Rim Light – A Simple Way to Create Powerful Images with a Single Flash

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In this article, I will introduce you to creating a rim light using a single flash. While not so common, it is extremely easy to put in place and will allow you to get very interesting and powerful images. To do this kind of photography you just need a flash with the ability to place it off camera. A welcome accessory, the only one you may need, is a light stand or tripod to easily keep the flash in place.

Rim Light - A Simple Way to Create Powerful Images with a Single Flash

Learning flash doesn’t have to be hard

If you are just getting started in portraiture, chances are you have been faced with the “flash versus natural light” dilemma, and you probably went with natural light. I find many amateur and beginning photographers are intimidated by lighting equipment because they think that in order to get something good, they have to use complicated setups where many pieces of equipment are required.

In my opinion, the problem with learning to use flash is that the easiest possible setup, i.e., a single flash used off-camera, is often presented only as a way to create a basic image that needs to be improved by adding more gear and by creating more complicated lighting setups. As if nobody would seriously use just one light. So, I can see why flash photography is intimidating.

If you are a beginner, you probably want to know how to use your single, entry level, flash and how to create images that will stand out from the gazillion of portraits out there.

Keep it simple

My solution was to forget about the magazine and fashion style portraits. I wanted to take advantage of the limitations of my single light setup to create strong and moody portraits by combining the hard light from the bare flash with a low-key style. Note; this style will better suit male models.

Rim lighting 01

Self-portrait using a single flash on my right, without any light modifiers.

By changing the output power and the zoom setting of the flash, you can get a more gentle and intimate portrait, like the one below.

Rim lighting 02

A single light setup can produce less punchy and contrasty images by changing the flash output power and the zoom settings.

Creating a rim light

This is all nice and good, but you can get a very different look by using a rim light. This kind of light highlights only the contours of the subject, and I love it.

Rim lighting 03

Rim light and low-key style; a powerful combination.

The setup is extremely simple. Just hide the flash right behind the model or the object, and point it back directly at the subject.

In practice, we could see the rim light as the opposite of a silhouette, where the subject is seen as a black shape against a brighter, often white, background. In the studio, the light setup for a silhouette is, in fact, the same of as that used to create a rim light, except that the flash is pointing at the background instead of at the subject.

Rim lighting 04

Self-portrait in silhouette.

Ideally, you want to have only the rim light in the scene and not record any ambient light. But this does not mean you have to work in a dark room. The only thing you need to be careful about with rim light setup is to ensure that the flash output power is such that the light does not spill over and around the subject edges. You want to have only the light running along the subject contour.

Rim Light - A Simple Way to Create Powerful Images with a Single Flash

It is all about that thin light running along the subject’s edges.

Refine it a little

If possible, the editing is even easier. Make sure that the blacks in your image are deep and the highlights are bright. Do this and you have pretty much done with the editing.

What I like about this technique is that the resulting photo has a mysterious look that captures the viewer’s imagination. I guess it has all to do with the “see/not see”.

If you like props, you can also use them with a rim light to better convey a message, like in the photo below.

Rim Light - A Simple Way to Create Powerful Images with a Single Flash

Addiction. Here I have allowed the light to spill a bit more, so as to light my hands and the mobile screen.

We all live, most of the time, with our noses inside a smartphone screen, somewhat unaware of the reality around us. That and a feeling of addiction is the message I tried to attach to the photo.

Adding emotion

Emotions can also be easily conveyed in an interesting way by using rim light. We had a new baby girl a few months ago, and a few weeks before the due date, I experimented with a rim light in the living room when my pregnant partner passed by. I decided to take the usual very cliché photo of the father kissing the belly of the mother. While kissing her baby bump, I had the vision of the sun rising from behind the Earth, seen from space and thought, “Use a rim light!”. This is the result:

Rim Light - A Simple Way to Create Powerful Images with a Single Flash

Rim light can change a cliché image into a very moody and interesting one.

I think this simple light setup transformed the same old same old photographic cliché into a much more powerful and interesting image.

Special effects

Finally, because the scene is backlit, an easy way to add interest is to include in the shot smoke or aerosols. Both will capture and scatter the light around, creating some interesting effects.

Rim Light - A Simple Way to Create Powerful Images with a Single FlashSince I do not smoke, I sprayed water around to make this self-portrait shot more interesting.

Finally, try to turn the model towards the light and allow the flash to light them a bit more for some interesting variations.

Rim Light - A Simple Way to Create Powerful Images with a Single FlashTurning the model to face the light can be an interesting variation on the theme.

To conclude, I hope I have given you some ideas to start playing with a single off-camera flash in a simple and non-intimidating way using a rim light. The bonus is creating some particular and interesting photos in the process.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrea Minoia is an enthusiast, self-taught photographer and freelance writer based in Brussels, Belgium. He is mostly active in tabletop photography (food and still life) and studio portraiture, but does not disdain to step outside looking for interesting landscapes. You can follow his work on his personal website or on 500px.

  • SSRajan
  • Von Will
  • Cool idea. May be the try again lowering the power of the flash, so not to burn the highlight in the forehead area.

  • Nice: you got it. you can also go full black and white, loosing the hint of color on the hairs. For the next time playing with poses can make the photo more dynamic 😉

  • ron.mcneill@mail.ru

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  • SSRajan

    thank you for your comments…. will try as you suggested 😀

  • JR
  • Martin Finnerty

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c44fe1327c43e9daf083928dfbd0dc497defc2321f884f9feadddbf68726fd4d.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/50639231ba91076fb27c8462c74f77dd6a4fe8f39349a3e5964d31a5eea52db9.jpg

    I spent a while trying to get the rim light completely around my head and found this nearly impossible. I then had another look at your photos and found that you don’t have the light all the way around. The hardest part for me was trying to get a photo without the flash in the shot, is there a certain place that it needs to be? Also, winding back the shutter to speed to focus on the flash stand, move it, then forget to wind the shutter speed back up. I’m fairly new to speedlights and love experimenting with different styles. Great article.

  • Hi Martin. Please find attached an example for the setup. As for the full rim light, I prefer to have only a part of the contour highlighted as it is more minimalistic and interesting to me. If you want the full contour lit by the flash try put it farther and with a smaller zoom setting (e.g. 24mm). Sometimes one flash may not be enough but for a profile you should have plenty with 1 flash. To hide the flash, I simply put it behind the subject. For the focus, if is a selfie place the flash where u will stand. You camera being on a tripod manually focus on the flash. Place yourself in the place of the flash, move it behind you and take the photo. A remote control will help on this. Hope it helps and keep https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/16db9c4f6fc40e8b666e7c0dcb45cfb2019129c3db3ed06b75d4b700218f4701.jpg trying.

  • Hi JR. I cannot see the photo. Care to try to upload it again? Cheers

  • mary.graham.1992@mail.ru

    I profited 104 thousand bucks previous year by working on-line from my house a­n­d I manage to earn that much by work­ing part-time f­­o­­r few h each day. I’m using a business model I found on-line and I am excited that i earned such great money. It’s so user friendly a­n­d I’m just so blessed that i learned about it. This is what i did… http://www.wzurl.me/tPSR1w

  • JR

    Sorry Andrea. Here’s another try. Your article inspired me to shoot this and I quite like it. Grazie!!! (By the way I also consider this my first attempt at a selfie 🙂 Any comments are appreciated.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e155e0376b2c7faaf9fec0c5085817d23fe8f667f99d62fd5fcc4cab615659aa.jpg

  • JR

    Sorry Andrea. Here’s another try. Your article inspired me to shoot this yesterday and I quite like it. Grazie!!! (By the way I also consider this my first attempt at a selfie 🙂 Any comments are appreciated. I shot it in a room with natural light at a small aperture and fast shutter to black out the exposure at ISO 100, then added a speedlight at about 3/4 power. Kept experimenting till I got the speedlight in a position and power that got me this result. About 50 shots didn’t make the cut but I learned so much. If I repeat, I can get this in 5-10 shots, so thank you for the inspiration.

  • Well done. I’d like to point you to two aspects of your photo: I like how your eye is visible, but I think the patch of highlights is a bit distracting. And I think you can lose the one near the nose, just above the beard: I would clone it away or turn it black with a brush.same for the little spot near the shirt collar. Finally, what I love to high and low key, is that the background is pure white or pure black… your photo could be improved in composition buy having a bit more of space on the right, to give you space to look into. Because your background is pure black, you have effectively an infinite canvas, so you can use the cropping tool in PS with a black background and recompose/resize at will 😉 Have fun and keep up with the good work.
    Cheers

  • JR

    Ah, thank you Andrea! I see exactly what you mean and will make those edits. Thanks again.

  • JR

    Thank you Andrea. Fully agree. I’ve made the edits but apparently am not allowed to post it due to some limitation on the site. I downsized to 651 KB but still can’t do it. It’s on my FB page. Thanks again.

  • debbie.flores

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