. If you want to impress the art director, show up with Profoto lights as your clients will know immediately you mean business.

Keeping in line with the quality of Profoto products, the Acute/D4 Ring Flash is a powerful, easy-to-use, and dependable flash unit with a predictable quality of light. That last point is important. Most flashes vary, at least a little, in the quality of light they produce from flash to flash. This usually manifests as slight differences in color temperature and/or power. Profoto flashes, on the other hand, are renowned for their consistency in both regards. Once you dial in your color and exposure, you can set it and forget it and this flash will churn out image after image with identical output.

When you're onsite where precision and efficiency are paramount due to scheduling and time constraints (common on professional shoots) you want a flash that produces a quality of light you can rely on. The Profoto Actute/D4 Ring Flash is very powerful, a blowtorch that blasts to the tune of 9,600W/s per minute at full tilt putting it in f/45 territory. If you can think up a shooting scenario, the Acute/D4 Ring Flash can light it.

The Acute/D4 Ring Flash is meant to be used with Profoto's Acute and D4 power supplies and battery packs. It comes with neither, so if you can get past the sticker shock of the ring flash itself you'll still need to budget for a power solution! However, if you can manage it or justify the expense, you'll be the proud owner of a ring flash without peer. All things being equal, there is no better ring flash on the market for those relative lucky few who can afford it. You'll have the creme-de-la-creme of ring flashes and a precision tool to take your ring flash photography to the highest level.

Quantum Instruments Omicron OM3 TTL Ring Flash - Honorable Mention

Even though Quantum was late to the ring flash party they've been a player in the flash market for a very long time. Quantum is most known for their high-powered, bare-bulb speedlights that offer more output than first-party speedlights. They've more recently introduced the OM line of ring flashes, including the OM3. The OM3 TTL Flash and Video Light offers the high quality and robust build we've come to expect from Quantum.

The OM3 is an LED-based, continuous light source with the ability to flash at 4-times the max continuous output. This setup is absolutely great for weddings, where it's becoming increasingly popular for photographers to also grab video while shooting stills. The continuous light the OM3 produces is good for indoor video and stills work, while also being bright enough for moderately bright outdoor shooting. It's a convenient one-two punch and the type of functionality in a product that is not only becoming more popular, but necessary as well. As photographers are increasingly finding themselves wanting to branch into the realm of motion, multi-use products like this are a godsend. There's no need to pack a different light for both genres, saving you space in your bag and, more importantly, strain on your back.

Like most of Quantum's other products, the OM3 ring flash runs on Quantum's lightweight Turbo series battery packs. These packs offer a lot of juice for not much space and are perfect for location shooting and video-on-the-go. The Quantum OM3 is built to typical Quantum standards, which is to say exceptional. The OM3 is a perfect two-birds-with-one-stone solution if you shoot both photography and video.

Macro Photography Ring Flash - Consider

Switzerland's own Elinchrom SA have been producing some of the best lights and light modifiers since 1962. They have a near spotless reputation and are relied on by some of the biggest names in professional photography. An investment in any of Elinchrom's lines, like the Quadra product listed here, opens up the buyer to a very well-supported lighting system with a diverse array of options. You can be assured that no matter how your photography grows or which direction you take it, Elinchrom will have you covered with their broad range of quality, well-built products.

Using the Quadra Hybrid RX Ringflash ECO will require a battery pack, like the Quadra Ranger RX Hybrid ECO, which will be the more expensive purchase of the set. However, like the other flashes on this list that run off battery packs, you will be able to use the pack to power other types of flash heads. Consider this when you're thinking about investing in a Quadra product since once you purchase the battery pack you won't be limited to using just the ring flash.

The Quadra Hybrid RX Ringflash ECO is a 400W/s flash head, so it's significantly more powerful than a speedlight, but also won't give you the same amount of punch as the Profoto Acute/D4 Ring Flash. You can set the duration down to a minuscule 1/6,000 sec for some serious motion stopping power, too. Since the Quadra line uses lithium ion battery technology in the packs, you can expect to get several pops out of a charge and the weight to be light enough to carry comfortably for extended periods of time.

This ring flash ships with a white plexiglass diffuser, which is one of the most common light modifiers for ring flashes, so you won't have to purchase one separately. Also included is a universal camera bracket for mounting your camera to the ring flash so you're ready to go right out of the box. If you are looking for a moderate-to-high powered ring flash with a quick duration and a predictable, high quality of light, the Elinchrom Quadra Hybrid RX Ringflash ECO deserves to be on your shortlist. It's a popular ring flash and for good reason.

Sigma EM-140 DG Ring Flash - Best Ring Flash

One popular uses of ring flashes is close-up macro photography. Sigma's EM-140 DG Ring Flash is designed specifically for photographing those small details that make macro photography so captivating. This is also a popular macro flash in scientific and medical fields. Sigma is perhaps best known for their line of adapted lenses and are the most popular 3rd party manufacturer of lens products for Canon, Nikon, and Sony camera systems. Their line of flashes are also offered in multiple manufacturer mounts, including Pentax.

The Sigma EM-140 DG Ring Flash has a guide number 46'/14m at ISO 100, so don't expect it to perform as a powerful portrait flash, but it should give you centered, circular catch lights which is half the fun. For close-up macro work, this flash has the goods as you can flash both of the EM-140 DG's flash tubes together, just one or the other, or you can use them in a ratio to better sculpt the subject with shadow. This ring flash comes in TTL modes for each manufacturer, Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax. As an option, you can have the EM-140 DG to trigger Sigma's EF-500 DG Super or EF-610 DG ST set as a slave for even more light sculpting options.

This flash mounts onto the camera a little differently than the other flash units on this list. By using lens adapters, 55mm and 62mm rings included, the EM-140 DG screws directly onto the lens. Be mindful that if you intend to use this flash on a lens that doesn't have either 55mm or 62mm filter threads, you will need to purchase the proper lens adapter from Sigma or adapt the included rings with a step-up adapter. If you're looking for a ring flash for macro photography, the Sigma EM-140 DG Ring Flash is an ideal choice for snapping those fine details.

Buyer's Guide

Photographers are always on the lookout for ways to make their subjects shine in the best possible light. This means using ring flash lights for some of them, especially if they are into macro or portrait photography. This is a handy accessory for photographers who want to reduce shadows and use a light that not only illuminates the subject but also subtly wraps around it to light up the background.

If you are in the market for a ring flash, consider the following before making a purchase:

A Ring Flash vs. Other Options

A ring flash offers a very unique light spread than your typical studio lighting and flashguns. It fits snugly around the lens, and with a quick click, it spreads out light evenly over the subject, negating any chances of a shadow anywhere on or across the subject.

On the other hand, a flash gun fires from well above the camera, creating harsh shadows that can make a portrait subject look older or hide the important details in macro photography. A ring light offers 360° illumination.

Then there are the other lights that light up only a specific angle or degree of the spread and leave the rest in shadows. Again, a ring flash can help photographers cut down on those shadows. They can use these lights along with other lights to create even spreads that highlight every quality of the model before them.

How to Use a Ring Flash?

Ring flashes have screw mounts with built-in adapters that allow them to fit around your lens snugly. But several other models will enable you to shoot right through them. All in all, you’ll have to screw in the light and plug it into your camera for it to work.

Next, you’ll find some models with a separate battery pack that sits in the hot shoe. But many other ring flashes have built-in batteries right behind the ring, and these won’t be mounted onto the camera usually but connected via a cable.

On the other hand, some larger ring lights don’t have to be connected to the lens at all and provide constant light instead of sudden flashes. But you have to hold these in your hand and shoot through them.

All in all, the main advantage of having a ring flash is that it is still a powerful light. So, when you don’t want to use it for its main function, try it as a simple photography light by reflecting it from an umbrella. You won’t need to buy more lighting equipment and save some money.

Ring Flash Applications for Photographers

Ring flashes are easier to use, more affordable, and smaller than other complex lighting systems set up in studios. They work well with low ISO, resulting in better quality images. Sure, they might be softer light compared to the bigger lighting rigs, but their portability more than makes up for it.

That’s why photographers prefer ring flashes for:

Macro Photography

As you get closer to your subject, the lenses stop responding to flash guns, and natural light isn’t enough. You’ll want a ring flash at times like these to ensure that the subject is well lit. As mentioned earlier, this type of light allows for lower ISOs and faster shutter speeds. So even if you are clicking insects or other fast-moving subjects, ring flashes will do you good.

Portrait Photography

This is where a ring flashes ability to keep the shadows down comes in handy. Also, the fact that they can essentially wrap the light around a subject is great for the photographers. Try using the ring light to frame your image for some creative results.

Know that onlookers can usually tell you used it because it reflects as rings in the subject’s eyes. And the bigger your light, the closer it is to the subject, the brighter it will show up as a reflection. But you could combine it with a softbox to soften some of that impact.

Many professional photographers use the ring flash as the key or fill light as part of more intricate lighting setups.

Other Types of Photography

Food, fashion, and underwater subjects can be brought to life with ring flashes. They all look better with even light coverage.

Ring flashes also work well when photographing products without harsh shadows. The light remains constant, saving you a lot of time and energy in the long run.

Lighting Quality Of Your Ring Flash

When buying a ring flash, you need to look for one that offers enough power and the right colors for your needs. Try looking for something with variable power settings, so you get just enough juice going to get the perfect picture.

If you are a portrait photographer, you will need a ring flash that packs a punch, but if you are into macro photography, you are only 3 or 4 inches away and can do with a weaker output.

So choose carefully. When it comes to light quality, you get what you pay for.

Ring Flash FAQ

Q: Is a ring flash worth it?
A: It is strongly recommended, especially if you are interested in macro photography. Plants and insects have such fine details, and harsh flash guns don’t illuminate them properly. But a ring light offers a 360-degree fill of light that removes all big shadows from the frame.

Q: Is a ring flash good for portraits?
A: It’s only natural to want our models to look their best. This means that in addition to the right makeup, setting, and attire, lighting plays a vital role in how good they look. We can’t have harsh shadows that take away the unique features of the model.

That’s why ring flashes make sense for this type of photography.

Q: Is it possible to use a ring flash as a key?
A: Of course, you can. Ring flashes can work just fine as key lighting or main lighting. The right one can be pretty strong and effective as a single light.

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