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.

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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.

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