Regular readers of my weekly tips know what I’m about to say regarding the concept of light. But if you’re not a regular reader and are just beginning to study them, memorize the following: The single most important element that determines the success of a photo is light. It’s all about the light. I repeat, it’s all about the light. Don’t get me wrong—there are many other factors of great significance. Aspects that carry a magnitude of weight are composition, the quality of the subject, the decisive moment, background distractions and technical aspects of depth of field and focus. But out of all the above, dramatic and intriguing light reign supreme.

The Basics

The quality of light is determined by color, angle, direction and intensity. Sunrise and sunset provide warm light. Low-angled light occurs early and late in the day. The direction of light is important as it can either emphasize or flatten texture and shape. Front light suppresses texture while low-angled light from the side emphasizes it. Soft light provides shadowless results and wraps an even layer around a subject while intense and strong light creates high contrast.

This Week’s Focus

Rim light provides a very specific quality of illumination. It outlines the subject in a halo of brightness determined by the direction and intensity of its source. It’s most often associated with backlight. Depending on its strength and/or how it may be augmented, the subject can fall into silhouette or reveal detail if an additional source is incorporated to bounce light back onto the subject. Flash, reflectors, elements in the natural environment, mirrors and more are examples of tools or ways to put light onto the shadowed side of the subject.

It’s a bit tricky to attain a proper exposure, especially if you use one of the above means to record detail on the shadow side of the subject. As a newcomer to rim light, I suggest you first master how to capture a straight silhouette and gradually move up the ranks to incorporate additional light to cast illumination on the shadow side. To create the basic silhouette, take a meter reading of the light behind or to the side of the main subject as it’s the bright background that allows the subject to fall into silhouette. Lock in that exposure. If you don’t, when you recompose and add back the dark silhouetted subject, the large black mass will create an overexposed end result. This is the “easy” part.

The Key

The “hard” part comes with the true aspect of rim light. For a photo to fall into the actual realm of rim light, the surrounding area of the subject needs to have the “glow factor.” To attain this, subject matter is limited. Not only does the light have to cooperate, the key component of the photo has to be surrounded with fine hairs or another quality that allows the backlight to create a rim lit glow around the perimeter. I find that animals with furry coats, baby animals, people’s hair, exhaled C02, water drops, certain clouds, geyser steam and trees with many leaves make the best possible subjects. Finding them in the necessary light is easier said than done. First off, finding that element is a challenge exacerbated by the fact the light doesn’t last long. If you’re up for the challenge, kudos to you because when you make that successful image, it feels great!

I strongly encourage you bracket your exposures in half stop increments at a high frame rate. Different exposures will create different effects. As a matter of fact, a given exposure can create a given mood. Underexposure places an emphasis on the shape of the subject and creates a darker and more dramatic mood while brighter versions are more open and airier. Frames that are too bright and/or too dark will be obvious, but don’t delete them. Digital post processing allows you to combine exposures by stacking the layers and recovering the most important details from each file. How to do that is far too detailed to explain in this week’s tip, but there’s a plethora of how to’s that teach the process of exposure blending or HDR.

Accept my challenge, head into the field, practice and seek out situations that provide rim light and allow you to capture it in its glory. You’ll be glad you did when you proudly hang that 16×24 print on your wall and think about what you did to create the gorgeous image.

To learn more about this subject, join me on a photo safari to Tanzania. Visit to get more information.

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