Rim lighting photography for stunning portraits

Using rim lighting as a backlight is an ideal way to shape a subject and, if used correctly, can result in some stunning images.

For this rim light portrait photography tutorial Karl is joined by Urs Recher for a single light setup demonstration.  Together, they demonstrate how to create beautiful soft rim lighting using backlighting with a special twist.

Learn a surprisingly simple but clever technique to achieve what looks like a four-light setup but is, in actual fact, just a single, modified light.

Stunning female portrait using rim lighting as a backlight.

Stunning female portrait using rim lighting as a backlight.

In this photography class we cover the following:

  • Portrait photography using a single light
  • How to use backlighting for creative effect
  • How to avoid flare
  • How to modify rim light
  • Using reflectors and flags
  • How to control shadows

Note: This course is available with English subtitles.


  1. i have a question regarding the “window” you are shooting through. i understood that the measure is depending of the mm of the lens. how do you calculate the measures of the rectangle window ?

    1. Hi Johan, it is the same ratio as your sensor. So if you have a 36mm x 24mm sensor (full frame 35mm) then you could expect the same shape for your window – 36cm x 24cm divide by 2 = 18cm x 12cm

  2. Wonderful lesson learnt Karl. Thankyou for teaching us and creating like minded people in Industry for a big boom.

    Plz let me know which power output lights you use.

  3. Would a similar result be achievable with a large window, or is a soft box of this size essential to create this effect?

    1. Hi Sophie, a large window with some diffusion in front of it or on a cloudy/bright day would work if you follow the same technique we use here.

  4. Hi Karl, very interesting video as always! Just one quick question: I understand that the “square hole” in the window mask has to match the aspect ratio of my sensor so in my case 3:2 but is there a specific size recommended for the hole in the board? Is there a minimum size I should take in consideration for the long and short edge of the hole or even maybe a maximum size, after which, the window mask doesn’t work anymore to protect from flare?
    For example is a window mask with a hole of 30×20 cm enough?

    1. Hi Daniele, that’s a good question! You need a few sizes simply because sometimes they benefit from being at different distances based on which lens you are using and the lighting setup. I have 3, big, medium and small. The big is around the 30cm size, the small around 10cm (long edge). My guess is the medium is 20 long edge. Make them from black foam board, a good edge and stanley blade takes 5mins to make one.

  5. Ciao Karl hai usato un soft box molto grande , non hai cadute di luce ai bordi? Oppure hai usato due flash ?
    Io uso i flash Profoto D2 da 1000 ,ottengo un risultato simile? Grazie

    1. Hi Peppe, you loose a bit of power with a bigger softbox but this only had one flash inside, it was 800J. So no problem for you and your flash.

  6. Hello Karl,

    Love this set up. Beautiful lightning with less equipment and also possible to achieve in a small studio.

    As I am a photographer who don’t has a fantastic Broncolor Siros 800 I was wondering what are my possibilities, and can you give me a tip for a more afordable light. Would a continuous light be wise?

    Kind regards


    1. Hi Martin, thanks for your comments. I think studio flash is much more versatile than continuous light, it is also much more powerful allowing you to get smaller apertures and greater depth of field when needed. There are many brands of studio lights that are more economical, take a look at a Godox 600 or Elinchrom as a starting point but do a bit of research online you may find others.

  7. Karl,
    I am so pleased with your course. I can’t wait to put this into practice . Thank you for sharing your knowledge and years of experience. God Bless


  8. Hello Karl – Beautiful unique lighting – so well demonstrated. You and Urs work well together.

    I was able to replicate this set-up in my studio with excellent results. What I learned is that the size of the black background relative to the subject makes a big difference! As Urs explained moving the light back or moving the background left or right changes the intensity of the rim light considerably. I tried a vertical orientation for the camera and the black background which resulted in intense rim lighting on the face and back of the model’s hair. Moving the black background closer to the model changed the relative size the same way you and Urs did moving the light source back.

    The effective is similar to short lighting. Very slimming depending upon the amount of fill use. Thanks so much for demonstrating such a useful technique!

  9. Hi Karl,
    Your Education channel is brilliant! I am learning some great tips from just sampling different genres that you cover. You and Urs are lighting gurus, he looks at light from a completely different viewpoint than most.
    Keep up the good work!

  10. Karl, are the images coming through in Lightroom through tethering RAW images with no processing added or are you applying some basic editing in the import process? Or are you displaying the JPEG images? These tutorials are absolute gold. I am so happy that I became a member and have access to all of this education.

    1. Thanks for your comments. When you tether into lightroom with a Canon, LR is just reading the images off of the memory card, so they are captured to the card too but they will be the RAW file in LR with no editing information applied unless you create a preset. Capture One is a better tethering software for most cameras, I’m mostly using Phocus which is the Hasselblad tethering software.

    1. Hi Rajb, you can do it but it won’t be ‘exactly’ the same because the size of the softbox is different. Therefore the physics of the light will be coming from a different angle or won’t be as big etc, always consider the physics. If something is not the same it is not the same. It’s like saying if I kick the ball more softly will it go in the goal, it might go in the goal but it won’t go in the goal as quickly as the ball that is kicked hard. That’s the physics.

  11. Thanks for this tutorial. Wonderful setup and lovely light. Today I have tried with my big screen (1.5 m screen transparent as part of reflector) as I dont have that large softbox. And put a black fabric and a flashgun. It works well but not as perfect as you did (flare is the problem). I am preparing this trick as I shoot mostly outdoor and during traveling. Ill try for street portrait someday ! Thanks

  12. Hi Karl,

    I’d be curious to hear how you might approach achieving this style of lighting with a full-length seated portrait. Maybe just a three-sided (top and sides) rim using strip boxes in front of a black BG? Seems like it would be a production to take this to scale, but it’s really pretty light!

    Thx in advance!

    1. Hi Karl!
      Was that an acryllic mirror you used to reflect light from the soft box onto the back of Evie’s head? If so, what’s the difference between using this reflector and white card for instance?

      1. Hi William, it would have been an acrylic mirror or a piece of polished stainless steel, I use both. Either of these would reflect more light if it is directed at exactly the right angle simply because they are more reflective. A white reflector is diffused so the light bounces off in all directions.

    2. Hi Carl, the maximum power of this light is 800J which would be power 10, power 9 would be 400J (one stop less) power 8 would be 200J and so on etc. Given that most of the light was blocked it would have likely been on power 8, 9 or 10 but I would imagine that I mention that in the video.

  13. Hi Karl, like this setup and the results. My questions: Broncolor supply this softbox with an optional black mask that leaves just the edges translucent. Is there any reason you prefer this makeshift black card to the ready-made Broncolor solution? Also, would using a somewhat longer lens (say 135mm) help reduce flare and provide a bit more room for the model, without hitting the edges of the central black card? Cheers, Martin

    1. Hi Martin, because I can move the black card further to either side to then change the amount of light wrapping around. Although the mask is good it is fixed and therefore the options of light spill are fixed. Yes to a longer lens but at the expense of the perspective on the model too.

  14. Hi Karl!
    I joined the food photography lessons, but I’m going to take all your classes!
    Great work!
    2 Questions:
    1. My biggest soft boxes at the moment are the octabox 150 or 120/80 cm.
    Will this setup works for me too?
    2. How do I make the lens flare window? Just cutting the size of the sensor out? And what
    should be the size of the frame?
    Thanks a lot!

    1. Hi Gil, your softboxes should be good. You can also use diffusiong material as demonstrated to make them ‘bigger’. Yes just cut the same ratio shape as the sensor at a reasonable size and then position it at the right distance from a given lens once you’ve composed your shot and the camera is fixed. There is no set size necessary just what ever works for you, they are easy to make so you can make more than one size, sometimes different sizes are better for different lenses in terms of the distance they can be away from the lens hood.

  15. Extremely useful setup, and very creative!Thank you so much!
    What was the ISO, shutter speed and aperture set to on these pictures?

    1. Hi Latesh this is basically like three strip lights: one at the top (horizontal) and one either side, giving light all the way around the model.

  16. Love the look of setup, cannot wait to try it. Seems simple ( well in theory anyway) but stunning. Brilliant lesson , hopefully helped me a lot .

  17. Thoroughly enjoying the videos, Karl, you and Urs make a good team.

    Should the velvet-covered board behind the model also be in the same ratio as the camera sensor?

  18. Hi Karl, I wish I had joined your site long ago. Could you please tell me the size of the soft box you used and the black card? Are they relevant to this set up or any size would work? Many thanks for your ideas

    1. Hi Abdelfatah, thanks for joining. For this technique then a larger softbox makes it easier as the light can wrap around more easily, this softbox was 120x180cm.

  19. This was excellent Karl, thank you. Did you measure the square you shot through or is the size irrelevant? I may have to make my own.

    1. Hi Tianna, yes you measure the rectangle to match the format shape of the format you are shooting, so for example if shooting on a full frame 35mm camera then we know that the format of that camera is 36mm x 24mm, so if you times that 10 then you’d need a hole 360mm x 240mm, if that was too big then multiply by a lower number and measure it out on black foam board and cut.

  20. Thanks karl. Just signed up. Amazing site. It’s almost midnight here, looks like I’m going to be up all night!

  21. simple and yet very effective lighting set up and it shows how you can turn a single light can do as main and fill in light and of course by using a reflector. this shows how you should understand the positioning of light and inverse square of law. Thanks Mr.Karl for your superb teaching and simple explanation.

  22. best money I’ve ever spent on photography… this stuff is outstanding. You guys articulating the thought process is extremely helpful, too. The “what if I were to do this” stuff…

  23. Really brilliant stuff Karl, thank you guys for doing this! Cant wait to apply all that ive learned to my repertoire!

  24. I’m definitely getting what I’m paying for!!! I love this setup and and look. I can’t wait to experiment. Very inspiring!!

  25. …next week I ‘ll try a similar scheme for a pregnant friend of mine.
    In this days I make the preparations, like cut the olyboard , the window mask ,stands and finally some tests before!…

    I m so motivated!
    I hope I’ ll be able to show you some decent results

    thank you Karl!

    1. Hi Andy, glad you feel that way. We believe it too and want to make it even better which we can only do as we grow our membership so please tell the world your thoughts! πŸ™‚

  26. Wow .. am also extremely pleased I have signed up for these lessons. Really great teaching Karl. Concise, clear and simple .. keep up the superb job!

  27. Simply wonderful, like always. I’m very glad to take the right decision, sign up this education photography program.

    1. Hi Anthony between us we have 40 years of studio lighting experience from training other pros to working on big brand advertising campaigns. As always for me it’s about finding a solution and that starts with understanding what is possible through a knowledge of lighting and the principles of light itself, such as in chapeter 1 of this particular course. I’m glad you are discovering new things to try, that’s always our aim as educators.

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