What Is A Gobo In Photography And How To Use It?


In photography, a GoBo or a “Go-Between Object” can be introduced to add contrast and interest to a flat scene by way of a shadow pattern. It is a subtractive device that cuts out light from the light source with opaque elements that create shadows on the background, floor or the subject itself. Let’s define what exactly is a Gobo in photography and how to use it?:

A gobo is any object that goes between a light source and the subject to project a shadow pattern. It creates mood, drama or story in a scene. Cut out a pattern in an opaque material. Place the gobo between the light and the subject. Focus the pattern by using a lens or moving the light source.

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Window shaped Gobo and plant shadows.
Card Cutout Window Gobo And A Plant Casting Shadows – Photo by Oscar J Harper

A gobo can come in many different forms but the main goal is to add interest to the scene by introducing new areas of contrast in the form of shadows and light which can be carefully placed to stimulate the engagement of the viewer. Let’s take an in-depth look at:

  • What makes a good subject for a Gobo?
  • What are the uses of Gobos in photography?
  • What types of gobo are there?
  • How to make a cheap gobo projector!
  • How to use a Gobo to improve your photography!

What Makes a Good Subject For a Gobo?

A good subject for a Gobo is one that requires a little boost of detail, contrast or story. These include:

  1. Low-Key Subjects
  2. High-Key Subjects
  3. Film Noir Type Subjects
  4. Industrial Subjects
  5. Tense subjects
  6. Spooky/ Creepy Subjects

Low-key Subjects

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Great for Low-key subjects.
Low-Key Image Helped With A Sliver Of Sunlight Through A Small Window – Photo by Oscar J Harper

A Gobo can help you create a very moody Low-key photograph. As the purpose of most Gobos is to subtract light from the scene by blocking light with opaque shapes, the chances of a dark, mysterious low-key image can only be improved.

So, any subject that requires a low-key atmosphere would be perfect for the introduction of a light-blocking Gobo. With the right design of Gobo you could invoke the low-key moods of mystery, drama and isolation.

High-Key Subjects

Opposite to low-key photos, high key images are characterised by bright, light areas and minimal, subtle details. In this case, a Gobo could be used to introduce some very suggestive and delicate shadow texture to certain areas of the composition. Hanging lace or fine mesh between the light source and the subject could achieve this very effectively.

Textured or broken glass could also be used to add a ghostly layer of fleeting pale shadows. The textured pattern of the glass or overlapping shards would create varying degrees of shadow density for a complex but intriguing veil of added interest.

Film Noir Type Subjects

The very term Noir evokes the dark, shadowy scenes of a gritty crime drama movie. This subject matter would be perfect for introducing a relevant Gobo shadow pattern to enhance the mood of the photo. A Gobo could be used to project a distorted window onto the background or the subject.

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Perfect for Film Noir subjects.
Film Noir Low-Key Image With A Venetian Blind Cut-Out, Shine-Through Gobo – Photo by Oscar J Harper

The classic Noir intervention, a window with horizontal blinds, could be easily replicated with a Gobo; the slots cut out of cardboard. This technique has the effect of casting multiple shadow bars across the subject. With a little trial and error, the light slots can be placed to highlight the eyes or mouth for added tension.

The hard-boiled detective, typical of this genre, can be portrayed in the gloom of half shadows or silhouettes set up by the meagre light provided by the Gobo. You could even say that the wide brim of a fedora hat is a Gobo, as it casts a deep shadow on the upper part of the detectives face; shrouding the eyes in impenetrable shadows.

Industrial Subjects

The bleak, neglected imagery of an industrial scene can be recreated with the aid of a suitable Gobo. The shadows cast by hanging chains, machinery parts, chain link fences, decrepit skeletal factories and massive warehouse windows can all elicit the lonely forgotten representation of industrial wasteland.

For a living image of industrial activity, you could introduce steam or smoke to be illuminated by the light shafts of the Gobo and that will become visible against the dark shadows set up by the Gobo.

Tense Subjects

The introduction of shadows and controlled pools of light can add tension to the mood of a photograph. Isolating elements of a face or body can convey the idea of stealth, concealment or secret observation. This can help to build the tension and perhaps provoke a feeling of dread or anticipation in the photograph, if that is the desired result.

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Perfect for tense subjects.
The Tense Moment Of A Concealed Cat Behind A Mesh Forming The Gobo

This partial shadowing of the features can be achieved with a creatively designed Gobo that casts shadows where they need to be and allows pools or bands of light on to some of the face creating a highly contrasted, incomplete facial puzzle.

Spooky/Creepy Subjects

Darkness and shadows always help to add spookiness and creepiness to an image. From a giant spider to a creepy castle silhouette or a snaggle of leaning gravestones, a suitable Gobo can bring a new dimension to your Halloween photographs. The inherent shadows that a Gobo can create help to boost the gloomy atmosphere of any spooky pictures that you can imagine.

What Are The Uses of a Gobo in Photography?

The uses of a Gobo in photography are numerous and varied and they can all boost the interest or understanding of the image and they include:

  1. To Add drama
  2. To Add Narrative
  3. To Add Interest to a Flat Scene
  4. To Add Contrast Which Can be varied by Adjusting:
    • The power of the light source
    • The focus of the Gobo
    • The translucency of the Gobo material

To Add Drama

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Helps to add drama to an image.
The Fence Shadows Add Drama And Texture

If you are presented with a scene that has unexciting lighting you can punch in some drama by using a Gobo between the light source and the subject. The introduction of some shadows to the otherwise even lighting scenario can instantly transform the scene from dull to interesting and dramatic.

There is something about dark, brooding shadows in contrast to bright pools of light that always adds drama to a scene. Use a Gobo to significantly darken the scene with added shadows whilst leaving only part of the image lit by the holes or gaps.

“We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.”

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki – In Praise of Shadows

To Add Narrative

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Helps to add narrative to a photograph.
The Rosary Shadow Helps To Add Meaning To The Image

A Gobo can assist you in getting across an idea by introducing elements of story. They can be any shape to help strengthen the gist of the story: a gothic window to portray a church or castle setting, a clump of palm trees to conjure up a tropical beach at sunset, a solitary gnarled tree to suggest the location is a windswept moor at dusk.

Vertical bars created by shadows could infer the interior of a prison cell while horizontal bar shadows could imply the interior of a seedy office lit by nothing more than the street lamps or vehicle headlights shining through Venetian blinds. There is really no limit to the shadow shapes that can be employed to help tell the story of the image.

To Add Interest to a Flat Scene

If your scene looks a bit flat and dull, you could definitely liven it up with the use of a Gobo over a light source. Use it to add shadows or texture to a boring backdrop. It could be as simple as a piece of card with holes punched or slashed into it. Even if you are in a simple, plain box room, you can inject layers of textural interest with a Gobo or two.

Drape sheets of lace before the light source to create a complex shadow pattern on the subject, background or floor. Prop objects up in front of the light to cast shadows just where you need them. You can orchestrate an intricate arrangement of shadows using several objects held up by light stands, clamps and tape.

These still count as Gobos as they are Go-Between objects.

To Add Contrast

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Helps to add contrast to an image.
A Pile Of Newspapers Broken Up With Added Contrasting Shadows

The very essence of a gobo is to introduce contrast to a scene where there was none before. This contrast can be made very stark by using opaque material to create a cutout Gobo. The degree of contrast and sharpness of the edges can be enhanced by a powerful light source that is precisely focused on the subject or background. But you can also adjust the subtlety of contrast by carefully manipulating:

  • The power of the light source
    • If you dial down the output of the light, whether flash or constant you decrease the intensity of the contrast between the shadows and the bright areas, resulting in a more subtle distinction.
  • The focus of the Gobo
    • The focus of the Gobo can usually be achieved in two ways:
      1. Moving the light source closer or further away from the Gobo.
      2. Focusing the Gobo lens (if there is one).
    • The result is that the edges of the Gobo pattern become sharper or softer and therefore the contrast transition becomes more or less severe. They could be pin-sharp for a very definite pattern or texture or totally defocussed to create amorphous, dream-like blobs.
  • The translucency of the Gobo material
    • If the Gobo material has degrees of translucency, this can be adopted to create visual steps from dark shadow to bright illuminated areas.
A Focused Gobo On The Left – The Same Gobo, Defocused On The Right – Photos by Oscar J Harper

What Types of Light Can You Use For a Gobo?

There are two types of light that can be used on a Gobo in photography: sunlight and artificial light. Each has its own qualities and degrees of control. Both can produce hard or soft-edged shadows from the Gobos and both can be utilised to enhance the drama, contrast or narrative of the photograph.

Sunlight

Sunlight can be used to activate a Gobo either indoors or outdoors. Imagine a bright sunny day and the sun is blasting through a window directly into a room. In this case, the wall of the building and the window frame is acting as the Gobo.

The shadows cast will be very hard and sharp as the light source, the Sun, is so far away (93 million miles), that the light beams are effectively parallel when they strike the subject with little deviation causing a noticeable penumbra or partial shadowing, softening the edges. There will be some blurring of the shadow edges if the sky is hazy or misty.

What Is A Gobo In Photography? It can be anything including a tree canopy.
Tree Canopies Become Gobos And Produce Dappled Light And Shadows On The Road Below

Outdoors, the power of the sun can be utilised to make virtually anything into a Gobo to add shadows and interest to a scene. The dappled light of the sun pouring through a forest canopy, the interesting texture as it shines through a chain-link fence, the harsh industrial shadows cast by machinery or structures.

The low setting sun striking the projections of plants and bushes will add a stretched fringe of shadows to the lower section of your images. These can all be considered to be Gobos when used in the context of photography.

Artificial Light

Constant Light

You can apply more control over artificial lighting of which there are two types: Constant or flash. Constant light sources allow you to see how and where the Gobos are casting their shadows. This makes composition easier as you can see and arrange the shadows before you have to press the shutter.

Constant lights are much less powerful than flash or strobe lights though and therefore you may have to use a slower shutter speed or larger aperture which could compromise depth-of-field or sharpness.

Flash or Strobe Light

What Is A Gobo In Photography? You can use flash or sunlight.

Some flash lights or strobes do have a modelling light, which is a constant light before the flash activates. With flash lights you have a more powerful light source but it has to be restrained or it can bounce light everywhere and jeopardise the great contrast that you may desire.

You can help constrain the flash output by using a large Gobo panel to prevent stray light beams from entering the scene. Use a black or dark Gobo to minimise reflections from it. Zoom the flash into a narrow beam or apply a snoot or tube to the flash to direct and control the light.

Unlike sunlight, you can have multiple flash lights with Gobos projecting shadows from different angles and varying intensities to weave a very rich textural story.

What Types of Gobo Are There?

There are basically 3 types of Gobo. There are some tried and tested versions that work well and these break down into three main groups:

  • Shine-Through Gobo
  • Placed Intervening Objects
  • Found In-Place Intervening Objects

Essentially, a Gobo is a simple intervention placed between a light source and a subject. That means it can be virtually anything that can cast a shadow or a partial shadow.

Shine-Through Gobos

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Homemade card Gobos.
100mm Square Cardboard Cutout Gobos For A Homemade Gobo Projector – Photo by Oscar J Harper

These can be small panels that fit on the end of a cardboard tube, in a dedicated Gobo projector or a large board with a pattern cut into it:

Shine-Through Cardboard Cutout: This is a simple form of Gobo that only requires a sheet of opaque card and a sharp modelling knife. Draw a design on the card, either free-form or using a ruler for more precise shapes. Cut out the shapes with the blade then mount it on the end of a cardboard tube.

You can focus the shadows on the backdrop by moving the light source back and forth or introduce a lens between the light and the Gobo to focus the shadow image.

Shine-Through Foamboard Cutout: This is a larger version of the Cardboard Cutout. You can get foam board in quite large sizes, at least up to A0 size. They are relatively cheap, durable and you can get them in black to help minimise the reflections from them.

You will be able to cut out a much larger pattern opening whilst retaining a broad border to prevent light from spilling onto the scene around the edges. You should be able to use the flash un-shrouded as the large panel should prevent light-spill in the direction of the subject.

Shine-Through Metal Laser Cut Gobo: These are specialist pre-cut, manufactured Gobos that fit into purpose made projectors with their own Gobo gate slot and a focusing lens. Some have their own light source and others can be attached to studio strobe lights or other Bowens type fixing rings that can accommodate a Speedlite flash unit.

The patterns in this type of Gobo can be very fine and detailed as they are laser cut and they can be focussed very precisely. If you want to project text, the design may have to include some “tabbing”, These are link bars to support the inner shapes of text like the triangle island in the middle of a capital letter “A”.

They are quite small being only an inch or two in diameter so they can be easily stored away. There are hundreds of possible pre-made designs or you could have a custom design cut for your specific needs.

Shine-Through Glass Etched Gobo: These are specialist factory-made, high-quality Gobos. They can accept virtually any design, no matter how complex which is then precisely etched into a thin glass blank with either acid or laser ablation techniques.

They can be grey-scale or full colour and produce vibrant, rich colours even at large scale projections. They can operate in projectors with very hot lamps but are susceptible to damage if dropped. They can be expensive but provide the highest quality of the projected image.

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Metal and glass gobos.
Laser-Cut Metal And Glass Etched Gobos For Professional Projectors

Placed Intervening Objects

Placed Intervening Objects: Plants, Trees Branches: A Gobo can be a free-standing, natural object that is simply placed between a light source and the subject. Plants and tree branches have a naturally complex shadow pattern made by the myriad strands of criss-crossing stems, leaves and twigs.

Because you are placing the living Gobo in a controlled environment you can arrange the shadows by moving the stems and leaves to cast the perfect shadows onto the subject or background. You could combine multiple plants and branches in front of your light for a multi-layered shadow lattice.

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Use a plant as a Gobo.
A Spikey Plant Placed Between The Light And The Subject Creates Interesting Patterns – Photo by Oscar J Harper

Placed Intervening Objects: Fans, Bike wheels etc: Man-made objects can also make great Gobos particularly if they have a perforated structure. A house fan has a series of rotor blades and protective grilles that make perfect shadows on a backdrop and could invoke the image of a house or office interior during a hot, sticky tropical summer.

What is a Gobo in photography? Add story elements with objects like a fan.
A Pillar Fan Makes An Interesting Shadow And Also Helps To Inform The Story – Photo by Oscar J Harper

A bicycle wheel has very fine spokes and a solid rim that could be used to make an interesting, subtle pattern on a wall. The shadows would have to be very carefully focussed on the background to be visible as they are so fine and could easily disappear.

Placed Intervening Objects: Veils, Lace, Mesh etc: For a very fine and beautiful shadow intervention you could consider draping a delicate lace or mesh before the light source. Depending upon the translucency of the lace fabric, the shadows on the subject could be bold or delicate. It would be important to carefully focus the shadows if you want to see all the intricate detail.

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Add delicate shadows with lace as a Gobo.
Bold And Delicate Shadows Form The Complex Pattern Of The Lace

Using a mesh or even a fishing net would produce a more uniform shadow pattern that may be more suitable for some styles of photographs. You could still bunch or scrunch up the uniform mesh to create a more random pattern of clumps and fine grid lines.

In-Place Intervening Objects

In-Place Intervening Objects: Trees, Bushes, Plants: Walking around outside you may come across everyday living objects that happen to be casting brilliant shadows onto other objects. You could take a photo beneath a tree canopy or beside some bushes or plants.

You could even place a model in the dappled light of one of these living Gobos to add interest and contrast to your portraits.

In-Place Intervening Objects: Chain Link Fences, Structures, Windows: There are also many opportunities to find Gobo shadows cast by man-made structures and fabrics on a grander scale. Industrial ruins make excellent shadow casting devices. Inside a ruined building you may find a damaged roof letting in a beam of sunlight into a dark pool of shadows. In this case, the actual roof of the building becomes the Gobo.

Industrial warehouse windows can create great shadows for a portrait shoot particularly if they still have a glazing frame. You could discover some very interesting partial shadows from the jagged edges if there is some broken glass in the window frame.

What Is A Gobo In Photography? Use structures or window frames as Gobos.
The Window Frames Of Warehouse Ruins Make Excellent Gobos In Sunlight, Moonlight Or Floodlights

Fences, gates and bars produce some great geometric shadow opportunities. Usually lit by the sun but man-made structure shadows could also be cast by street lights, floodlights or even the moon for added mystery.

How do You Make a Cheap Gobo Projector?

To make a Gobo projector: split a Pringles tube, tape a kit lens into the gap, cut out a Gobo pattern in card, fix it to the outer end of the tube, squeeze a Speedlite into the other end, zoom and focus the lens til the gobo pattern is sharp, set the flash and camera settings, take a test shot.

Professional Gobo projectors are very dependable and can produce super sharp, easily controlled and precisely placed shadows. There are hundreds of Gobo patterns available in metal or etched glass or you could even have a custom Gobo made to your own design. They can be expensive though and usually outside of the budget of most hobbyist photographers.

There is a cheaper way to achieve similar results using a cardboard tube (from a popular brand of baked chips or crisps), a standard 18-55mm Kit lens that you probably got when you bought your digital SLR camera and a sharp craft knife. So, go out and buy the tube of baked chips and consume the hyperbolic paraboloid snacks. (I prefer the sour cream and chive flavour).

  • Next, wipe out the crumbs and grease from the inside of the tube.
  • Cut off the metal end of the tube.
  • Snip some slots into the same end (to help accommodate the rectangular end of a Speedlite).
  • Wrap the snipped end with some parcel tape to seal the Speedlite.
  • Measure 55mm down from the opposite end and cut off the end of the tube.
  • Wrap cardboard and tape around the lens body to make a snug fit in the cardboard tube.
  • Tape the cardboard and tape spacer ring to the end of the lens leaving the zoom ring free to rotate.
  • Slide the lens and spacer into the cardboard tube and tape it in place.
  • Make a spacer ring from thick cardboard to fit the focusing ring of the lens into the cut-off end of the tube.
  • Glue the spacer ring to the cut-off piece of tubing.
  • Make a Gobo gate to hold the Gobos in place:
    • Make a cardboard tube and tape it to a square flange with a round hole in the centre.
  • Make your first cardboard Gobo:
    • Cut a square piece of card to fit the flange on the Gobo gate.
    • Draw a circle on the square card using the end of the tube as a guide.
    • Now draw a Gobo shape within the circle on the card.
      • Draw some details within the shape for cutting out and removal.
    • Cut out the fine details with a sharp modelling knife.
  • Tape the Gobo onto the square flange gate.
  • Place the flange gate over the end of the tube attached to the lens focusing ring.
What Is A Gobo In Photography? Homemade Gobo projector.
Homemade Cardboard-Tube Gobo Projector Showing The 18-55mm Kit Lens And The Gate To Hold The Gobo

How do You Use a Gobo in a Homemade Projector to Improve Your Photography?

Now you have your Gobo projector you can use it to introduce elements of interest to the backdrop or the subject in your photographs.

To use a Gobo in your homemade projector, put the Speedlite in the tube: Tape the gobo onto the gate, zoom the lens to the widest setting, rotate the focus ring fully out, point the Gobo at the backdrop from 4 feet away, set the key light, set the power and zoom of each flash, take a test shot.

Gobo Projector Studio Set-Up On The Left – Resulting Photo On The Right – Photos by Oscar J Harper

Let’s break this brief summary down into detailed steps to get you taking photos with your homemade Gobo projector.

  • Fit your Speedlite into the taped-up rectangular end of your cardboard projector tube; it should be a snug fit.
  • Tape the square Gobo cutout onto the cardboard gate and attach the gate to the other end of the lens tube.
  • Zoom the kit lens to the widest setting (18mm on an 18 to 55mm kit lens).
  • Rotate the focusing ring all the way out to the furthest position (this seems to work best).
  • Place the projector assembly on a light stand or Bowens type Speedlite clamp.
  • Locate the Gobo projector about 4 feet away from the backdrop to start with.
  • Set up a key light flash for the main subject, usually in front of, above and to one side.
  • Set the power and zoom for the key light:
    • Try 1/64th power and 50mm flash zoom to start with.
  • Set the power and zoom for the Gobo projector:
    • Try 1/4th power and 50mm flash zoom to start with. (Higher power required because the lens blocks light.
  • Set up your camera for your first shot:
    • Set ISO to 100 or 200
    • Set Aperture to F8
    • Set shutter speed to flash sync speed (1/60, 1/200 or 1/250).
  • Take a test shot and review the results.
    • If the Gobo shadow/light pattern is too small or too big, adjust the distance from the backdrop.
    • If the shadow/light pattern is is too dim or bright, adjust the Gobo projector flash power.
    • If the key light is too dim or bright, adjust the flash power accordingly.
Example Of Not Using A Gobo On The Left – Venetian Blinds Gobo Creating a Film Noir Aesthetic On The Right
Photos by Oscar J Harper

You should end up with some great moody photos, possibly a film noir atmosphere if you have the right subject. The Gobo has injected some interest and narrative into the scene and transformed the dull, plain backdrop.

Related Questions

What is a Snoot in Photography And How to Use it?

A snoot can control the spread of light from a flash and precisely direct it to where it is needed in the scene. This could prove useful when additionally using a Gobo as it could prevent light fallout from diluting the shadow patterns. To find out more about this fascinating subject you can read our article right here on Photography Skool.

How do You Take Low Key Photos Indoors And Outdoors?

Images produced with the use of a Gobo are often Low-Key by nature as more shadows are introduced. There are other interesting aspects to Low-Key photography and you can find out more by taking a look at our helpful illustrated guide, here on Photography Skool.

What Are The Different Indoor Studio Lighting Setups?

A gobo can be a kind of modified Backdrop light in a studio setup which is one of the lighting setups described in this comprehensive guide. The guide describes the 5 principal light positions and then goes on to define 18 lighting setups that use those 5 basic positions to create many different and increasingly complex lighting arrangements using between 1 and 4 lights to produce a range of creative scenarios. The guide is available right here on Photography Skool.

How do You Avoid Shadows in Indoor Photography?

In some cases, you may want to eliminate or minimise shadows in your photography rather than create them with a Gobo. To check out our helpful tips on avoiding shadows, see our illustrated article, here in Photography Skool.

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