Best ring lights 2021 | CNN Underscored
Ring lights are exactly what they sound like: a strip of LEDs built into a halo apparatus that provides flattering light without creating shadows or harsh lines.
Early ring lights were typically designed to have the camera or smartphone sit in the middle of the light. This was to both minimize shadows when holding a phone in front of you and to ensure the perfect lighting for selfies — which is why they first found fame amongst vloggers and influencers.
But ring lights have in recent years clearly evolved past their vlogging roots. They are available in many sizes and setups and have become vital tools for budding photographers as well as the perfect addition to home office setups. You don’t have to be vying to become an overnight TikTok sensation to appreciate being cast in a better light on Zoom calls, and a high-quality ring light will definitely help.
Over the course of a month, we tested eight top-rated ring lights to determine which provided the best overall lighting, with two taking top honors:
The Emart 10-inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $25.99, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.
Since a 10-inch light isn’t the most compact pack-it-up, take-it-with-you accessory, we also recommend the Whellen Selfie Ring Light. This ultra-portable 3.5-inch light conveniently clips onto your phone, whether you’re using a case or not, and fits easily atop a laptop for video calls. The user-friendly Whellen Selfie Ring Light provided flattering lighting in all of the images we took with it, and it offers both warm and cool settings to adjust the harshness of the light being cast. It’s simply a great light, especially at $16.99.
Best overall ring light: Emart 10-inch Selfie Ring Light (Prime Day Deal: $13.59, originally $27.99; amazon.com)
The Emart 10-inch Selfie Ring Light ticks all the boxes for what you’d want in a ring light: adjustability (both in terms of setup and lighting options), lightweight design and multiple use cases. Bringing that all together at an affordable price point made the Emart a clear winner when compared to the rest of our testing pool.
From the outset, the Emart ring light is extremely easy to use. The light itself simply screws into the tripod, which in turn has three collapsible sections to reach its minimum and maximum heights. The base upon which the light sits can turn 360 degrees around and 180 degrees up or down, which ensures you get the perfect angle to decrease shadows when taking a photo or lighting yourself during virtual meetings.
While the setup is fairly large (the tripod can expand up to 50 inches in height), you can collapse the tripod to its shortest height (19 inches) to set it on your desktop behind your computer. The 19-inch height gave the Emart major bonus points, as it was the only ring light we tested that peeked above laptop height even at its lowest setting. That means you can still use it straight on, as opposed to the others that you have to use off to the side a bit, which can lead to unwanted shadows.
But what, er, shone brightest during our tests was the flattering light cast by the Emart, which came across as natural sunlight in both portraits and selfies. That’s made possible by the light’s three light modes (there’s warm, cool and a nice mix of the two) along with 11 brightness levels for each mode (which was the most settings on any of the lights we tested). In photos taken during both day and night, the lighting gave us high-quality images, highlighting everything it was supposed to while dampening shadows. Even on its brightest setting, the light isn’t overbearing, so it’s not too distracting to use for video calls.
The Emart comes with two included phone holders. One of them is quite handy, clipping onto the thinnest part of the tripod with a small metal clasp that wraps around the pole where it holds your phone both vertically and horizontally. The second phone holder sort of renders the light useless as it screws onto the top of the tripod — the same place you screw in the light. This clip should ideally slot into the middle of the ring, akin to the earliest ring lights. Not a dealbreaker since the other phone holder suffices, but annoying nonetheless.
Ultimately, the Emart 10-inch Selfie Light, thanks to its adjustability and various lighting options, was the best of the bunch we tested. Whether you’re using this light for a professional appearance in virtual meetings or for fun and creative content making, this is a great option. Plus, for a combo of light and tripod, the $35.40 price is relatively low while delivering high-quality results.
Best portable ring light: Whellen Selfie Ring Light ($16.99; amazon.com)
The Whellen Selfie Ring Light is extremely lightweight and small, so it easily fits in pockets, purses, backpacks — you name it. We stuffed it in a purse while grocery shopping, and even with keys, a phone, a wallet and some spare change around it, the light didn’t so much as get scratched.
The 3.5-inch light clips right onto your phone or laptop. If you’re using it for the front-facing camera, the bottom half of the light will cover part of your screen while the top half sits above your phone. That may sound annoying, but in use, it doesn’t block any important part of the screen — it never covered the other person while on a video call, and it essentially covers the same amount of space at the top of the phone as a drop-down notification, so you still see almost the entire field of view.
The Whellen’s clip has rubber padding on the inside, so you never have to worry about it scratching your screen. And even with a case, we had no trouble fitting the clip on our phone (we were using the Incipio Organicore case, which adds 3.7mm to the phone’s thickness).
Like our overall winner, though much more compact, the Whellen offers three different lighting options: warm, cool, or a combination of the two — more than some of the larger and more expensive lights we tested. The cool setting is bright white, and the warm setting carries an orange tint. Even in the darkest of rooms or during nighttime use, both the warm light option and cool light options worked well, though we found the mix of both looked most natural and flattering.
The light has only one button, which toggles through the light settings. If you hold down the button while on any of the light modes, the light will dim so you can easily adjust brightness levels. Most other lights we tested required clicking through for different brightness levels, so the slow dim was a nice touch for the Whellen Selfie Ring Light. Once the light is at its dimmest, you can click and hold the top button again for it to come back to brighter levels until you reach the brightest setting.
Battery life is the only aspect that left us wanting. It took about an hour for the light to fully charge, and lasted about an hour and a half. While on par with the entire field (almost all averaged the same lifespan), the included USB charger is only 10 inches long. So while other lights can remain plugged in while in use, that’s pretty much an impossibility with the Whellen without adding your own charger with a longer cord.
Still, for just $16.99, the Whellen’s multiple light settings and ease of use make it one of the best ring lights out there — especially if you’re looking for something portable.
To compile our testing pool, we read reviews, searched Amazon for the top-rated ring lights and looked at companies known for their lighting features. We then established parameters to test against, particularly looking at brightness, color options and results in photos and videos.
Here is a breakdown of how we tested for each category:
- We took note of any instructions included with the lights. For any lights or tripods that needed to be assembled, we noted whether or not the process was complicated.
- Durability: We determined how durable the lights were by using them consistently during the day. Portable lights were carried in purses while running errands and checked for scratches or cracks. We also looked at the materials used for tripods and whether they were plastic or metal.
- Adjustability: We tested for both physical and settings adjustability via the control buttons offered. A light scored higher if adjusting the light brightness and colors was simple and if the light was easy to move around on a phone for use on both the front-facing and back cameras.
- Levels of brightness: We noted how many levels of brightness were possible. If brightness levels could be changed, a light would be rated higher. The more brightness levels available, the higher the light scored.
- Ease of control: We rated how easy the light was to control and manage during use.
- Color temperature scale: We noted when a light only offered cool or warm light, which lights offered both and which had a combination.
- Selfie test, day: We used the front-facing camera of an iPhone X against a white backdrop in a room with two overhead recessed lights on and a small window across the room to get a clear idea of how the light showed up in photos during the day. We took pictures with the ring light off and then on at different brightness and light temperature settings, when applicable, and compared the before and after images.
- Selfie test, night: We used the front-facing camera of an iPhone X against a white backdrop in a room with two overhead recessed lights on to get a clear idea of how the light worked in photos at night. We took pictures with the ring light off and then on at different brightness and light temperature settings when applicable and compared the before and after images.
- Portrait shot: We used the back camera of an iPhone X to see how well the lights looked in portrait mode. We took photos in portrait mode both at night and during the day.
- Video calls: We used each light during different video calls to see how the light looked over FaceTime. We also noted how distracting or bright the light was during use.
- Charge time: We plugged the light into a wall outlet using the charging cable provided with each light and timed how long it took to fully charge.
- Battery life: We let the lights run until the battery died after receiving a full charge, noting the time it took to fully die.
Compatibility with phone and laptop
- We observed how the light fit onto a phone or laptop. We checked how tight the grip was once attached, comparing the grip using various thicknesses of phone cases and checking the grip without a phone case. For standing lights we noted whether they had an option to hold the phone while using the ring light and if the tripod was tall enough to sit on a desk above a laptop for effective lighting.
- We checked if the ring light included a warranty with purchase.
Each ring light we looked at was given a score in the subcategories described above, which was then added together to determine an overall score in the category. Functionality was weighed most heavily, with design and compatibility being rated of second and third most importance, respectively. Here is the exact point comparison:
- Functionality had a maximum of 50 points: levels of brightness (10 points), ease of control (10 points), color temperature (10 points), selfie test day (5 points), selfie test night (5 points), portrait shot (5 points), video calls (5 points).
- Design had a maximum of 25 points: durability (10 points), adjustability (10 points), ease of setup (5 points).
- Compatibility with phone or laptop had a maximum of 20 points.
- Setup had a maximum of 15 points.
- Battery life had a maximum of 10 points: charge time (5 points), battery life (5 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 5 points.
Joby Beamo Mini ($69.95; amazon.com)
This is a bright LED light that isn’t too compatible with your phone unless you also purchase a tripod to hold both the light and your phone. The light itself is hard to set up, uses a specific charger as opposed to a micro-USB, is overwhelmingly bright and is expensive to boot.
Kodak Smartphone Portrait Light ($14.99, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
Though this Kodak ring light provided flattering light with all three of its brightness levels, we noticed the brightness of the light starting to fade after the ring light was left on for longer than 30 minutes. It did, however, fit really well on our phone with or without a case, though it doesn’t fit well on thicker cases.
Qiaya Selfie Ring Light ($17.99; amazon.com)
This light was smaller than the other portable ring lights we tested, but lacked in performance. The photos we took with this light seemed to have a white film over them that made them look unnatural or poorly edited. It’s more expensive than the Whellen Selfie Ring Light but didn’t provide nearly the same results.
Fotodiox Selfie Starlite Vlog Pro Ring Light and Tabletop Set ($80; ubranoutfitters.com)
This is a good desktop option if you’re looking for a ring light to use while applying makeup, filming videos or during virtual meetings. The tripod included is very short, so it sits at a good height on a desk but doesn’t adjust to be taller than a laptop. It comes with a phone holder alongside a mirror for applying makeup, which was an added bonus. This light also gives you the option to mix warm and cool light at different levels with an indicator on the back. It lost points, however, because the tripod included is short and minimally adjustable. Plus, the light is much larger than the base, making it awkward and somewhat difficult to put together.
Movo VGC-3 Selfie Ring Light Kit ($24.95; amazon.com)
This option from Movo was different from all of the other lights we tested. It has what looks like a large chip clip on the end with the light and phone holder on bendable stands. The lighting provided by this ring light was really crisp, but overall it isn’t as functional as the other portable lights we tested since it doesn’t simply sit atop a desk. But if you have a desk where you can clip it into place, this is definitely a great option.
Godox LEDM32 Smartphone Mini Light ($15.20; bhphotovideo.com)
Tiny but mighty, the Godox LEDM32 Smartphone Mini Light has a small clip on the back that fit easily on a phone and provided an extremely bright light. The light was almost blindingly bright, in fact, but the brightness could be adjusted using the plus and minus buttons on the top of the light. It charged really quickly, with the battery lasting almost two hours. The light looked great in photos and worked really well for video calls, but overall was overly bright and distracting during use.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed prices at the time of publication.
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