What’s Wrong With My Ring Light?

Most people are easily distracted by “shiny objects” that come into view.

We’re always looking for something new and interesting…so we’re susceptible to following new trends without investigating them first.

That’s why, for example, so many people have bought ring lights for their primary on-camera light source. Sure sounds like a good idea!

Yet…visit any professional photography studio, or TV studio for news and weather, and you’ll see lots of fancy light boxes and other lighting sources…but no ring lights.

As a professional videographer and photographer, I can assure you they’re a fad too quickly embraced, and not your best solution. 

Ring lights are more useful for putting on makeup and other close-up facial primping.

Sure, in a pinch, if that’s all the light you have, they can be better than NO lights if you don’t also have natural window lighting to brighten your face.

They are not, however, a good choice if you want to look your best on camera as we’ve been conditioned from watching so many TV shows and newscasts.

First, ring lights create a similar bright circular image in your pupils, which gives your eyes an unnatural and distracting look…and block some of your special color in the center of your eyes.

Eye contact is so critical to connecting with people – so anything unnatural in your eyes will distract viewers from staying focused on your message and purpose for communicating.

Second, ring lights don’t give the needed even modeling light provided by a photographer’s light box (that big black cube-like shape made of material, with white material across the front to soften the lighting).

And third, some are tempted to just put one ring light behind the camera, which flattens your face and loses the natural 3D look. 

Here’s basically how professionals light people for still shots or on-camera appearances.

KEY LIGHT – You need a main light in front of you, a bit to one side of your camera, and usually about 6-12 inches above eye level.  Your key is the main lighting to make your skin bright enough to achieve full, natural color and be in sharp focus.

Your key light should use daylight bulbs, or better, daylight LEDs.  Same as “full-spectrum” bulbs, they are white light vs. the orange of tungsten bulbs often used in lamps in your house.

Why daylight types?  Because they give the most natural, accurate color rendition.  Hardly anybody looks good with an orange glow.

A light pink filter over your key can help give pale-skinned women a slight rose-colored blush, similar to normal makeup.  An LED bank light with color-adjusting knob can bring a bit of color for men and women as needed.

Since your key light will cast obvious shadows under your eyes and chin, and to one side of your nose, you complete the natural lighting look with a…

FILL LIGHT – placed on the opposite side of the camera from your key light…maybe a couple of feet or so typically…and at about half-power compared to the key light.

Your fill light should also be daylight quality for color match.

Note that you can use a window off to one side as fill light, but it’s not always consistent brightness or color.  When clouds pass in front of the sun, or as the sun moves across the sky, or when it gets overcast – your color and brightness will be changing.

That’s why you’re better off with the controlled set-up of actual lights, set to the ideal brightness and pure daylight temperature.

Note:  while waiting for your replacement lights from Amazon to arrive, you can use your ring light as an emergency interim solution for the fill light (no bright rings in your pupils at least when off to the side) – but not as your key.

BACK LIGHT – If your background is dark, you may need lighting on the rim of your head or hair and top of your shoulders to separate you from that abyss.  Most setups don’t need a back light added.

Set-ups with a background lighter than your hair and/or clothing don’t require a back light, although a slight amount of such highlight is always a nice effect.

You can go to Amazon to buy an inexpensive narrow-cone back light (i.e., doesn’t spread out to light the whole room, but focuses the beam light a spotlight on a narrow area).  Trick is to find a way to mount it behind you and up high out of the frame.

With you key and fill lights properly set, you will always have consistent, natural looking lighting to keep your skin and eyes looking their most attractive.

What if you’re someplace without your lighting set-up? 

You can use natural lighting from outdoor sources (windows, glass doors, skylights) as long as you follow the same rules for good lighting.

The difference is that, instead of manipulating the lights, you move yourself around until you see the right lighting on your face (and a non-distracting background).

The simplest place is a room with two such natural sources – looking almost directly at one and having the other off to the side.

Adjust your “key” by moving closer to it or farther from it, or adjusting blinds etc.  Same way to get the right fill that’s about half the brightness of your key.

REMEMBER… outside light brightness and color changes with weather and time, and you lose it altogether after sunset.

So for a consistently controllable look, close the blinds and curtains so you can flip and switch and have your ideal look every time you go on camera.

There’s more to lighting that makes you look your best on camera, but following my guidelines above will go a long way to eliminate lighting distractions.

Questions?  Email me on my contact page, or, better yet, join my next Video Maestro Speed-Makeover Workshop and let’s get you looking and sounding like the pro you are.