Rim light photography – simple lighting technique for dramatic photos

Not all photos have or need rim light, but when it is used, it really brings an image to life. Rim lighting in photography is dramatic when used as the only light, but can also be a subtle addition to an image when used with other lighting.

What is rim lighting in photography?

The first thing to know about rim lighting is that it’s not a specific type of light, as in lighting equipment. It’s a way to light your subject from behind and to the side. You can use any type of light as a rim light – both natural light and flash light.

Dramatic lighting with rim light
Example of rim lighting. I used a two light set up for this rim lit portrait. I put a light on each side and slightly behind shining back towards the couple. The black background and clothing makes it even more dramatic.

Because rim lighting is a form of backlighting, it’s any light source that’s used predominantly from behind the subject, but not necessarily directly behind as it helps to position it to the side. So, while it is backlighting, it’s more than that, it’s a combination of backlighting and side light.

Further reading: Backlight photography tips for magical photos

You can see rim light in a photo by looking at the edges of the subject, the outline, hence the name rim light. When the subject’s edges are clearly lit, you know rim lighting has been used.

Direct hard rim light from setting sun
I used the setting sun for a rim light effect and off camera flash to light her from the front

What is the purpose of rim light?

The main purpose of rim lighting is to separate the subject from the background, by lighting the subject’s edges, particularly when the background is the same color as the subject. It creates a high contrast dramatic look, often with deep shadows, and adds depth and interest to an image.

How to create rim light in portrait photography

As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need any specific type of gear to create rim light. Any light can be used and, in the case of flash, any type of modifier can be used, depending on:

  • Whether you want the rim lighting to be hard or soft light
  • How big you want the rim light to be (to cover just head and shoulders or full body)

Further reading: Light quality & quantity of light – essential knowledge

With rim light vs without rim light
These two photos show how rim light adds depth and interest to a photo, and also separates the subject from the background. On the left, although she’s in shadow, the last rays of the setting sun are just reaching her. On the right she’s completely in shadow with the sun’s rays blocked by the rock and no edge lighting.

Rim light setup

If using off camera flash, move your lighting to where it’ll create a good rim of light around the subject’s edges. If using natural light, you’ll need to move your subject to the ideal position.

Either way the position of the light can be:

  • Directly behind your subject
  • Or behind and off to the side

To get a nice rim of light behind and just around the one side of the subject, the lighting setup should be:

  • Behind and slightly to the side of the subject
  • Higher than the subject
  • Angled down at 45 degrees

It helps to think of light placement in terms of a clock face. So, for the above scenario, imagine a clock with:

  • Your subject in the middle
  • The background at 12 o’clock
  • You at 6 o’clock
  • The rim light is at 2 o’clock

 

Rim light separates subject from background

What is the minimum number of lights required for a rim lighting setup?

The great news is that you can create a rim lighting set up with just one light for a high contrast low key image like the one above. It all depends on:

  • The look you want to go for
  • The amount of available light
  • How you use the light – rim light setup

Further reading: Low key photography tips for dramatic photos

Using rim light as a hair light

In this two light set up, the sun on her hair is creating both a hair light and rim light, while she is lit from camera left by off camera flash.

Alternatively, you can use two lights. With flash you can set up a key light to light your subject, then add another behind the subject as a rim light to separate them from the background.

But the rim lighting technique isn’t just for flash photography. You can very easily use natural light only, whether it’s a sunny day (for crisp rim light) or a cloudy day (for a softer rim light).

Further reading: What is a key light in photography and how do you use it?

Natural light vs OCF light with rim light
I used off camera flash to light the dancer from camera right and used the late afternoon sun for rim light on the first image. For the second image I used natural light only. You’ll notice that she’s largely in shadow, but is subtly rim lit by the setting sun.

And you can take it a step further by adding a fill flash as well to fill in the shadows. This is a typical three point lighting set up. Again, this is also possible with just natural light if you use a reflector as a fill light to bounce light back into the shadows.

By adding a hair light you could create a four point lighting set up. Or add another rim light to the other side of the subject for a five point lighting set up. The list goes on.

OCF lighting setup using rim light
Two light set up in the studio using a bare strobe for crisp rim lighting effect on camera left and diffused light from a flash fitted with a softbox on camera right

Lighting setups can be as complicated or as simple as you want. As I said, it all depends on the light you have to work with and the look you want to create. The most important thing is to start off simply with a single light setup. If possible, rather use one or two lights to create the look you want than five.

However, to answer the question, to create a rim lighting setup, you actually just need one light source – either natural light or a single flash.

What to watch out for with rim light

As we’ve seen, rim light can really make a photograph stand out, but it’s not just a matter of putting your subject in front of a light. Here are 4 mistakes to avoid when setting up rim lighting:

  • Blown out highlights
  • The wrong background
  • Unwanted flare
  • Rim light spilling onto the subject’s face

1. Blown out highlights

The lighter the subject, or part of the subject that’s rim lit, the easier it is to blow out the highlights.

This is particularly problematic if your rim light is brighter than your key light (the main light on your subject) and occurs more with natural light photography. It’s easier to control flash output than bright sunlight.

It stands to reason that if the light is behind the subject, the side facing you will be in shadow and therefore darker. If you expose for the light behind, the subject will be underexposed and if you expose for the subject, the rim lighting will create blown out highlights on your subject.

There are 2 solutions:

  • Underexpose the image to preserve the highlights and then bring up the shadows in post production
  • Illuminate the subject by bouncing light back into their face with a reflector or with off camera flash

Further reading:

Overexposure and underexposure tips

Getting started with off camera flash

Controlling exposure of rim light
Both these images were lit with natural light only and no reflector, other than the light colored ground. The first image shows blown out highlights on her hair, because the exposure was set for her face which was not lit. For the second image I underexposed and adjusted in Lightroom.

2. The wrong background for rim light portrait

The color of the background affects the visibility of rim light on the subject – a dark background shows rim light, but light background won’t. After all, white on a white background doesn’t stand out.

Background affects visibility of rim light
In both of these images I used the setting sun for rim lighting effect and flash to light the subject, but the rim light isn’t visible in the image on the right, because of the white background of the blown out sky

3. Unwanted flare

Flare in photography is very popular, so much so that many photographers add flare in post production. That’s great if you want flare, but if you don’t, you need to be aware of where your light is when capturing a scene. For rim light in particular it helps to use a lens hood to prevent light from hitting the front of your lens.

If the light is in shot or only just out of shot, it’ll be visible in the image as lens flare.

Further reading: How to remove lens flare in Lightroom (including sunspots on photos)

Avoid rim light flare and spill onto subject

This scene was lit by natural light, with off camera flash as rim light. Both images show flare on the right from the rim light. In this instance it was created intentionally for a little atmosphere, but to avoid it I could have shifted my camera angle slightly to the left . For the right image I changed position slightly more to the right to add more flare.

On the other hand, the dancer also changed her head position slightly, turning more to camera and catching the light on her cheek. This small patch of bright light on her face is distracting.

4. Rim light spilling onto the subject’s face

If you’re not careful you can easily end up with too much light spilling onto your subject.

Rim lighting should highlight the edge of the subject and taper off fairly quickly into just a kiss of light on the subject. More than that and it’ll become distracting, rather than enhancing, as you can see in the image above.

Leave a comment

If my lighting tips have helped you to understand the rim lighting technique, let me know in the comments. Also if you have any questions I’d be happy to help.

4 thoughts on “Rim light photography – simple lighting technique for dramatic photos”

  1. Instead of a comment, I have a question. I’m preparing a photoshoot with my niece and her husband during her 8 month pregnancy. Would you possibly have any suggestions. If I’m not asking for too much. Thank you

    Reply
  2. Hi Jane,

    Yes for sure: “our portrait photography lighting tips have helped me to understand how to use rim light,”

    Thanks for your site and the way you’ve organized it – you seem to not just do a tutorial but also include us as assistants during shooting while explaining in the image’s captions: very live on the ground.

    *As I’ve been learning camera and gear, you too, seem confirm as other sources: “Angled down at 45 degrees” is the general angle for the softboxes facing subject and same angle on either side of subject…generally. A reflector for under chin, or whole body would be the same angle also? That’s “butterfly” lighting?

    I’ve invested in softboxes, 9ft x14ft. background, triggers etc., and bluetooth for phone to DSLR (canon connect). Anything on full-length portrait lightning (like this post) is so helpful in the “spare room” studio… Thx, Frank

    Thx.

    Reply

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