Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Pocket Ringlight

Ever since Maxim magazine made ringflashes/ringlights popular again, photographers have been using and overusing them to get that "look". I gotta admit I'm a sucker for the soft yet harsh quality to the light. Since almost all my photography is done on the move though, the large studio ringlights out there don't really work for me. The small macro ringlights are too weak and do not accommodate lenses with large filter diameters. The closest thing to a portable ring flash I've found was the Sunpak DX-12R. I ordered one and although it says it will work with lenses with filter diameters up to 77mm, they aren't really designed to work with wide angle lenses so I found it vignetted heavily with my Canon 16-35 lens.

Without anything commercially available, I thought I'd try making my own. My first attempt involved using 3 Canon Speedlites, a Novoflex Unimarm, and some music wire. It wasn't pretty and turned out to be as ungainly as the studio lights. My second design was much simpler:

Ring Flash

Basically it's just a ring shaped diffuser made from 2 flat sheets of plastic and reflective fabric for the side walls. Light is supplied by a Speedlite, here I'm using a Canon 580EX. To see how well the light is dispersed around the ring, I took a test shot of the ring itself:

Ring Light

As you can see, it is darker at the top of the ring since the light is being pumped in from the bottom but that's not necessarily a bad thing, it adds to the dark "halo" above your subject, which is one of the trademarks of the ringlight look that I like.

Here's a test shot to see how it works.

Looks pretty good IMO. The range is decent too, I can shoot up to 15 feet or so at f8 and ISO 800. Not great but good enough that I can use this as opposed to dragging around a large studio ringflash setup. You can also use it as an off camera diffuser:

I actually made this ringlight over a year ago thinking I would use it for my trip to Cuba but I never got around to using it. Finally on a recent corporate photography assignment to South America, I thought I would finally put it to work. I've found my corporate clients usually have grown tired of the typical corporate photos and want something a little different, a little more contemporary, but still appropriate for corporate literature. This time, I wanted to do this with the ringlight look. My main client is an oil company and we fly all over the world to their regional offices and I only have a few minutes to photograph their employees, sometimes as little as 5 minutes per person so that doesn't give me much time at all to setup and get the shot. That's where something as simple as this with TTL metering really becomes useful. Also since it maintains full compatability with your flash and camera, you can still use features such as high speed sync (actually came in handy with some "lit" dark sky shots I took), rear curtain sync, etc.. which may not be available with other ringlights. Here are some shots from the trip:

The last photo also used 2 Speedlites as slaves to spotlight the guys in the background.
I was pretty satisfied with the pocket ringflash. The best part is that it adds virtually no weight and requires almost no additional space in my already overloaded camera bag. It folds flat and fits in the side pocket:

If you'd like to make one of your own, here is how. First you're going to need the following materials:

  1. A clear plastic sheet for the front panel. I used polycarbonate (Lexan) for its durability.
  2. A reflective sheet for the rear panel. I used mirrored acrylic (Plexiglass) which is not as tough as polycarbonate but I couldn't find any mirrored polycarbonate.
  3. Flexible reflective material for the side walls and the inside "tube." I used silvered fabric.
  4. Reflective material such as Mylar to mask off the parts of the front panel where I didn't want light leaking through.
  5. Velcro to attach the panels to your flash.
  6. Strong clear tape such as packing tape. Don't use celophane or other types that tear easily.
  7. Large rubber band or scrunchee.
  8. A means to link the flash with the camera. I used the Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2.

I bought the plastic sheets and Mylar from a local industrial plastic supply company, search in your yellow pages, the local hardware stores would charge a lot more for the material if they even have them. If that fails, a Google search will turn up several sources. The silvered fabric was purchased from a regular fabric store. I bought from the scrap pile and I think all the materials ended up costing me ~$8USD altogether.

You'll also need the following tools to construct the ringlight:

  1. A means of cutting the plastic sheets. Preferably a Dremel tool with a cutting bit or a jigsaw.
  2. 200 grit sandpaper to diffuse the front panel. I used an orbital sander which made it easier but you could do it by hand also.

And here is how to put it all together:

  1. The first thing you need to do is to cut out the panels. I used a Dremel tool fitted with a cutting bit. The front and rear panels have the same dimensions as shown below. You might want to alter the dimensions based on your setup though. I made the inside diameter just large enough to accommodate the widest lens hood I would use it with, which in my case is the hood for the Canon 16-35 lens. The ring was made to be roughly 1.75" "wide" since I've found from my previous design, if the ring is too wide, the dark "halo" you get from the ringlight tends to be too soft (for my tastes anyways). The width of the bottom was based on the width of the flash I would use it with (the Canon 580EX). After cutting, I sanded the edges smooth.

    Ring Flash using Speedlites Since I'm sure someone will write and ask, that flash was fired wirelessly. No reason really, I was just bored:)

  2. After cutting the panels to shape, the clear front panel will need to be sanded to make it diffuse. I just used an orbital sander with 200 grit sandpaper but using your hands will work. Just run it over the panel in a circular fashion until it turns white. I chose to sand the inside surface since the roughened surface gets dirty easier and keeping it on the inside keeps it cleaner.
  3. Next put some velcro on the end inside surfaces of the panels so it can hold itself secure to the flash head.
  4. Next the front panel needs to be masked so that light only comes out from the ring area. I just cut the mylar to shape and taped it to the inside of the front panel. Make sure there is a cutout for the velcro.
  5. Now for the most tedious part. Cut a strip of the reflective fabric so that it is long enough to cover the edges of the ringlight. Also create a strip to form a tube around the inner hole. I used a thickness of 2" since that is the thickness of my Speedlites. I also put a taper so that it converges at the tip of the ringlight. My thinking was that it would force the light to the front which would help eliminate the shadow on the top of the ring. I'm not sure how much a difference this really makes, you could just make it 2" throughout to make things easy. I attached the fabric using tape, doing the inside tube first. Make sure you leave the fabric unattached on one panel near the area where the flash is attached to give the panels room to be spread and accept the flash head. Here is what it should look like from the flash head's perspective:

That's it! Put your flash in, connect it with your camera (I used a Canon Off Camera Shoe Cord 2 to connect to my 1Ds Mark II), and you've got a ring light for $1,700 less than what a typical ringflash would cost! One trick you might want to use to get the flash in without getting snagged halfway on the velcro is to cover the velcro with paper. Then when the flash head is in place, pull out the paper. On the outside, I use one of those scrunchie things to secure it a little more. It always sits on the flash and is also useful for securing bounce cards, snoots, Lumiquest diffusers, etc...

-Tommy Huynh