Lighting Cupcakes with a Ring Flash

Lighting Cupcakes with a Ring Flash

Have you found yourself in a lighting rut? Do you have two or three "go to" lighting set ups that you find yourself continuously falling back on? Lately, I have found myself in a rut. For a little change of pace, I decided to shoot my favorite food, cupcakes, using a light source that is not very common in food photography: the ring flash.

Ring flashes are most commonly seen in fashion and portraiture. They produce a distinctive catchlight and  when used as a key light they produce a distinctive set of shadows that many photographers love! Below is an example of a red plastic cup shot with a ring flash.


Notice how the shadow looks like an outline around the cup. A ring flash is a circular flash that wraps around a lens. This shape and location around the lens causes these unique shadows. As a food photographer, a ring flash is something that I have never introduced into my food photography. When photographing food, I prefer to use a single directional light source and use reflectors for fill.

With a ring flash as the key light, the light source is on the lens causing my subject to be front lit. Below is an example of the cupcake lit from the side and from the front with a ring flash.



I think that the left side lighting of the cupcake looks more appetizing than the front lighting of the ring flash. The characteristics of using the ring flash as a key light aren't to my taste, but that doesn't mean that I can't use a ring flash to make a beautiful food image. Many photographers use the ring flash as a fill light. For fill, I will usually use a piece of foam board on the opposite side of the key light. For this example, I will place the foam board on the right side. Here is what that looks like.


Reflecting light back in with foam board lightens up the shadows without creating an additional set of shadows. When using a flash as fill, you run the risk of introducing a second set of shadows. Below is an example of an image with ring flash fill and foam board fill.

fill_ring vs_fill_board

You can see that both the ring flash and the foam board fill in the shadows, but in different ways. In the ring flash fill, you can faintly see that distinct shadow outline on the background. With a solid background, I prefer the look of the foam board reflector, but what would happen if the background was made of a reflective material?


In this example, I have replaced the brown paper background with a silver sequin background. Instead of the distinct shadow forming on the reflective background, the ring flash reflects off of the background. I like the look of the background with the ring flash much better than the background with the soft box on the left. Knowing this, I am going to change the camera angle and see how this effects the ring flash.


Here is the image with only the key light (Soft box on the left). Notice how the left side of the subject is lit, but there isn't any light reflecting off of the sequin background. To add reflection to the background, I can either use a foam board reflector on the right, or the ring flash. Here is what the image looks like with the foam board reflector.


And now with the ring flash.



Like with the solid colored background set of images, both these fill methods work, but in different ways. They reflect light off the background in different ways. What happens if you use both? Below is an image with both the foam board fill on the right and the ring flash.


This image is the one that I like the best. The mix of ring flash and foam board reflector fills in the cupcake and provides enough reflection on the background. Which do you prefer? Do you usually use a ring flash as a key light? Or as a fill light?


All of these shots were done with two 580 EX IIs, A Wescott 43" Apollo Orb as the soft box, and a Ray Flash as the Ring Flash. Here is a set shot of the lighting set up. For more tutorials and information about taking pictures of food, visit photographing FOOD.


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I use the Elinchrom, Ranger Quadra Ring Flash and I love it. Extremely versatile and portable for any application. Showed it to my friend who's "learning" lighting and don't mind giving him a few tips.... He told me that I was kidding myself with this style of lighting and that it looked the same as a speedlight ?

Geez, Imagine that ? We've been using the wrong light modifier for decades :)

The ring flash is awesome ! Especially if you know how to use it ?
I use the Elinchrom Ranger Quadra Ring Flash and I love it. Extremely versatile and portable. Showed it to my friend who's learning lighting and don't mind giving him a few tips.... He told me that I was kidding myself with this style of lighting and that it looked the same as a speedlight ?

Great post. I love the comparisons so you can really see what is going on.

BDWT's picture

Nice post. Useful examples. More posts like this!

Tyler Brown's picture

This has me rethinking the ring flash!

Michael Hickey's picture

For God's sakes just light the thing and GIVE me the dang cupcake!

Spy Black's picture

Unfortunately subtle highlight detail is lost with the ringflash shot, as well as over-lighting the cup. I'm curious how a bare bulb monolight would do, as it can be hard and soft simultaneously, depending on distance. Hard lighting would be interesting to see as well, you may be able to keep more of the subtle details.