Tutorial: The Difference Between A Ring Light and Key Light

I’ve had several people ask me when to use a key light and when to use a ring light.

Let’s start answering that by first defining what each is.

A ring light as the name suggests, is a circular light that either fits around a camera’s lens or is large enough for the camera to shoot through it.

A key light on the other hand is the main source of light in a scene (as distinct from a fill light that is designed to “fill in” any shadows created by the key light).

So, by the perfect definition, a ring light COULD be a key light just to confuse things. However, ring lights are designed for a very specific purpose, and that is to cast an even light onto your subject thus reducing shadows in the face and illuminating the eyes. As a side benefit it will also minimise any blemishes.

This is why ring lights are often used in portrait photography and glamour shots.

But they are also useful in imaging a single subject and why they are often used in shots of food for example, and as you may have seen if you are fan of forensic type shows on TV, the police love to use them at crime scenes too.

From a vlogger point of view, a ring light is perfect if used in a dark room. The one I reviewed a while back, the Elgato Ring Light has a mount inside the ring for a camera and so by placing it behind your monitor, if you are streaming gaming, or creating tutorials, everything looks very natural.

Under the same circumstances, a key light would most likely need a fill light and a back light to add a three dimension look to the image otherwise it runs the risk of being “shadowy”, unless of course you want that sort of look to emphasize the drama of a situation.

This is also often used a crime and spy shows, for example, when the subject is “hiding in the shadows” so to speak. This by the way is commonly called “split lighting”.

Lighting in photography and video is a science to itself, which is why in bigger productions there is a separate Lighting Director. If this interests you, there are a million on-line tutorials available and they best way to start is with basic 3-point lighting – key, fill and backlight – and experiment from there.

By the way, we have an Elgato Ring Light to give away valued at AUD$329. You’ll notice I have a pop up letting you subscribe for FREE to the Australian Videocamera e-magazine (all I need is an email address). For the next month, if you subscribe, you’ll go into the draw to win this Elgato Ring Light.

And if you are already a subscriber, don;t worry as you’ll be entered automatically.

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