How to use a ring light with colourful backdrops for amazing portraits

Jul 6, 2022

Jake Hicks

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

How to use a ring light with colourful backdrops for amazing portraits

Jul 6, 2022

Jake Hicks

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I share a lot of lighting setups on here and every time I do, not only am I trying to share something unique, but I’m also trying to share something that’s practical and easy to implement for as many people as possible.

For the most part, I think I achieve that and although not everybody has access to all the kit I do, I still believe that certain elements of every setup I share are accessible by all. This is me trying to soften the blow of this week’s setup, as although not everybody will own all of this kit, cheap alternatives are viable and failing that, at least the DIY background and basic lighting principles involved are very much achievable by all. As always, if you have any questions about any of it, don’t hesitate to drop them down below.

Rip the plaster off…

So what’s this piece of kit I don’t think everybody has access to? It is the infamous ring flash modifier and yes, this setup does see me using a ring light.

This week’s setup uses a ring light. Don’t have one? Maybe it worth grabbing one, as they’re now cheaper than they’ve ever been!

Ring flashes have had an interesting life. Back when I started shooting in the late 90’s, ring flashes were running rampant as the must-have piece of kit at the time. Every self-respecting fashion photographer used one and the biggest ring-flash junkie among them was Rankin, who seemingly never removed it from his camera.

Like all trends though, the next generation comes along and is repulsed as they always are by the previous generation’s efforts at the ‘mainstream’, the ring flash died an aggressive death. When I was shooting in the early 2000s, a ring flash on set was akin to setting your camera to auto. No self-respecting photographer at the time would be seen dead using a ring flash, as it was seen as simply a bit of a cop-out, or ‘too easy’. Which it was.

That 90’s Look…

If you’re not familiar with the distinctive ring flash look (and it does surprise me how few people are today), it’s a light that encircles the camera and from the perspective of the lens, the light seemingly comes from everywhere. It’s seen as too easy or cheating as you can get a ‘cool’ looking shot with almost zero effort. The subject can do whatever they want, the camera can be wherever you want it and as long as you’ve managed to expose the shot, you invariably get a good looking image. Literally anybody can use one to good effect.

Tell-tale signs of a photographer using a ring flash include a big bright ring of light in the subjects eyes. This is up for debate on whether it looks good or not, I personally don’t mind it, but I know many hate the almost alien-esque look it can give the subjects eyes. The other feature of the ring flash/light, is an even shadow that surrounds the subject all the way around them and it’s clearly visible when they are against a plain wall.

Portrait photographer Rankin, was renowned for using a ring flash in the 90’s and like it or not, it certainly gave his work a distinctive look. All above images copyright of Rankin

The must-have modifier for every teenage girl… and everybody else.

Fast forward 20+ years and ring flashes are once again extremely popular, only this time, they aren’t flashing. The distinctive ring light ‘look’ has seen phenomenal growth in recent years and although what started out as the must-have accessory for every self-promoting tween online, the pandemic also made the ring light a must for anybody…with a pulse, apparently!

The above sales forecast looks at the expected growth of ring lights thanks to the pandemic and everyone needing to video-chat online. Source article here.

The extremely flattering shadowless look of a ring light and it being so easy to use that actual children are using them, means ring lights are now more popular than ever and that growth is not stopping for the foreseeable future.

Ring lights for photographers

As you may well imagine, demand is swiftly followed by price drops and as every manufacturer jumps on the bandwagon, prices plummet. This is good news for us as photographers, because back in the 90s, a ring flash cost you a large fortune and even today, big-name brands like Broncolor and Profoto still charge thousands.

But do we really need that much power for our ring light portraits?

The simple answer is no. I know a lot of you that follow my work have the ability to work and shoot in light-controlled studios, or at least have the ability to pull the curtains closed in your home studio. With a dark space to shoot in, we don’t need flash at all, in fact, in a controlled environment, you can use whatever ring light you can get your hands on. And yes, even that cheap LED ring light your 14-year-old niece uses to film her TikToks will work!

Did I use that 7 quid (~$10) ring light to shoot the portraits showcased in this article?

No, I’m not crazy ;) But joking aside, if you did want to play with a ring light to see what it can do in portraits then yes, a cheap ring light like this is viable, just be prepared to pump up the ISO a little. That being said, this cheap ring light was usable at 1/60th, f2.8, ISO 200. It’s not super-bright by any means, but seeing as you’ll be using it pretty close to your subject, it’s definitely worth a play.

The Lighting Setup

As I discussed in the previous section, using that code I provided above can bag you a ring flash absolutely free! …. Not really, I just know most of you skipped the history lesson above to get to the meat of the article down here ;)

The setup I’m sharing today is super-simple and you’ll need very little space at all to test it for yourself. Plus, although I caveated this article with an entire section about a piece of kit you actually may not own, you really don’t even need that much kit. I promise ;)

As always, let’s look at the setup itself and then I’ll explain what’s going on.

TL;DR/ADHD/Artist Setup Explanation

  • Setup a large sheet of crinkled silver mylar being the model.
  • Fire 2 coloured lights into v-flats behind you, resulting in an abstract, colourful pattern being formed on the background.
  • Position the model close to the backdrop and then position yourself close to them with a ring light.
  • With a slightly wider lens, expose the ring light so that the white light overpowers the soft coloured light from the v-flats.

What You Will Need

  • 3 lights – These can be any lights you like, but I’m using all LEDs here. I’ll cover those in a moment, but speedlights and strobes will also work just as well if you have them.
  • Modifiers – I already spoke about the ring light modifier above, but apart from that, you may not even need any other modifier. I’m just bouncing my LEDs into v-flats here, but a couple of white sheets would also work. Just use a simple reflector dish on your speedlight or strobe to contain the light into your sheet or v-flat and you’ll be fine.
  • V-Flats – I recently made these foldable DIY V-flats myself very cheaply. I aim to share the build process in a future article soon, so if you’re interested in that, be sure to swing back and check that in the next couple of weeks.
  • Ring Light – Of course, I was using a ring light as a key here. I’m using an old Bowens Ringlite Converter which is just a ring-shaped box with mirrors inside. It doesn’t actually have any flash or light within, it simply redirects the light you attach to it around the ring. These are extremely rare today so I’ll go over a couple of alternatives below.
  • Silver Mylar – I actually used this in a recent lighting setup article and had a bunch left over. I wanted to do something with it and so I came up with this setup. It’s pretty cheap and actually has a bunch of uses for photography so it’s well worth picking some up. Again, I’ll provide an example below.

Camera Settings

  • Camera – Nikon D850
  • Lens – 24-70mm f2.8
  • Shutter Speed – 1/60th
  • Aperture – f2.8
  • ISO – 100
  • Kelvin – 4200K
  • Focal Length – 32mm

The Results…

Note: Focal Length

One thing many of you may not be used to or overlook is the fairly wide focal length that all of these shots were taken at.

All the images shown here were shot at around 30mm – 40mm on my 24-70mm lens. The reason for that is so I can get the ring light to do what it needs to do, which is light the subject evenly.

Having the ring light too far away if you’re shooting at 50mm or even 85mm, will result in the light looking flat. Moreover, I want the white light of the ring light to be bright on the model, but not bright on the background behind. This works by being very close to the subject and having the power of the light low. This forces a very quick drop-off of light and you can even see the shadows on the model’s skin as the light drops off towards the edges. Look at the sides of the arms and shoulder here. See how the white light disappears and the coloured light replaces it?

Being in close with a wider lens is a key aspect of this setup and failing to do so will result in a flat-looking model and a washed-out background.

This week’s setup uses a ring light. Don’t have one? Maybe it’s worth grabbing one, as they’re now cheaper than they’ve ever been!

Featured Model: Jordan Ebbitt

Breaking it Down

As I mentioned, this is fairly simple to set up but you should still bear a couple of key things in mind before jumping in.

The silver Mylar needs to be hung poorly to work. Add kinks, folds and bends to the Mylar to get the abstract colour backdrop we’re after.

The Backdrop

The backdrop is simply a sheet of silver mylar. You can get a roll of this for around £20 and you’ll get way more than you need. In fact, the sheet I used here is just a section I cut off the main roll. Why did I cut it off the main roll? This setup really only works when the silver mylar behind the subject is hung poorly! By that I mean, the folds, kinks and bends in the background are actually a feature, not just me being lazy and you should try to introduce as many of them as you can to get the abstract colour look we’re after. I simply hung mine on a crossbar and light stand combo and introduced folds in the mylar by clipping it to the bar at irregular intervals.

The Key Light – Ring Light

As we established earlier, the key light is actually the ring light modifier from Bowens called a Ringlite Converter. Most of you won’t have one of these, but a variety of ring lights could be substituted here. I mentioned that any ring light will work and even a cheap LED ring light from Amazon or eBay could work if you’re shooting in a darker environment and don’t mind upping the ISO a little. At least it would give you the chance to play with the setup or at least ring lights in general without a huge investment.

If you wanted to invest some money and get a decent ring light for future shoots, there are certainly a few options available to you and without spending thousands on the aforementioned Broncolor and Profoto options. Godox and other cheaper brands now have a couple of alternatives too.

The Key Light – The Godox SZ150R

For reference, as I know many will ask, I was using an LED head in conjunction with my Bowens Ringlite Converter. The LED head I was using was the SZ150R. I was recently sent one to test by Essential Photo here in the U.K. and so far I have to say I’ve been really impressed.

Why is the SZ150R so cool?

For me, I needed a way to use a lot of my old S-Fit (Bowens/Godox) lighting modifiers in conjunction with an LED head and this new Godox one allows any of those old modifiers to be fitted.

What else can it do?

Of course, modifiers are great, but being able to add any of the millions of available colours to that as well is just too simple and easy to pass up. Especially as you can select those colours almost instantly. Couple that with a fully adjustable Kelvin range too and you have a very versatile package.

Plus, this head is actually super lightweight too. So much so, that I was actually shooting with the SZ150R and Bowens Ringlite in one hand and shooting with my camera through the hole in the other!

I aim to use this light a lot more with a variety of modifiers in upcoming shoots and I’ll certainly keep you posted on how I get on with it.

The Fill Lights

We’ve established that the white light in this setup comes from the Godox SZ150R and ring light converter, but there’s a ton of colour in this setup too, where’s it all coming from?

The pink and blue colours are coming from two Rotolight AEOS 2s being bounced into two white v-flats behind me. These big bounced walls of colour is what’s being reflected in the silver Mylar and that’s what’s creating the overall abstract effect on the background.

The coloured light is coming from the two Rotolight AEOS 2s.

The AEOS 2s are perfect here, as the key is already an LED light and these add some much-needed colour with any of their instantly available millions of colours too.

V-Flats

These v-flats are the results of my latest DIY project. They are foldable v-flats that are black on one side and white on the other. I’ll do a complete article on how I made these soon, but for now, I’ll just say that although you don’t have to use v-flats specifically, it does enable you a lot of control over where the light goes. Failing that, bouncing some coloured light into a couple of white sheets will achieve a similar look. The main point of this is to create as big a coloured reflection in the Mylar as possible.

DIY foldable v-flats are fairly easy and cheap to make. Stay tuned for the how-to article soon

Points to bear in mind…

Inverse Square Law

This setup is essentially just a white key light and a couple of coloured fill lights. One area to bear in mind, though, is how we manage the white light and coloured light falling on the model.

With the ring light turned off, obviously, the model is going be bathed in all that colour. The trick is to get the ring light close enough to the model so that it burns off the colour from her, but also low enough in power that it doesn’t remove the colour from the background behind her. You will find a sweet spot and I’ll be honest, the Godox SZ150R was lightweight enough that I was actually hand-holding it and moving closer and further away to get the look I was after.

Go W i d e

As you’ll be very close to the model with the ring flash, don’t be afraid to shoot wider than you normally would. I know shooting close portraits at 30mm isn’t ideal, but with the ring flash, you’ll be amazed at how good it actually looks. Get in close with a wide-angle lens and just try it.

Keep it Abstract

One key aspect of the look is that very distorted backdrop behind the model. Failing to keep those folds and creases in place will instantly dissolve the look and you may even start to see yourself with the camera in the reflected surface. Clipping the folds in place via the crossbar above worked well, but also having a fan on to blow the background slightly helped with adding a little variety to the look as well.

Closing Comments…

I appreciate I’ve probably given you more info than you needed for this setup and that’s not even including the short history lesson on ring flashes at the start either. I hadn’t planned on this article being this long, but I spoke about a ring flash in a recent live stream and several people had never used them, nor did they even really know what they did. Like I mentioned before, more experienced/mature/old folk like me will remember a time when a ring flash was mandatory in every studio, now we rarely see them outside of the hands of makeup-clad teenagers, so I thought I’d include a little more context this time around. Hopefully, some of you found it useful and for everybody else, I hope you managed to skip to the parts you needed fairly painlessly.

As always, good luck if you’re giving this set up a try and if you do give this one a go, I’d love to see the results. Remember, you can always share the images with me in my weekly community image critique post, -Share-a-Shoot- every Monday on the Facebook Page.

Photography and lighting techniques using mylar

About the Author

Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. On Jake’s Facebook page, you can also tune in for a livestream livestream every other Tuesday night. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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2 responses to “How to use a ring light with colourful backdrops for amazing portraits”

  1. John Beatty Avatar
    John Beatty

    A good and detailed write up. As far as ring lights go, I know that is the latest fashion trend but, I don’t like the eye reflection it give the models. To me it looks ridiculous. I have used ring light that you can turn off half of it to give the highlight a more natural look or use a round box. Why so many are wanting a full eclipse look in the eye is beyond me.

  2. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
    Kay O. Sweaver

    Egads. This is the longest article I’ve seen, only to get mediocre photos. (Sorry for being harsh.)