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Make Your Subject Stand Out With a Rim Lighting Effect

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I have long been a fan of rim lighting and, given the opportunity, would prefer to use it over a single light source. Rim lighting, which is often referred to as back light or even hair lights, is simply light placed on your subject which gives the appearance of a light outline. This technique pulls the subject off the background and offers some depth and dimension to what you are shooting.

This article outlines how to setup your lights to achieve such an effect and also covers some simple post-processing to help improve the final product.

Step 1: Grab Your Gear

For these examples, you will need three light sources. Traditionally I have utilized studio strobes, however, portable flash units such as Speedlights also work exceptionally well for rim lighting. I reluctant to advocate a specific brand of lights claiming they are superior to all others. There are many brands of lights that can work for this scenario. For the purpose of this example, here is what was used:

  • Lights: Three Alien Bee 1600 strobes
  • Modifiers: One 20" x 30" softbox (for the main light) and two 20∞grids for the rim lights. If you do not have a softbox, you could use a large shoot through umbrella. If you do not have the grids, you could use just the reflector on the Alien Bee units possibly at a lower power setting.
  • Power: Vagabond II to power the lights. Should you be indoors, the power source will not be an issue. However, if your idea requires you to be mobile, outdoors, or some other location, a portable power source such as a Vagabond will be your best bet.
  • Triggers: Pocket Wizard II units to fire the strobes. Again, if you are indoors your strobes could work as slaves and then you would need a method to fire the main light. With this example, the shoot was setup outside and Pocket Wizards were the best route. Also, and more importantly, using remote triggers affords you the freedom of moving around the setup as you need.

Step 2: Setting Up the Shot

To begin, this was a shot that I had wanted to attempt for some time. It was a bit tricky to pull it off, not necessarily because of the lighting but more so because I wanted to shoot this in the middle of the street. Having the subject posed, sitting in a chair, in the middle of the street is one thing. Having the lighting you want coupled with all of that is an entirely different animal.

Thankfully there is a street right behind our studio that sees little traffic. This has proven invaluable for some unique shots. The average person does not realize the street is low volume, they just get the effect of seeing the shot in the middle of the street. Regardless of the traffic, setting up in the middle of the road means you have to be cautious and aware of your surroundings while you get the shot.

The three lights were brought out and setup in a "triangle formation". One Alien Bee 1600 was setup facing the subject. This light, the main light, was fitted with the softbox. The other two Alien Bee 1600s were placed on either side of the subject, facing the subject. The height on these lights is around the same height as the subjects shoulders. These two lights, the rim lights, were fitted with 20 grids. Since the grids offer a directional light, the lights could be positioned more toward the camera than otherwise. Without the grids, the same setup could be implemented, however, the lights would need to face a little more away from the camera to avoid flare. All of the lights were connected to Pocket Wizard IIs.

With the lights in place, the next step was how to power them. Given that the shot was setup outside of a studio, an extension cord could have been run to the street. For this shot, however, a Vagabond II portable power source was used. A power strip was plugged into the Vagabond II and all of the lights were connected to the power strip. To explain the lighting a little better, I have created a diagram using LightingDiagrams.com as the platform (then made some small edits myself).

Lighting Diagram - Rim LightingLighting Diagram - Rim LightingLighting Diagram - Rim Lighting

To see what this actually looks like, here is a shot of my business partner shooting. You can also get a good understanding of the mess we created in the middle of the street!

Rim Lighting - Behind The ScenesRim Lighting - Behind The ScenesRim Lighting - Behind The Scenes

Rim Lighting - Behind The ScenesRim Lighting - Behind The ScenesRim Lighting - Behind The Scenes

Some items that I have found to be invaluable while shooting outside, that were not mentioned above, include sandbags and a cart. Looking at the behind the scene shots above, the Vagabond powering the setup also serves as a great sandbag. It is heavy enough to keep the lightstand and light in place. While the two back lights (positioned a little higher than we ended up using them in the final shot) did not have umbrellas attached, we still felt more comfortable securing them in place with sandbags. Our cart is a life saver. Loaded down with gear, it is easy to push it around the studio or down the street and saves time and energy.

After a few quick test shots we were up and shooting, hoping not to be run over in the road.

Step 3: Let's Take Some Pictures

The scenario was shot with a Nikon D80 & Nikon D3 using a 70-200 f/2.8, 24-70 f/2.8, and a Sigma 10-20mm to capture a variety of poses there in the street with the lighting. To try and capture a slightly different angle, my business partner used a small step-ladder, shooting down on the subject.

Here is a sample of the results:

Rim Lighting - First ShotsRim Lighting - First ShotsRim Lighting - First Shots

Rim Lighting - First ShotsRim Lighting - First ShotsRim Lighting - First Shots

The above examples were shot with a Nikon D80 and Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. The settings were f/10, ISO 200, and shutter at 1/200. When opening the image in Camera Raw, the contrast, clarity, and blacks sliders were bumped up a notch, slightly increasing all three.

The main strobe and softbox combination produces a nice light which totally covers the subject. The additional lights hit her bringing out her hair and giving some depth to the image that you would not have when shooting with a single light source.

With the rim lights turned off, the image feels flat. The lighting is not bad, per-se, but the rim lights give it an additional dimension and pop. In fact, I did not truly appreciate what the additional lights did until they were turned off as a test.

Rim Lighting - No Rim LightsRim Lighting - No Rim LightsRim Lighting - No Rim Lights

Comparing the two, it is easy to see the difference.

Rim Lighting - ComparisonRim Lighting - ComparisonRim Lighting - Comparison

To give another example of how the lighting can provide a nice effect, here is an additional setup which was done in a studio. Depending on your setup, you can have a subtle effect or something more dramatic, such as this:

Rim Lighting - Another ExampleRim Lighting - Another ExampleRim Lighting - Another Example

The above image was achieved with the same 3-light setup, only with different modifiers. The main light was an Alien Bee Ring Flash shot through a 56" Moon Unit. The rim lighting was created using two Calumet Genesis 400 strobes. To give a little harsher light around the edges, no modifier was used on the back strobes. Shot against a black backdrop in studio, combined with the black shirt, gives the outlined effect above. It was shot with a 10-20mm wide angle lens and the actual framing was done in post to off-set the composition a little.

Step 4: Post-Process

After shooting a series of images, you can plan on walking away with a few that stand out over the others. And while the stand-out images are the ones that you deliver to the client, some post-process clean-up would help enhance them, removing some elements that could not be removed in-camera.

For the example image, there are several spots behind the subject which reflected light offering a distraction. During this shot, the client actually liked the stop sign being lit in the background, so it was left in. Yet there are other spots, such as just under the stop sign, to the right (some reflection off the building), and a few other places in the background that detract away from the main focal point. Lastly, I have never found a road that was spotless. While unrealistic to expect such, cleaning up some of the debris also helps keep the focus where it should. Here are some areas that stood out to me as areas that I wanted to focus on:

Rim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-Process

Most of the blemishes and faults can be corrected quickly in Adobe Photoshop with either the Clone Stamp tool or Healing Brush. To start, the smaller reflector under the stop sign it could easily go as it is too distracting. (The client actually liked the effect of having the stop sign appear to be lit so it was left in). Using the Clone Stamp tool and a small soft round brush, sample the area under (or above) and repaint over the reflector, removing it completely. I prefer to zoom in on the image (at least 200%) to make sure I have covered the entire area.

Rim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-Process

To the right of the stop sign, there is a reflective area on the building that is also a bit distracting. Follow the same steps as above. The Clone Stamp Tool (you can select the tool by simply pressing "S") with a soft round brush will work just fine, taking out the shiny white areas. While using the Clone Stamp Tool, go ahead and remove the small white spot under her right elbow.

Rim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-Process

I sampled the area just above and just below, painting over the reflective areas removing the brighter white spots. If you find some reflective areas that are not as bright, you could also opt to use the Burn Tool, however, with this image, I wanted to remove the reflection entirely and match it with the surrounding wall as best as I could, which is why I selected the Clone Stamp Tool.

A quick side note here - you could spend as much or as little time in post-processing as you want or feel that you need to. Often times I will work more than I probably should, but there items that stand out to me that might not stand out to you. With that said, you will obviously decide what to remove and correct based on what you feel your client needs are coupled with whatever deadlines you are working against.

The reason I bring this up is that I have opted to remove the small satellite dish from the building roof, camera left.

Rim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-Process

You could again stick with the Clone Stamp Tool and paint away the image. I used the Rectangle Marquee Tool (M) to select an area immediately to the left large enough to cover the dish. From there, promote this selection into a new layer. From the menu select Layer > New > Layer via Copy (Or press CTRL + J) to copy the selection into a layer of its own. From there, drag the layer over the dish. While dragging, hold the shift key down to constrain the image along its horizontal path.

Rim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-Process

Now you just need to use the Eraser Tool (E) and trim away the edges so that it matches the background behind it. I used the same method as explained above to remove the small white pipe in the background just behind the subject, camera left.

Rim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-ProcessRim Lighting - Post-Process

Next, let's clean up the concrete a bit more. You don't want it so flawless as to be unrealistic. For this, I would recommend using the Healing Brush Tool (you can select the tool by simply pressing "J") and a soft round brush. Click while holding ATL down to sample a clean area of the concrete, then "paint" over the blemish to correct it.

Rim Lighting - Final ImageRim Lighting - Final ImageRim Lighting - Final Image


Lighting can easily make or break your image. Positioned correctly, lighting can add a dramatic effect to your subject as well as accent and pull the subject off the background environment. Nailing the lighting makes the rest of your workflow easier as the goal is to spend less and less time after the shot. However, mix in some post-processing for additional touch-up and you should end up with a great image to give to your client.

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