If you’re getting serious about lighting equipment, whether for photo or video, you’re probably considering upgrading from a basic umbrella lighting setup to something more advanced. You might be asking yourself, “what is the difference between a softbox and a ring light?”
We’re going to answer that question, and help you decide exactly which lighting setup is perfect for you! The differences are very clear and very basic, so it’s really going to be easy to decide which one to buy just as soon as you understand the different creative looks they can offer you. So, here we go!
Ring Light VS Softbox | What’s The Difference?
First and foremost, a ring light and a softbox are very different in their design, and as a result, they create very different-looking results and serve totally different purposes. However, both of them can still be very useful for both photo and video use!
A softbox is simply a big “box” of light. A softbox can be a square or rectangular shape, but it might also be a hexagon, or an octagon, or it might even be an umbrella-style design with so many sides that it’s effectively a circle. Either way, softboxes can come in all shapes and sizes, and they serve a very obvious purpose- to deliver one big (or just medium-sized) source of soft, directional light to your subject.
With a softbox, you can usually place it anywhere, relative to your camera and your subject, and then aim the light anywhere, thus creating all types of final results from dramatic and edgy lighting to gentle and soft light, all while avoiding the harsh shadows of a bare strobe or the “spill” of a Shoot-Through Umbrella.
A ring light, on the other hand, is exactly what it says- instead of a box, it’s a ring! Quite literally, a ring light creates s a circle of light, without any light in its actual center.
This can not only make a really cool effect of evenly lighting your subject but it also creates very striking catchlights in a portrait subjects’ eyes, in the shape of a circle. (See below for an example!)
Of course, the most common way that a ring light is used also plays a role in the creative look it delivers: You place your camera right in the center of the ring, which results in totally even lighting on your subject. There will be virtually no shadows whatsoever anywhere on a portrait subject’s face! (See the middle image above, compared to the two other images which demonstrate off-center lighting techniques in the Lighting 101 workshop)
You could place a ring light off-center from your camera, too, of course, just like you could place a camera directly in the middle of a very large softbox in an effort to get very “flat” lighting. However, for the purpose of this article, we are going to talk about using ring lights with the camera perfectly centered, and softboxes positioned off-center from the camera.
Light Direction & Quality | Ring Light VS Softbox
The difference between any ring light and any softbox is immediately obvious when you see the type of light they produce. To recap from before:
A softbox is a big, solid source of light, and is perfect for creating directional light that has highlights and shadows, but with a soft transition between the two.
Depending on where you place your softbox, relative to both your camera and your subject’s position & pose, your softbox will allow you to create very minimal shadows, or very dramatic, deep shadows. (Can you guess how you’d use a softbox to create less shadows, versus significant shadows? Leave a comment below; the answer should be easy!)
A ring light, because it’s basically a “donut of light”, has the benefit of being placed directly around your camera, and as we mentioned before, the lighting created is truly perfectly even.
Thus, an image made with a ring light is not just soft and flattering like a softbox offers, but also very evenly lit, even “flat” or low-contrast in some cases, and usually with a bright, high-key final result. This offers less creative options, but sometimes the bright, evenly lit look can be perfect for the subject at hand.
A Ring Light Makes Unique Catchlights In Your Subjects’ Eyes
One of the highly unique benefits of ring lighting is not just the quality of light that it produces, but the special effect it creates on any shiny surface that is reflected perfectly back to the camera, such as, of course, a subjects’ eyes!
The catchlight is always an interesting, unique look. Sometimes it works very well for the type of portrait, and other times it can look a little too…futuristic might be the right word? What do you think?
Softbox VS Ring Light | When To Use Which? Photography Or Video?
So, the real question is, WHY would you want to use one or the other, and what type of photography might either one be well-suited for? Once you compare the two types of light, the obvious differences should immediately give you ideas about when to use which one!
A softbox is great for dramatic yet still flattering portraits, and depending on the size of the softbox you can use it to illuminate not just one but two, three, or a whole group of people!
A ring light, on the other hand, is really just meant to be used to photograph one subject or two very close subjects and is meant to be a very simple, bright, less dramatic style of lighting.
Honestly? If you do a lot of headshot portraits for a wide variety of clients, then you might eventually own both types of light setups, actually! Having both creative “looks” in your toolkit is a great advantage.
Of course, you would want your first purchase to be whichever lighting setup you plan to use most frequently, and that would probably be a softbox for most types of portrait work, both still and video.
On the other hand, there are a few things that a ring light is very useful for, and you might even consider getting a ring light before anything else. One very popular type of photography and videography these days is beauty, fashion, and tutorials (Youtube videos) on these subjects. If you’ve ever watched a makeup tutorial on Youtube and seen beautiful, soft, bright light on the subject, (and if you noticed a white circle reflecting in their eyes!) …then they’re using a ring light!
A ring light is also generally useful for all types of simple Youtube/vlog videos, if you’re just sitting in front of a camera talking about any subject at all, doing small product reviews or demonstrations/tutorials, etc. If you like the soft, flattering, bright, and simple look that a ring light gives, you should try going this route.
Then again, for other types of videos where you are just talking to the camera in a more storytelling manner, then it might be more interesting to have a softbox instead because creating shadows and dramatic lighting is more interesting to the viewer.
Ring Light VS Softbox | What Do They Cost?
Ring lights often cost anywhere from $50 to $200 or more, and there are numerous options in the ~$100 range. If you just want to get started making simple Youtube videos such as makeup tutorials, a compact ring light with a built-in phone clamp (and even a mirror) for ~$70 is a great investment!
Softboxes can cost a lot of money, but they don’t have to! Some can cost as much as $1000 or more, but there are also many more that cost just about $50-100 for a softbox only or $100-300 for a whole kit including a light stand and a strobe or constant/video light. If you’re getting into any type of portraiture, a softbox is a great investment.
Either way, you can probably find one to fit your budget! In fact, if you’re really ambitious about mastering lighting and having a wide range of creative options to choose from, you might even consider buying one of each type of lighting setup, just to experiment with both at the same time!
Why would you do this, instead of investing more money in a single, higher quality option? Firstly, because it would allow you to learn new creative techniques sooner, and secondly, because even if you decide you don’t really like one type of lighting, you can still keep it around and maybe use it on a special project, so you won’t have “wasted” too much money. Neither will you feel like you wasted money on a cheap version of whichever type of lighting you decide you really like, because it’s good to have a backup of the things you rely on to do your best work!
Ring Light VS Softbox | Conclusion
Of course, with what you’ve learned in this article, you should have a very good idea about which type of lighting is best for you, and we definitely recommend investing in that type of lighting first before exploring other options.
In short, you’ll probably want to invest in a softbox for most types of photography and videography, but a ring light could be very useful too if you do some very specific things that benefit from the unique type of lighting it gives.
Which did you decide you like more, by the way? Leave a comment below with your thoughts, or any other questions you might have! We’d love to hear from you.