Use a Ring Flash for Better Close-Up Photography

Flash photography can be very challenging: Flash photos can look artificially bright and have ugly shadows, and they are easily overexposed. Unfortunately, you might have noticed that the problem tends to get worse the closer you get to your subject. A while back I wrote about how to take better flash photos, but I didn't cover close-ups.

Portraits that you take in close quarters can be ruined by the uneven lighting that comes from your flash, and really close-up photos--also known as macro photography--suffer from terrible overexposure and ugly shadows. There's a solution, though, a different sort of flash known as a ring flash. Before you shrug off this solution as too expensive or only for pros, let me point out that there are a lot of ways to get the benefits of a ring flash, and some of them are cheap or very nearly free.

Ring Flash Basics

So what is a ring flash? Simply put, it is a gadget that has multiple flash units that wrap around the lens instead of sitting atop your camera and generating a single source of light. They all fire together, generating a ring of light that illuminates your subject from every direction.

Serious photographers--and ones with deep pockets--sometimes purchase sophisticated ring flashes for their digital SLRs. Canon photographers, for example, might choose a $500 Macro Ring Lite for close-up photography. A ring like this is valuable for close-up work because ordinarily the lens would block the flash when you get really close to your subject. A ring flash, however, provides unimpeded illumination. For more creative applications, you can even control the relative power of each side of the ring.

A DIY Alternative

Of course, $500 (or more) is a lot of money to spend on a flash that you'll use only occasionally. That's why do-it-yourselfers have come to the rescue. You can make your own inexpensive ring flash for about $10 worth of household goods--a couple of plastic bowls, glue, tape, and foil. Check out this eight-step process for making a ring flash, for example.

That's not the only one. Just search for "DIY ring flash," and you'll come up with a handful of similar solutions. Digital Photography School, for example, has a tutorial with step-by-step photos.

Get a Cheap Ring Flash Adapter

There's also a middle ground. Perhaps you don't want to spend a fortune on a professional ring flash, but you're also not interested in hanging a salad bowl off the front of your camera. That's fine--you can get a ring flash adapter instead.

There are several ring flash adapters available that all work pretty much the same way: They attach to the front of your camera's flash unit and redirect the light to a ring-shaped channel that wraps around your lens. A set of reflectors fire the light outward, just like an ordinary ring flash.

An adapter like this has several advantages. Since there's no flash or other electronics, it can be quite inexpensive. The lack of electronics has another advantage--no batteries, and no additional drain on your camera's batteries.

One option is the Ray Flash, a $200 adapter that costs a lot less than a traditional ring flash. A much cheaper alternative is Photojojo's Ring Flash Adapter, which does pretty much the same thing for just $40. Granted, it's not exactly the same. The Expoimaging adapter circulates the light a full 360 degrees around the lens, while the Photojojo does not: Almost a quarter of the ring reflects no light.

The Photojojo does a good job of creating flat, even lighting when used close up. For example, compare these two photos of my daughter. On the left, you can see harsh shadows under her chin caused by the flash. On the right, the Flash Ring Adapter has smoothed out those shadows by delivering light from (almost) every direction.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Spikey Caterpillar" by Dwayne Alan Taylor, Salem, Massachusetts

Dwayne writes: "This is a caterpillar I snapped at the Aruba Butterfly Farm using my Canon EOS XSi. I thought the colors worked very well together; it was the best of the captures that day."

This week's runner-up: "Old Barn" by James Morales, Bakersfield, California

James says: "I took this photo of an old barn in Tehachapi, California, around sunset. I used the HDR technique that I learned from one of your articles and merged the three images with Artizen HDR."

To see the March winners, visit our Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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