By Ian Witlen
5 Feb 2008
A few years back, I had been researching the cost of purchasing a ringflash when I came across a basic website that discussed the idea of building a ringlight, but did not include instructions on how to build the unit. Trying to find a light source that is uniform and shadow-less can be hard to find and quite expensive. There are two ways to achieve this lighting; one is to purchase a professional ringflash for between $1,000 and $3,000, the second is to build your own ringlight for less than $100. The website only included a rough sketch of what their constructed ringlight should look like once completed. I decided to use their basic idea and modify it for my own uses. Currently, there are many websites with instructions on how to build a variety of do-it-yourself ringlights.
Other than price, there are a couple key differences between a ringflash and a ringlight. The main difference between the two is that a ringlight is a form of continuous light, otherwise known as a hot light due to the heat given off by the unit. Another significant difference is the size of each lighting unit. A ringflash is typically one foot in diameter, whereas a ringlight usually runs between one and three feet in diameter attributable to the size of the camera and total wattage of the bulbs being used. Because of the size and weight of the ringlight unit, portability may become an issue for some users.
The first ringlight I constructed was too flimsy and did not have enough wattage, so I built a replacement unit. Being that I shoot mostly film, I knew that eight regular 60 watt light bulbs would not be sufficient enough to simultaneously light both the subject and the background. My new design uses ten evenly spaced 100 watt floodlights on alternating circuits. In order to have complete control over lighting output, each 100 watt floodlight has been placed on one of two alternating circuits. Each circuit has a total of five bulbs that are controlled by a dimmer switch. I also increased the diameter of the ringlight from 2 feet to 2 ½ feet, in order to expand the lit area. In addition to attaching handles to the light for ease of transportation, mounting brackets were fastened underneath each handle so that the ringlight could be securely set up on two light stands.
The spectral highlights created by the ringlight are very unique; as the light is emitted from the bulbs it creates a white ring around each pupil. This produces a rather hypnotizing effect when looking at the final photograph. Since most are unsure of what they are looking at in the subject's pupil, it draws the viewer into the photograph for further inspection.
When shooting with the ringlight, you want to be sure to meter the light hitting your subject before making your exposure. Whether shooting film or digital, this can be achieved rather easily by using either your in-camera meter or a hand held light meter. Metering is important so that you can locate the areas of the frame where light begins to fall off. Light fall off occurs when shooting with a ringlight and should be taken into account so that your subject will be properly situated within the frame.
To locate the fall off points, take one meter reading directly in front of the subject and another reading approximately one foot to either side of the subject. If metered correctly, the second light meter reading should be between ½ and ¾ of a stop off from the initial reading; this is where the light fall off begins. From these areas to the edges of the frame, the light will become progressively darker. You will want to keep your subject out of this darkened area.
I have used the ringlight that I built for a number of different shoots that have each produced a very different feel to the final photograph. After building my first ringlight, I had Professor Dominick Martorelli, Associate Professor of the University of North Florida's Photography Department, sit for a portrait. Professor Martorelli never enjoyed having his photo taken, but was intrigued by the lighting system I had built. For this portrait, I shot with a 135mm lens on a Toyo / Omega 4x5 view camera at f/16 and an exposure of 1/30 of a second. Rather than shooting traditional sheet film, I decided to use Polaroid Type 55 P/N film in order to immediately show Professor Martorelli the results. Polaroid P/N film produces both a positive and a reusable negative. Upon seeing the results, Professor Martorelli was extremely pleased with how he looked due to the soft and even lighting produced by the ringlight.
Most recently, I brought the ringlight to a gathering at a friend's house with the intention of using the set up like a photo booth. Due to the light's outlandish appearance, partygoers were walking up to the light in order to find out what it was. I decided to shoot digitally so that everyone would be able to see what the light is capable of. For post production of the photos, I used a RAW workflow in both Lightroom and Photoshop CS3 in order to properly color correct and light balance the images due to the yellow cast from the ringlight's bulbs.
The results produced by the ringlight unit are very unique, even when compared to other lighting set ups. Whether you're a photographer looking for a new edge or novice looking to experiment, a ringlight is without doubt an excellent way to enhance the way you take photographs. If you have a couple hours to spare and the engineering knowhow, then building your ringlight is definitely the way to go.