Ring lights are an awesome lighting option, but they are not the most travel/compact friendly option. This is where a ring flash comes into play. They bring the some advantages as a dedicated ring light with the added ability of being uber portable and super light.
How a ring flash can benefit your photography
What is a ring flash? How can using one benefit your picture taking?
A ring flash is a camera strobe unit, circular in shape, that is most often affixed to the front of the lens of the camera. Invented by a dentist in 1952, ring flashes soon caught on with other macro photographers because of the obvious advantages for close up work.
Advantages for close up photography are numerous. Getting the light source right where it is needed is important for extreme close views. An on camera flash will be blocked by the camera itself if the subject is inches from the front of the lens. Being that close is common with macro lenses.
Which is why mounting the flash right to the front of the lens is a great fix. Ring lights also give virtually shadowless, soft lighting without being completely flat. This can be useful for subjects moderately close, too, not just for macro shots.
If you are needing images of small products to put on a retail website, ring flash is an option. When used for portraits, a ring flash also adds in a pleasing catch light reflection in the subject’s eyes. Also great for pet photos.
How I found the best ring flashes for Canon & Nikon cameras
- Compatibility will be one of the major concerns for a good number of photographers. With many cameras offering the feature of through the lens (TTL) flash metering, being able to use that function for macro lighting makes exposure calculation simple.
- Variable power settings will be a great aide for anyone figuring out flash exposure calculations manually. There are portable charts with flash and macro calculations that come in handy. Chimping on the camera also is a practice used to narrow down the proper exposure.
- Modeling light, or being able to switch to continuous light mode, is a helpful aide for accurate focusing. If bright enough, it may be enough light for a decent exposure.
- Power source. With the flash mounted to the front of the lens, a power cord could prove to be a hindrance. If the flash uses batteries, being either rechargeable or a common battery type will avoid frustration. AA batteries are a common power source in ring flashes.
- Independent flash tubes allow for creating a semi-directional light source. Turning off the left or right side, or the top or bottom, can give a bit of depth and contrast that some subjects need. In early ring flashes, this was handled by the photographer taping off part of the flash. Being able to turn off a side of the ring flash is a much more elegant solution.
Top 5 Best Ring Flashes for Macro, Portrait Photography & More!
1. Neewer 48 Macro LED Ring Flash Review (Best Tested)
First up on my list is a very affordable and easy to use unit. This ring flash from Neewer is a great way to get started in ring flash macrophotography, and will allow you to grow in your skills, since it has a lot to offer advanced users too.
It has flash and continuous light modes, also has variable power for the modes. There is no TTL, so you will be figuring out the exposure manually. That’s not as hard as it sounds. Make sure to set a speed usable for flash with your camera, or slower, and then set an aperture and power setting.
Use charts to get you close to the recommended exposure, or use the instant playback on your camera (chimping) to check histogram and to visually see how it looks. Adjust power or aperture until it is right.
Comes with threaded filter adapters to fit lenses from 49mm to 72mm in diameter. Be careful not to cross thread it when screwing it to the filter threads of your lens. Comes with three different diffusers, white, cooling blue, and warming yellow.
Besides using diffusers to modify the light, you can also turn off one side or the other of the flash or light. This allows for a small amount of directionality for creating depth in photos.
Made of LED bulbs, the light doesn’t flicker in continuous modes, but the individual bulbs will sometimes show up in reflections in the subject. Using the plain white diffuser helps.
2. Chromo Inc CI55000230 Macro Ring 48 LED Power Light Review
Next up is a continuous light only, not flash, but nonetheless a great option. It comes with adapters to fit it to the front of most lenses. The power supply fits onto the camera hot shoe, but there is no synch connection possible.
Powered by 2 AA batteries, the light lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, so rechargeable batteries would be a good idea. Either that or carry a whole lot of AAs. Another option is the separately purchased AC adapter. AC adapter won’t recharge anything, but it does let you power the light continuously for a longer time.
Unlike other continuous lights, this one is meant to be mounted to the lens, as a macro light. A switch lets you turn off either the left or right side, or keep both on for a full ring of light.
48 LED bulbs give a strong light output, suitable for using faster shutter speeds in macro photography. The LED bulbs will show in reflections, but give smooth illumination for most subject matter.
Price is low, making this another great beginning ring light for aspiring macrophotographers.
3. Neewer Macro TTL Ring Flash Light Review
Be sure you choose the right one for your brand of camera. This one is for Nikon DSLRs, Neewer also makes a model that works with Canon DSLRs.
Multi mode operation, it has TTL flash metering. TTL is great for a ring flash, because it saves you from having to manually calculate and then zone in on the correct exposure by checking exposed images. TTL measures the light actually coming into the lens, so it’s extremely accurate. TTL is a great feature that gives better results with all sorts of flash.
In manual mode, you can set it at several different power levels, down to 1/128th power. That’s a lot of exposure control. In TTL automatic, I noticed it tended towards overexposure, so setting your camera’s flash compensation is a good idea. Just remember to reset it to normal for your other flash units.
It has small modeling lights on the ring flash part, so you can get focus assist that way. You can also turn off one side or the other for directional lighting effects. You can also set a lighting ration between the two sides. In other words, one side at full, the other lower power, up to a ratio of 8:1.
As with all Neewer products I’ve tested, it is very well made. Fit and finish looks and feels the same as camera brands. Having regular flash tubes, it give circular light reflections, no individual bulbs reflecting.
Powered by four AA batteries, I got well over a hundred flashes at full power. Putting in new batteries and using in TTL mode, I didn’t even get a recycle slow down in a full day of shooting. Specs claim up to 800 flashes possible, which is probably pretty accurate.
4. K&F Concept KF-150 E-TTL Ring Flash Review
Another very well made TTL flash is this one from K&F Concept. This is the Canon version, be sure to check specifically for the version to fit Nikon if you are shooting Nikon cameras.
Powered by four AA batteries, this flash is almost exactly the same as the Neewer TTL ring flash. It isn’t, but all the features and functions are virtually identical.
Since it matches up with the dedicated flash features and functions, a lot of cool things can be done with this flash. Even rear curtain synch! If taking macro pics of a moving subject, like say… a bug, you can get that interesting motion blur coupled with sharp image effect. How fast do bugs move?
Again with the AF assist light on the body of the flash. I guess the manufacturers know better than I do. Outside of ultra close macro, the AF assist should work fine. There are also lights on the flash ring.
Independent flash tubes can be turned on and off independently and used for lighting ratios up to 8:1.
Price was a little higher than the Neewer, but still far below what any camera brand has on the market. A very nicely made flash, I could tell no difference in fit and finish quality between this flash and camera brand models.
5. Aputure Amaran LED Halo AHL-HN100 LED Ring Flash Light Review
Very close in specs and operation to the Neewer 48 LED ring flash, the Halo has an easy to understand and operate set of dials and buttons for controls.
The LED bulbs can be all used at once, or turn off either side. Since it has LED bulbs, they might show up in reflections just like the other LED lights.
The back panel of the power unit has buttons for turning on and off the different sides and switching from continuous to flash modes. The dial under the buttons, which looks like a Canon dial, allows for adjusting the power output in both flash an continuous modes.
It looks and feels a little plasticy, but is well made and works cleanly. Being plastic, the weight is minimal. Pricing is comparable to other LED ring flashes, so it’s a good value for anyone needing a ring flash only every now and then. This is hands down one of the best ring flashes on the market.
Wrapping it up
A great ring flash will give you a fine way to get accurately exposed and good looking macro photographs. Whether being used for 1:1 macro imaging, or for moderately close up subjects, these ring flashes give you everything you need and add some really cool features and functions. To learn more about photography, check out my massive list on the best online photography courses.