Tech

How the ring light became a must-have for recording videos under quarantine

Key Points
  • The ring light itself has become a meme on TikTok, which has become more popular during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Before the ring light existed, there was a ring flash that was invented in the 1950s.
Photographer Shahar Azran has a ring light for joining video calls from his home in Englewood, New Jersey.
Shahar Azran

Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's a ring light.

Ring lights have long been used by photographers and, more recently, social media stars to improve their appearance. They reduce shadows and offer a more uniform glow.

Now, the circle-shaped electric white light, which generally costs less than $100, is one of the more peculiar beneficiaries of the pandemic, alongside online services like Netflix and Zoom.

A ring light has been the No. 1 best seller in the Cell Phones and Accessories category on Amazon.com in recent weeks, and on Friday a ring light was ranked No. 4, behind three iPhone cases. The $59.99 product -- from a company called UBeesize comes with a tripod, a USB cable, a phone holder, a dimmer and a remote -- has over 10,000 ratings.

Twitter is also full of posts about people's ring light purchases.

Ring lights were already popular among people making videos for the social network TikTok before coronavirus took hold. But TikTok has become even more popular as people seek out fresh entertainment from home, and posts containing the hashtag #ringlight have proliferated. 

In some videos the ring light has become the spectacle itself. Many users show their hands and heads moving into and out of the ring. One user even jokingly dressed up his ring light and called it his girlfriend.

From dentists to fashion photographers

Here's the basic idea: Delivering light in a circle rather than from a single point counteracts the shadow that would ordinarily appear in the other direction. If the light were being emitted above a camera lens, a shadow would appear below the person's nose and other protuberances. Sending out light from below the lens stops any nose shadow.

A circle applies this concept in 360 degrees.

The ring light is not a newfangled contraption. People have talked about them in online articles for at least five years, and the concept has been around at least since the 1950s.

Dentists didn't have a good way to shoot light into the mouths of their patients. A dentist facing this problem visited a camera facility and discussed it with a worker there named Lester Dine, who in 1952 invented a product called a ring flash. It lights up at the end of a camera lens when the photographer hits the shutter. Dine's grandson Matt Glassgold is co-owner and president of Lester Dine Inc., which still sells these products for dental use.

"Not only did it eliminate shadows inside the mouth. It also eliminated shadowing on the face, so it made the face prettier," said Glassgold, who runs the company in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. "You don't see the lines, the blemishes and the true reality of the face. I assume that's among the reason why it's become a favorite for videos, webcams and now for for conference work."

Fashion photographers picked up on the ring flash in 1960s, Glassgold said.

Shahar Azran, a New Jersey photographer who takes pictures of entertainers, executives and politicians, recalled using a ring flash for the first time about 20 years ago, during a shoot for the now-defunct fashion retailer Nine West. The gadget was meant to provide very clean and clear light, he said, adding that he remembered seeing the paparazzi using them when he used to shoot concerts.

As the quarantine began, clients called him and asked for recommendations on equipment to film themselves at home. He did research online and called photographer friends. It didn't take long before he started suggesting ring lights.

Azran said his clients are happy with their ring lights.
Shahar Azran

Unlike a ring flash that comes on for just a moment, a ring light stays on for a prolonged period to accommodate a continued video recording. The ring light emerged as digital single-lens reflex cameras became capable of shooting videos, Azran said.

Unlike the camera industry, the ring light market is not ruled by any single company; there are little-known brands like Aixpi, Aptoyu, Crenova, Neewer, UBeesize and Viewow.

Azran's clients are very happy with their ring lights, Azran said. He bought a ring light to remotely lectures at schools he would otherwise be visiting, and his 17-year-old son Liam in Israel has one at his desk for online classes.

"I know all the girls over there have it," he said.

Glassgold said his grandfather, who died in 1999, is not the one who came up with the ring light technology. But he understands the draw.

"A ring is a ring," he said.

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