Rim Lighting and the Dramatic Glamor Image

Home InFocus   Rim Lighting and the Dramatic Glamor Image   

By Rick Trottier – RJT Images

Just about anyone with any sense dislikes “drama” in their lives. “Drama” is draining and valueless, it is distracting and wasteful. However, there is a form of “drama” that can be of incredible value to a photographer and that is gaining command of dramatic forms of lighting. Lighting a model in such a way that elements of the composition can be enhanced so that mood, or depth, or background, or specific strengths can be emphasized is one of the most effective ways of making a photograph memorable, serving clients successfully and satisfying the inner muse that calls an artist to do their very best work. One of my favorite methods of creating “photographic drama” is through Rim Lighting.


What is “Rim Lighting” you ask? Simply put, it is the process of lighting a subject in such a way that the rim of the figure is highlighted to a greater or lesser degree. The desired outcome is to create depth across the figure of the subject and then to draw attention to the shape of the subject’s body through a “rim of light” found on one or more edges on the body. The eye is always drawn to the brightest points in the composition of a photograph. Rim lighting helps to move the eye to various points in the composition so that the viewer travels the length and breadth of the model’s physique in a planned and comprehensible fashion.


IMG_9367-AlexandraCreating a “Rim Light” effect first requires a carefully developed sense of the background you are likely to use, its light absorbing or reflecting properties, your subject’s attire and hair/skin tone and the overall result you wish to achieve. The darker the background and the darker the subject, the brighter the rim lighting can and should be. In addition, some forms of rim lighting can be done with colored gels to add an entirely different sense of mood. Some forms of rim lighting require more than one rim light, such as the combination of a “kicker” and a hair light, while at other times, the rim lighting can be done with only one light to add just a bit of “accent”. At times, rim lighting can serve more than one purpose. If directed appropriately, the rim light can also “light for detail” to show the musculature of the subject or the propensity of your model’s curves. At other times, rim light can be the only illumination, creating a very complicated tapestry of light and shadow. All of this is achieved through carefully orchestrating the interplay of main light(s) and secondary light(s) so that a deeply desired effect is created. As I have preached in earlier articles, a plentitude of prior planning will set the avid photographer on the right path to eventual success. On top of planning out the set, be willing to experiment with your lights, their placement and intensity as well as camera settings, and your own angle of incidence as well as that of the model. That marvelous combination of planning and flexible approach to “trial and error” will lead to leaps forward in understanding and productivity.


IMG_9877-KyleeThe most common method of creating “Rim Lighting” is to have a main light and a “kicker”. Depending on the model and the background, I will often employ a hair light. If the background is close to the model and/or is light in color, a main light (tall, gridded stripbox of beauty dish) is placed to one side of the model at roughly a 45 degree angle, 2 to 4 feet away and at one-third to one-fourth intensity, often times much lower. Intensity and distance of the main light depends on whether it is a stripbox or a beauty dish, the skin tone of the model and color of attire, and how much detail you wish to preserve. The higher the angle of incidence and the closer the light, the less detail preserved. The light creating the “rim effect”, also known as “the kicker” needs to be a stripbox of intermediate size. This light I place at a ninety degree angle, sometimes even as much as one hundred ten degrees. The intensity of the kicker is always greater than the main light. The reason is simple. The smaller box will shed light over a far more focused area, so you want that light to be far more brilliant to create the “dramatic rim effect”.  Once this two light set up is arrayed, play with the power intensity, angles of the lights, pose of the model and your camera settings to get the effect you desire. Always remember that over-lighting a subject is an undesirable outcome. Under-lighting has its problems too, but those can be corrected to a greater or lesser degree. Most of the time, over-lighting is a pitfall you want to avoid.


IMG_7408x-NicholeWhen the background is dark, farther away from the model or the skin tones and attire are also dark, employing a hair light is essential. The beauty of a hair light is it can act as a secondary rim light. I usually use a conical reflector mounted to a lighting head of equal or lesser power to the other lights. If I want a “white rim” for the hair, a grid for the reflector is a must. If I want a “colored rim” then adding a gel to the reflector is the state of affairs. I set the hair light behind the model at roughly one hundred forty degrees and at an elevated angle so as to light as much of the top of the model’s head as possible. Brunettes will require a stronger hair light and a great deal of attention to specific detail so as to “separate all that lovely dark hair from the background”. On occasion, I will set the hair light directly behind the model’s head, but that choice has its problems. That light may either “wash” the other rim light and/or over-light the subject to one side. Once again, playing with the lights to get the effect you desire is essential. Try a white hair light, and then try a colored gel. The addition of dramatic mood may just give you a result that has all the pizzazz you are looking for.

IMG_3146x-AnjhaOf course the pose of the model and her contact with any props will also call for creatively arranging the lighting so as to achieve the effect you desire. Keep in mind that backgrounds reflect or absorb light too so that light intensity, camera settings and other intangibles must be considered. If you have a camera body that can tolerate “higher ISOs” it sometimes is worth working with some of the lowest lighting head intensities, then set your camera at a slightly low shutter speed, a low aperture, and then an ISO of 250 or so as to bring in as much light as can be created or exists as ambient light. Bear in mind that higher ISOs mean greater digital noise so a good noise reduction program may be of benefit in post-production.


I am often quoted by the young ladies who are the heart and soul of what I do as saying that My Studio is a “drama-free zone”. In some cases that really isn’t true. I want my imagery to be filled with dramatic beauty and to initiate dramatic responses from the viewer. When the needs of my clients call for studio work, one of my favorite ways to create a little “drama” is to work with various forms of rim lighting. The incredibly lovely faces and hair styles of these models coupled with their splendid and evocative physiques demands no less of me than my very best in inventive and thoughtful lighting schemes. Finding methods of tracing the curves of their loveliness of face and figure takes a great deal of contemplation, courageous effort and a willingness to try approaches that may fail, but the end result is one that can be of immense reward. I remember the first time I really felt like I had mastered rim lighting and produced an image that made my heart burst with joy. Isn’t that what the Artistic Journey is all about? Take a few giant but wonderful steps on that journey and try some lighting arrays that will produce some desired “drama” in your photographic life.


RJT Images –

Images of Amanda, Sarah and Nicole courtesy of The Pit Girls –

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Our gorgeous cover model; Shauna Noelle, may be reached through her profile on: ModelMayhem,    Shauna’s photography was supplied by:Rick Trottier of RJT Images.



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