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I just saw Death in Paradise Season 5 Episode 3, which features a photographer using a DSLR to shoot a fashion runway performance.

He had a flash that was a ring around the lens.

I thought that was for macro shots only, where the extreme close-up has trouble with normal flash placement. For normal photos you want the flash far from the lens, like on a boom on a separate handle framing the camera.

I've seen some recent trendiness in having ring-shaped catch lights, but I supposed those would be positioned in the normal manner: off-angle from the lens.

I suppose if an on-camera had any effect at all it would be for some subtle fill flash.

Is this a realistic thing to see from a pro? Or is it just a cool-looking prop that doesn't really fit the situation?

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As much as I want to mention the Jarvie window technique, I have to concede that basically it is macro shooting; fisheye lens, very close distance to subject (a foot or less from the lens). It's just a distorted or effect portrait, but it has lots of the normal macro characteristics.

Other than the Jarvie window technique, I've seen several professional examples of portraits using the ring flash, both with and without fill lights or other secondary lights. Some examples:

  • Matthew Jordan Smith shot Tyra Banks with only a ring flash (3rd photo, black background head & shoulder portrait).
  • A Google image search for "ring flash fashion" shows several examples where the background was part of the composition. Depending on how the background is illuminated (if at all) and the model's distance to the background, it makes for a somewhat interesting "halo shadow" all around the model.
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My guess is that the ring light you saw on that TV show was just being used as a prop and the actor "photographer" had no idea what a ring light is used for.

Yes, it is reasonable to use a ring flash or ring light for non-Macro photography. It is a realistic thing to see from a Pro but only in some situations.

Many Pro's use ring lights for fashion photography. It gives a unique type of lighting with very little shadow and has interesting circular catch lights in the eyes. Pro's generally use a fairly large ring light, sometimes with a modifier.

Yes, they can cause red-eye but it is easily dealt with in post processing.

Sometimes they can used for a small amount of fill flash, but I don't think it is realistic to use one for for a fashion runway. Generally small portable ring lights are used close to the subject. A model on a fashion runway would be too far away for a small portable ring light.

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That's the reason:

to shoot a fashon runway performance.

This is event photography. This is not a studio. You have models running around, an audience that watches them, etc.

One rule of thumb in event photography is: The photographer doing his/her job is not really part of the show. You should not get in the way of what's happening.

For normal photos you want the flash far from the lens, like on a boom on a separate handle framing the camera.

Where do you place that boom on a runway? This is not the kind of thing where you can roll out your whole studio with dozens of stands to get the picture that you previously planned out precisely. It's not run&gun either, but mobility and flexibility is key.

those would be positioned in the normal manner: off-angle from the lens.

You could pull this off with an assistant holding the boom arm. But it's very hard to do. You have to communicate with an assistant he has to follow you if you want to switch positions. This all takes time that you don't really have. You'd also wrap the event around yourself: if you need 5 shots of one model before you get a good picture, other models will queue up behind that model.

It's more likely that you are supposed to take some photos "by the way" and not turn the fashion performance into a fashion photography performance.

If a ring shaped catchlight is desired, an on camera ring light is the way to go in this situation.


Some off-topic between-the-lines question answered:

Is this a realistic thing to see from a pro?

The most common definition of a pro is "somebody getting paid to do something".

Is it reasonable to...?

A lot of people think that "being a pro" also means that the results are really good. That's not necessarily the case.

It most often means "being able to get the job done, no matter what". It's not the pro in the "prophoto" label on your lighting gear that makes you a pro, it's the "good job, here's you pay check" you hear at the end of the day

Is it reasonable to...? Yes, whatever it takes! You forgot the boom? Attach the flash with some duct tape to that broom stick your assistant found somewhere.

...for macro shots only.

No. You can use wide angle for portraits, long lenses for landscapes. Whatever. Photography equipment does not come with a usage-of-this-item-is-restricted-to-... label attached. Be creative.

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  • I don't mean a huge boom, but simply an extension of the handle. This is ubiquitous for wedding photographers. Sure "on-camera flash" can be a ring to get ring-shaped catchlights, but I expect it would be above the hotshoe like my common flash, not a jig to encircle the lens. – JDługosz Jan 24 '16 at 13:48
  • @JDługosz the differences between these two setups to produce a catch light are negligible, while a boom attached to the camera probably means more weight to carry around. And then why go the extra mile of attaching a boom and then a ring light to that if you can attach a ring light to the lens directly? Again, nothing on the ring light attachable to the lens says that it is only to be used for macro photography. This limitation exists only in your head. – null Jan 24 '16 at 14:03
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One reason off-axis flash is useful is that it can defeat "red eye", because red eye is light being reflected back from the eye into the lens. Put crudely, in general, the further away from the lens axis the flash is, the better.

One reason not to use a ring flash is because the light is now coming from all around and close to the axis of the lens, and that's likely to cause "red eye". So I'd call a ring flash a bad choice for that reason.

Here's video explaining this a little and how it can be combated to some extent.

The other disadvantage is that you completely lack the ability to bounce or swing with a ring flash. For some scenarios this is not an issue, but I'd personally be loath to loose that capability.

So the advantages ? Well, it feels more compact that a conventional flash. It also gives a symmetric lighting, which sometimes off axis flash does not and can be visible. It can sometimes to awkward to position an off-axis flash compared to just sticking it on the end of a lens.

The upshot of this is that, sometimes a ring flash works out OK. Sometimes it won't. But I would not rely on a ring flash myself and I'd prefer a conventional flash for non-macro work.

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  • I can tell you from experience that a non-macro ring flash intended for portraiture is definitely not more compact than a conventional flash. Almost always, bigger rings yield better shots. Ex: Alien Bees ABR800, RoundFlash. These yield much better results than the usually 67mm filter thread led ring lights. – scottbb Jan 24 '16 at 13:02
  • @scottbb Do you mean that bigger rings are less prone to red eye than smaller ones, in your experience ? – StephenG Jan 24 '16 at 13:14
  • I have to emphasize, my limited experience, but I would say yes, I had fewer issues with red eye. But then again, with a ring light you're typically shooting fairly close (around 2 m or less), which would reduce (but maybe not eliminate) red eye even for "point source" on camera non-bounced flash. – scottbb Jan 24 '16 at 13:28
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Outside of macro/closeup photography, a ring flash makes some limited sense as a fillin flash because it casts least shadow. At moderate distance, however, the effect will already be mostly indistinguishable from an on-camera flash. If your on-camera flash is too weak or the camera meddles too much with your lighting decisions, a ring flash might be the off-camera flash closest to the optical axis that delivers sufficient light and/or control for your work.

The typical portrait/product ring flashes/lights tend do be much larger than on-lens flashes, however.

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  • Photographers often use ring flashes exactly because they want the narrow band of shadow surrounding the subject that's characteristic of these lights when the subject is close to the background. – Caleb Jan 19 '19 at 16:44

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