Not all photos have or need rim light, but when it’s 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?
Rim light isn’t a specific type of light, as in lighting equipment or light source. Rim lighting is 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.
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 rim light can be backlighting, it’s more than that, it’s a combination of backlighting and side light.
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.
Example of rim lighting subjects. 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 and separates the subject from the background.
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. Rim light creates a high contrast dramatic look, often with deep shadows, and adds depth and interest to an image.
In this two light setup I used the setting sun for a rim light effect and off camera flash to camera right to light her from the front
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 to create rim lighting in photos 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 light just head and shoulders or for lighting the full body)
These two natural light 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
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
Without rim lighting for this minimalist maternity portrait, her bump wouldn’t be obvious because of her black dress and the black background. I used one strobe with a softbox to soften the light to camera left and behind the subject.
What is the minimum number of lights required for a rim lighting setup?
You can create a rim lighting set up with just one light for either a high contrast low key image like the one above, or for high key images. However, you can add additional light sources for more complex portrait lighting setups.
Rim lighting photography with one light
Use flash or natural light for a one light rim lighting setup. Provided you have access to both artificial and natural light, your choice of light source depends on:
- The look you want to go for
- The amount of available light
- How you use the light for a rim light setup
In this two light set up, the sun on her hair creates both a hair light and rim light, while she’s lit from camera left by off camera flash (my Profoto B1X with beauty dish).
Rim lighting with 2 light setup
Alternatively, you can use two lights and you don’t have to stick to just natural light or just flash lighting for a two light rim light setup.
2 light setup with flash only
For a two light setup with flash using the rim lighting technique:
- First set up a key light to light your subject, then
- Add a second strobe behind the subject as a rim light to separate them from the background
2 light setup with natural light
You can very easily use natural light only in a two light setup. The quality of the light will depend on whether it’s a:
Use a reflector to light your subject by reflecting the natural light back into the front of your subject.
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.
Multiple light setup with flash and natural light
You can take a two light rim lighting setup 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 to the setup you could create a four point lighting setup. Or add another rim light to the other side of the subject for a five point lighting setup. The list goes on.
Four 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. I positioned both lights further back, between the subject and the background. I also added a hair light and a fill light, making it a four light setup.
Photography 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 with portrait lighting is to start simply with a single light setup. If possible, rather use one or two lights to create the look you want than five.
So to create a rim lighting setup, you need just one light source – either natural light or flash, but you can add as many lights as you like, if they serve a purpose.
What to watch out for with rim light photography
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 for portrait photography:
- Blown out highlights
- The wrong background
- Unwanted lens 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.
Blown out highlights occur when your rim light is brighter than your key light (the main light on your subject). It happens more with natural light photography as it’s easier to control lighting ratios of flash output than bright sunlight.
If the light’s behind the subject, the side facing you will be in shadow, using a broad light setup, and therefore darker. So, if you
- Expose for the light behind, the subject will be underexposed
- Expose for the subject, the rim lighting will create blown out highlights around the edge of your subject
You have two ways to resolve the underexposure vs overexposure problem:
- Underexpose the image to preserve the highlights and then bring up the shadows in post production
- Illuminate the subject more by bouncing light back into their face with a reflector or with off camera flash
I lit both images 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 in camera and then brightened the shadows 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 a light background won’t. After all, white on a white background doesn’t stand out.
This is why rim light is ideal for studio photography to create black background portraits.
For both images I used the setting sun for rim lighting effect and flash to light the subject. 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
Lens flare in photography is very popular, so much so that many portrait 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 and causing lens flare.
If the light’s in shot or only just out of shot, it’ll be visible in the image as lens flare, which is something I really like doing with outdoor portraits.
This scene was lit by natural light and I added off camera flash as rim light to camera right behind the model. Both images show lens flare on the right from the rim light. I 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. However, the dancer also changed her head position slightly, turning more to camera catching 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 with your rim light position 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 photography lighting tips have helped you to understand the rim lighting technique, let me know in the comments.
Also if you have any questions about rim light photography I’d be happy to help.