When the sun is positioned behind the subject when you take a picture the lighting is referred to as backlighting or contre-jour. If the sun is in such a position to highlight the edges of the subject it's known as rim lighting. Rim lighting is a method which is used to outline the subject with a line of light that helps emphasis shape and makes your subject 'pop' from your shot. It works best with objects that have thing edges such as leaves but it can be applied to other areas of photography such as portraiture.
The photograph of the poppy to the right shows how the effect works. The flower head is thicker so you do not really see the rim lighting, yet the stems and unopened buds have fine hairs that have been illuminated to produce the rim light.
Ensuring the correct exposure for backlit subjects can be tricky and how to meter depends on the subject and its background. Take a meter reading with the camera framed up correctly. If the background is dark you may need to reduce the exposure by about half to one stop to ensure it stays dark. If it's light open up half to one stop. It's best to bracket to ensure the best results. To make the light around the edge of your subject sparkle you need to over expose the shot slightly. Using your camera's spot meter will help but for guaranteed results, use a handheld meter and meter the light falling on the subject rather then the light reflected from it.
Of course with a digital camera you can shoot, preview and take the shot again if you haven't managed to get the desired effect.
The flower bellow was shot from underneath and in both cases the sun was high above, just out of frame. The left shot was taken with the sky as a background and the right was a fir tree, underexposed to make it look black. In the shot on the right, notice not only the lovely rim light but the overall luminance which makes the picture sparkle. The second shot shows how underexposing the shot and using a darker background enhanced the effect.
If you carefully move around to position the subject against a darker background you'll enhance the effect. For example, you'd find it hard to see a spider's web at most angles, but position it against a dark background with the sun behind and it will leap right out of the frame. Having the sun at the right angle will also help your subject jump out of the frame. On the left shot, the sun was above and behind which has created a slight rim light but it hasn't made the subject 'jump' from the frame. The shot on the right was taken when the sun was at a lower angle, adding more light to the scene.
Many subjects can be used to produce a rim lighting effect. Clouds can be made to look more three dimensional by waiting until the sun is behind them. If you shoot when the sun is still in view it will bleach out your photo, whereas waiting a few minutes until the cloud covers the sun will result in a
heavier looking, 3D cloud that has great rim lighting.
Other subjects to try
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- Glass bottles
- Portraits (works best with bushy hair)
- Animals (sheep or long haired dogs in particular)
- Sliced fruit in studio set up (Kiwi, Lemon, Orange)