What is Rim-Lighting?

Rim Lighting is easy

Rim-lighting (or back-lighting) can transform a portrait from the ordinary to the spectacular.

Catching the light from the behind can help separate your subject from the background and in the right circumstances, surround them in an glorious angelic aura.

When I’m out shooting people, the first thing I look for is where the light is coming from – and when I’ve found it, can I use it?

Even a small amount of rim light (as in the photo below) can enhance the image.

Putting the light behind the subject avoids any nasty shadows on the face, because the whole face is in shadow and you end up with very flattering, soft, low contrast facial illumination.

When there’s no sun

Rim light doesn’t have to come from the sun either, any light source in theory will do.

If you’re shooting indoors at night, you may well be able to use light from a nearby table lamp.  Shooting in low light conditions like this often needs wide open apertures and a camera that can shoot with high ISOs, but it is very do-able.

I often use flash to create a rim.

In the photo below, the young girl is illuminated by flash high-up in the trees, to give the impression of sunlight.  The sun flare behind her is not real, it’s fake, added with Photoshop.  In fact, this photo wasn’t even taken on a sunny day, it was overcast.  At times like this, I like to try and recreate the sun with flash.

You can clearly see the rim light around the edges of her hair but it’s also down here sleeves, and even down her legs. The flashes being used in this case were three Canon Speedlites grouped together.

Sometimes, to you have to use more than one to get enough power to throw the light a long enough distance.  The other big advantage of using more than one flash together, is that each individual flash is now no longer being stretched.  The power needed is being shared amongst three… and so each individual flash can fire at a lower power… meaning faster recycle times.  That’s a bonus!

Likewise, the photo below of the two young children and the bubbles was created by using flash from behind.  The way the light catches their hair, just adds a delightful kick to what was otherwise quite flat lighting.

It really helps to have an assistant when you’re using all the extra gear like this.  Asking the client to carry your light stands is possible, but it’s much better to arrive at the location early before they do.  Your assistant can pose for you and you can fine-tune your camera and flash settings before the client/model arrives.

The ideal situation is to get everything ready so that when the client arrives you are relaxed and ready to concentrate on them, not your gear.

Without flash

Most people won’t want to use flash though.  Being able to take shots with natural sunshine means less gear to carry and less things to worry about.  You are at the mercy of nature though and the direction you point your camera is limited to where the sun is.

The best time of day is early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the sun is low.  Midday sun, high up in the sky is the worst.

If I have outdoor photoshoots I always book them when the sun is low, to make the job easier.  With the sun sitting low in the sky, its light is passing through a lot more of the earth’s atmosphere, which diffuses the light, softening the shadows.  This is a more flattering light that the contrasty, harsh light you get at midday.

As soon as you start shooting into the sun you may experience lens flare.  Some lenses handle flare better than others.  Usually, cheaper lenses are the worst offenders, although I have had flare from a few expensive lenses in the past.  However, lens technology is constantly evolving and most modern lenses are pretty good at handling flare.

I definitely suggest you make sure your lens hood is fitted (to help reduce that flare).

Sometimes the angle of the sun can be particularly difficult and the lens hood on its own is insufficient.  When this happens I try to get someone to hold a piece of card or a small book over the top of the front of the lens.  It acts like a parasol and will in almost all cases eliminate flare from your image.

 

Exposure

Shooting into the sun, towards an intense, bright, light source will often play havoc with your camera’s ability to correctly expose the shot.  The camera will see all that brightness and will want to underexpose.  So in many cases shooting into the sun means over-exposing on purpose.  If you’re shooting in Aperture Priority you’ll need to crank up your exposure compensation dial and if you’re shooting in manual you must deliberately ignore what the camera is telling you and OVER expose.

Take some text shots first, to ensure you’ve got all you’re settings right.  Then, once you start shooting, you can do it with peace of mind.

Rim lighting can be particularly powerful in street photography (below).  Whilst in New York I spent an afternoon in Times Square with my Fuji X-Pro2.  It was one of the most wonderful photographic experiences of my life.  The photo-opportunities in that city are off-the-scale and while Linda (my wife) went off shopping I went snapping.  Man, I was in the zone.

The light in New York as it sinks low and picks its way between those enormous buildings is to die for.  And when it is low, everyone has a rim light.

My finger nearly wore out the shutter button.  There were so many things and so many interesting people to shoot that I felt at times like I was on drugs.  Such euphoria.

Give it a try

Doubtless you now want to rush out with your camera and shoot some rim light yourself.  Practise with someone you know first.  Get them to pose for you with a low sun behind them.  Observe how your exposure is affected and get a feel for how much over-exposure adjustment you may have to make.

Try some street photography, but again look for the low sun.  Chase the light, find the light where it is at its most dramatic.  If you approach most of your photography by looking for the sun first (or other light sources) and seek to be guided by the light, your shots will take on a new energy.

Kevin Ahronson

Kevin is a full-time professional photographer and has been teaching photography since 2009. He founded the Hampshire School of Photography where he runs photography workshops and gives one to one mentoring to photographers at all levels, from complete beginners through to those who want to turn professional

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