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Rim Lighting in Photography

Adding Lighting Accents to Your Photos

The Technical: Rim lighting of your subject is usually accomplished in one of two ways, either through strip boxes or metal reflectors outfitted with grids. Some photographers purchase expensive metal snoots for the same effect, only to realize that they are limited due to their non-pliable, fixed sizes.  I prefer to use a standard 7-inch metal reflector and snoot my light, or shape it down, with Rosco black Cinefoil (12-inch width).  Metal snoots are expensive compared to a 50-foot box of Cinefoil that costs approximately 30 dollars and will provide as many customizable snoots a photographer could ever need in a lifetime.

Photography Accent Lighting, Rim Lighting

This photo of Eleya taken during a private instruction experience at Playboy Studio West demonstrates accent lighting.

If I use metal grids inside my reflectors, I normally start with a 10-degree grid, then point the light onto the subject’s area I want to outline with a highlighted edge. If I want to see more of the body outlined, I’ll switch out the 10-degree grid with a 20- or 30-degree grid. Normally, to give the light some color, I will place a 1/8 or ¾ CTO gel over the reflector, allowing some looseness around the gel so it can breathe and release some of the heat from the modeling lamp.  Another popular gel when working with female models is a “straw colored” gel.

I sometimes power the modeling lamp down from full output to proportional output so the light will not get too hot. While you’ll often hear that your rim or hair light should be a stop or two brighter than your main light, other photographers will advocate the opposite. The reason why measuring rim lighting often sounds confusing is the physics rule, “the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection.”

Evan Williams Liquor Ad demonstrating photographic lighting

This Evan Williams Liquor ad demonstrates how rim lighting was used to accent Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh.

Basically, the light intensity captured by the camera is based on the actual angle of incidence in relation to where the camera is positioned, so it can fluctuate. Your best bet in using a rim light, especially in digital photography, is to set it up, aim it to strike your subject where you want it, test it, and adjust it to your personal tastes. Just be sure that not to blow out this highlighted area you’ve introduced into the image.

When using rim light as a hair light, keep in mind that darker hair will absorb more light and lighter hair will reflect more light. Again, the final results vary depending on the angle of incidence in relation to your camera lens angle. Normally, placing the light high and pointed down onto your subject in the direction of the camera is best.

The idea behind hair and rim lighting is to accent various parts of the body. This is why these lights are sometimes referred to as accent lights. Remember, though, that lights used to draw attention to things like keys, a purse, props in a scene, etc., are also accent lights.

Virgin Islands photography workshop

Playboy model Ashly J. was accented by the sun and a monolight with a 7-inch reflector and 20-degree grid during a photography workshop in the Virgin Islands.

When photographing a model outdoors, you can achieve rim lighting be placing her with her back toward the sun and her front toward the camera. This works best with early-morning or late-evening light, as the qualities of light during that time of day are much softer and, as such, the photographer doesn’t need a super powerful studio power pack to overpower the sun with flash or fill the subject with sufficient light to properly expose the image.

Make It Easy On Yourself
Turn on one light at a time and see how it impacts your image. Use those modeling lights!
My friend, the great photographer Monte Zucker, believed that the best images are the ones lit from the back (and sides) rather than primarily from the front. Zucker was a master of light and understood how light interacts with the subject.

Another friend of mine, and a master at using accent lighting, is Plaboy’s top photographer, Arny Freytag.  Freytag often jokes around that “available light” to him is using every light available and it’s not uncommon for a Playmate to be photographed with 30-50 lights during a shoot.  While I prefer more simple lighting, there are times where I have no choice, like in the Evan Williams advertisement photo above where we eventually used nine lights to light the scene along with Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh.

The Story Behind the Image: Freytag on occasion has joined me to help instruct at my photography workshops, most recently while conducting one in Phoenix.  At the end of the day, one of the models, Mari, and a dear friend of Freytag’s, wanted me to photograph her, so Freytag asked his assistant Joel, to help me light it up.  More specifically, he had a concept of photographing Mari in the swimming pool and to light up the waterfall.

As we discussed how we’d light up the water in relation to the Mari’s swimsuit, we tried three gels, a blue, magenta and finally settled for a golden gel. We also added a blue accent light for the tile around the swimming pool and another accent light for Mari’s hair since the shoot was outdoors and in the late evening after the sun had set.

Accent Lighting Water Tests

In making the image of Mari on the right, the accent light for the water was tested in various colors first, before placing the model in the water.

What is important to note here, we lit our background first, before placing the model in the water.  Then we put Joel in the water to figure out our lighting on the subject and the camera angle, which determined the effect of the accent light on the water due to the angel of incidence in relation to the angle of reflection back into the camera lens.  The resulting image and the gold water test are above and the blue and magenta water tests below. Now that you have it when it comes to rim (accent) lighting, invest in some extra lights, 7-inch reflectors, metal grids, gels and some Rosco Cinefoil.

Photography lighting test

Here you can see how we first tested the accent light on the water with a blue gel first, then a magenta gel. We eventually settled for a gold gel.

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  1. Great stuff Rolando! Looks like this is going to be a great site so i just added it to my RSS feed. See you in the Virgin Islands in November and maybe again in Phoenix!

  2. Frank,

    Thanks for the nice words–pass it on to your photography friends. I look forward in seeing you in the VI! Thanks, rg.

  3. Thanks! got some good idea about rim-lighting… it will help me in my learning… photography is my passion and am an amateur in this field… i want to make some self-satisfactory shots in future… thanks again.. will add u in tweeter… keep writing… we’re listening 🙂


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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

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