How to shoot a fashion editorial with a ring flash

Although a very simple lighting set up, ring flash can be fantastic or a complete disaster, if you’re not careful. I will describe the steps I went through to achieve the fashion image bellow.

Photographer: Bruce Smith

A little background

First, what is a ring flash? The ring flash was developed in 1952 by Lester A. Dine, as a dental/medical photographer’s accessory.

As its name suggests it is basically a flash manufactured to fit around the front of a lens, allowing for flash lighting of macro photography. These days they come in 3 main sizes. The first is quite small, as per the traditional ring flash for shooting dental/surgical procedures. It’s designed to allow the photographer to work within an operating theatre environment, without using a cumbersome  traditional  on camera flash or off camera flash kit, which takes up space and can get in the way of operating theatre procedures. This gives the photographer the ability to shoot operation procedures close up.

The ring flash used was specifically designed to use for portrait/fashion photography.

These used to come in the other 2 main sizes, a 9-inch ring flash from companies like Broncolor or Profoto, or 12-inch ring flash from Bowens or Elinchrom. Due to the popularity of the 9-inch version, being more portable and designed so you can shoot hand held with the ring flash attached to your camera’s tripod screw, plus the range of modifiers and accessories being available, the larger ring flash seems to have stopped being manufactured.

The image

This  image was shot with the Nikon D100, with an 18 to 35mm Lf2.8 lens, fl was at 27mm, exposure was f11 at 125 sec, at 200asa (iso). The ring flash was set to give a reading of f11, with a flash to subject distance at approximately 10 feet.

The storyline for the editorial was glitzy celebrities out to play, so I chose to give the images a paparazzi press shot look by shooting the whole fashion story with a ring flash. It gives a hard, bright, shadowless illumination on your subject and, if your shoot close to a background, a shadow all around your subject.  See the image below. You can use a diffuser, a honeycomb grid, or leave the flash with no modifier to give a really hard light. I chose to tape some 1.5 stop scrim diffuser over the flash to soften it just a little and keep the press feel to the lighting. See other images from the editorial below.

The ring flash I used has no censor, so once you have taken the flash reading you must keep your flash/camera to subject distance the same for every shot, or adjust your settings/power output accordingly. If you move closer, you will over expose, further away and you under expose. Also it’s always best to keep the ring flash parallel to your subject, at mid height to your model. Too low and working close, as I often am, gives fast fall off, so your model will not be evenly lit from head to toe. I usually stay at mid height level to my model.  You will notice that the lighting, if you get it right, appears to be soft and can hide a multitude of sins, i.e. wrinkles etc. I still brief my makeup artist that I will be using harsh light, and to make sure makeup is very matted, unless I’m after a shimmery look.

Like any lighting set up your not familiar with, it’s always best to experiment before you shoot to make sure your results are as you wish them to be.

A little about my workflow

I always shoot a raw file and a small jpg, and drop them into separate folders when transferring image files from my flash cards to my computer. I also copy the image files onto an external hard drive as backup. The small jpgs I burn onto CD or DVD, to give to my clients, so they have a complete set of small jpgs from the shoot to do their selecting with. I know it’s antiquated but I like to do a manual workflow and to be in control of my image files.

My editing process is done with the small jpgs mainly for speed. When I have narrowed my choices down to 3 or 4 options, I transfer the final choice images into the folder containing my raw files. This highlights the raw files to be batch processed in camera raw into usable images files.

I’ll talk more about my work flow in another article.

Post-production/Photoshop retouching

I chose a different but similar frame to the one above to work on.

When the image has been processed in camera raw, I assess what is needed to be done, apart from the initial exposure and contrast. With an image such as the image left, which is the un-retouched, processed raw file, as you can see, the image lacks contrast and is not quite as saturated as I would like.

Below are the various steps I did in Photoshop to make the image as I envisaged when I shot it.

Assessing the image

In order to put some punch into the shot, I darkened the wall behind my model, then added some contrast to the dress, brightened up her skin, darkened/enriched her hair, and slimmed down her waist just a little to emphasize her body in liquefy. (The dress was stretchy and sort of hid her waistline.)  I created a mask to protect the areas of the image I didn’t want to alter.

Apart from the above, there’s not a lot I would do to this image.

Step 1: Save as a tiff

I like to keep a master of the processed un-retouched images files and work on a copy of the image tiff.

When saving As, make sure you check the IBM box in the byte order box, or people using PCs will not be able to open or use the tiff image.

Because there is so little Photoshop to be done on this image, and since the retouching I will be doing is not destructive, I’m going to work without using layers.

Step 2: Increasing the overall contrast

I used Image, adjust, curves, dropping the lower section of the curve down to increase density, and lifting the top section of the curve to lighten the brighter areas of the image. This gives the image more contrast and punch, and increased saturation.

Step 3: Darkening the blacks to add more punch

I used Image, adjust, selective color, selected the color black from the drop down menu, and slid the black slider to the right until the blacks were darkened just enough to create a little more punch.

Be careful not to add too much when using selective color adjustments to your images, or it will start to block out the chosen color.

I also added a little more contrast and lightened up her face in curves. See image above.

Step 4: Adding vibrance

To lift the vibrance of the image I used Image, adjust, vibrance, and moved the vibrance slider to the right. This increased saturation a little too much, so I cut back some of the saturation to compensate.

Step 5: Creating a mask

I created a mask to protect the areas I didn’t want altered. To do this I selected the easiest areas to make a magic wand selection of– the model and her dress.

With the magic wand select tool set at a tolerance of 32, I clicked on the model’s dress, automatically selecting a large amount of what I wanted by holding down the caps key and clicking again and again to select each area I wanted to select, i.e. the varying tones on her dress, her hands, her face, her arms etc.

When all was selected, I inversed the selection so the background/wall behind the model became the area selected. It’s now almost ready to be adjusted in curves. BUT like the magnetic select tool, the magic wand can be unpredictable and needs some adjustment to make sure you made a good selection of the areas not to be adjusted in step 7.

Accurate selection: Turn on the red mask by clicking the box with a circle inside. (It’s at the bottom of your tool bar.) This highlights the areas selected and not selected. Like in the previous fashion lighting and Photoshop tutorial, you can add to either the selected or not selected areas by painting in or erasing the mask, using either a hard edge or feathered edge on the tool and using different sizes for more intricate areas. See image bellow.

Feather selected edges: Now that I created an accurate selection separating my model’s body from the background, I clicked off the red mask. Now I need to feather the edge of the selection by just 2 pixels, which will help to not show an obvious edited edge between my model and the background.

Step 6: Darkening the background

To darken the background I used, Image, adjust, curves, pulling down the lower section of the curve to darken the background and lifting the top section just a little to increase the contrast.

Keeping the selection on, I inversed it to be ready to open the image in liquefy. When opened in liquefy, it will look like the image above. I did the liquefy on the waistline before cleaning up the selected areas, hence the mask still showing in areas of the image that will not be adjusted in liquefy.

Step 7: Liquefy waist

In filters, I clicked liquefy. The image opened in a liquefy window. The masked off background areas were red, as in the image above. The areas to be liquefied/slimmed will not be masked off.

I selected the Forward Warp Brush. (It’s the top tool in the tool bar on the left of the liquefy window.) In the brush size box on the panel on the right of the liquefy window I adjusted the size of the brush to be big enough to cover more than the area of the waist to be slimmed. I placed the center of the warp brush on the edge of her waist, and clicked and dragged the waistline in just enough so it still looks natural. As you can see, I slimmed the waist slightly on either side. The area of background now showing outside the masked area will be retouched in the next step.

See the difference in before and after images.


You need to be careful to keep the waistline looking natural.If you look closely you’ll see that the wall behind and adjacent to her slimmed waist is slightly stretched. I’ll show you how to correct this later.


Step 8: Retouch damaged background

I created a new selection of the model’s dress, much the same as in step 5, so I could mask off the dress from the background. I then reversed the selection so I could use the cloning brush to pick up undamaged areas of the wall behind and clone them back in right up to the edge of the dress. Notice how I lined up the lines of the wall before clicking, so you can’t tell I used liquefy. This would have been noticeable if I had not cloned back in the damage edges.

The finished image

Photographer: Bruce Smith

Bruce Smith

Bruce Smith

Bruce Smith is a world-class fashion and beauty photographer whose work has appeared around the globe for more than thirty years. He's the author of "Fashion Photography: A Complete Guide to the Tools and Techniques of the Trade" and teaches workshops internationally. His website is

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