This is a guide covering everything you need to know about gobos in photography.
Gobos can turn a bland background into something unique with character.
Knowing how, the different types, and when to use one is important.
With all that being said, let’s dive in!
What is a Gobo?
A gobo is essentially a tool that creates a pattern using light. Gobo, while a funny-sounding word, isn’t actually a word. Gobo is an acronym for Goes Before Optics. Gobo can also mean Go-Between Object.
From these two descriptors, we can infer that Gobos are basically any object that goes in between your light and subject.
The Gobos are placed there in order to cast a desired shadow pattern on the subject.
Think of it as a template, or a stencil, that filters light in order to project cool shapes.
In fact, Gobos work pretty much the exact same way as stencils, in which shapes are cut out from a piece of paper/ plastic/ cloth to create patterns.
The shapes can be anything—from simple geometries to intricate details.
These gobos are placed/used in gobo lights that are designed to shine through the gobo template specifically.
Gobos cannot be used with your day-to-day traditional lighting. The main reason being your conventional lighting lenses are unable to shape nor focus the light after hitting the gobo template.
The term ‘Gobo’ is also interchangeable with wedding lighting, name-in-lights, texture lighting, and monogram lighting.
Why Use a Gobo?
Gobo has been around since there were theatres, but they are currently used in studio photography.
Photographers have found interesting ways to incorporate the gobo into their images.
Gobos are famously known for the “window scene”, in which window-like shadows are added onto a room without any actual windows.
But Gobos can be used for much more than that.
Photographers can get creative with their gobo designs to add shadows and depth to their images.
Usually, Gobos are used to produce low-key Noir images that emit a sense of mystery.
Typical subjects include figures like a mysterious man smoking a cigar, or a woman looking away solemnly.
Such photographs use gobo to their fullest potential to highlight the mysteriousness, tension, or drama in their subjects.
You can even amplify this effect by slightly adjusting the gobo to make the light hit the subject’s eye or mouth.
Gobos are also commonly used for corporate events, though not for their dramatic purposes. In these cases, gobos act as an eye-catching alternative to banners.
These types of Gobos are used to project the company’s logo, advertisements, or any patterns that support the event.
Standard Gobo Sizes
Gobos come in many sizes, and usually depend on the type of lights (and light units) used to project those templates.
The size of the gobo determines how much detail and design you can fit (the larger the gobo, the more intricate the design), and also the brightness of your image.
Smaller gobos are often used by rental companies or cheap light DJs.
Gobos are usually round in shape, varying in diameters from around 20mm- 150mm.
This diameter is mainly dictated by the fixture itself, which means you would know the fixture that your gobo needs before making one.
There are no rules in art, as in making Gobos. But if you are just starting out, here is a useful guideline for standard gobo sizes that go with most designs:
|37.5 mm||E – Size (LED Gobo Lighting)|
|54 mm||D – Size (LED Gobo Lighting)|
|66 mm||M – Size (Source 4 Jr.)|
|86 mm||B – Size (Source 4 Ellipsoidal)|
Gobos can also work with uncommon sizes. These unstandardized Gobos are not very good for detailed designs but work incredibly with blocky and chunky designs.
Unstandardized Gobo Sizes:
To further diversify the types of gobos, there are also different materials and types. Let’s start with the various types of it.
Different Types of Gobos
Since gobos are basically any object in between a light and a subject, you can use virtually anything that casts a shadow. There are three major types of gobo:
1. Shine-through Gobo
This simple type of gobo can be easily made at home using the various sharp objects you have. You would typically need an opaque card and a sharp knife to make it.
The materials appropriate for this type of gobo are cardboard, foam board, metal, and even glass.
This type of gobo can also be specially made using metal or glass and cut out using a laser.
The metal and glass gobo is a specialist type of gobo often used by professionals and comes with high quality.
This allows the photographers to have extremely detailed and complex designs on the gobo since the manufacturer has various techniques up their sleeves.
2. Placed Intervening Objects
As the name suggests, these are the gobos that use objects you place in front of your light source.
These objects can honestly be anything, as long as it has a purpose and adds value to the image.
Common objects used in this category include, but are not limited to: fans, chains, and interesting fabrics (such as laces, veils, or mesh).
3. Found In-Place Intervening Objects
You know when you’re just strolling about outside, and you notice interesting objects casting interesting shadows?
It could be trees, buildings, branches, you name it. You can even sometimes see these at home if the sun is shining through your windows.
Any objects or structures, both natural and man-made, that cast a shadow will be considered a Gobo of this category.
For this category, anything can be used; from the rough edges of a worn-out object, to jagged broken glass – your creativity is the limit here.
What are Gobos Made from?
Your gobo can be made from almost anything that can be shined through and doesn’t distort your light.
The trees, bushes, and even your cardboard can become a gobo with the right amount of effort and smarts.
But here is the list of the commonly used materials for manufacturing gobos, aka the stuff the professionals use:
1. Metal Gobos
Steel gobos are extremely basic and generally have a short life span. Because of this, they’re commonly described as “black and white”.
They are thin pieces of stainless steel with patterns cut into them, making them stencils. Because it’s a stencil, it must be a single solid piece of metal.
Basically, all of the ‘black’ areas must be connected.
These gobos are great because they are cheap, unlike, say, glass gobos. Though they can last you through several uses, don’t expect great durability from them.
Metal gobos will eventually warp from the heat emitted from the conventional fixture.
Metal gobos are cheap, and can be made in just one day, but are limited in terms of design.
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2. Glass Gobos
On the other side, glass gobos are generally more detailed with a longer life span. They are typically called “colored”.
Glass gobos can become anything your mind and design can think of. Complex designs, custom artworks, unlimited amount of color, are made with the utmost care and detail to stay true to the original design.
Glass gobos will last much longer than their metal counterparts. Because of this, they are often priced at a higher price point.
You can think of it as sort of an investment since you can easily re-use it when the time comes.
Glass gobos are more expensive, take some time (5-7 days), but are highly versatile in terms of design and color.
Since the gobo definition can also be anything that’s in between your light and subject, photographers can easily get creative and use cheaper alternatives (you can even make your own).
Photographers can also use opaque materials as their gobo or use denser materials to project an interesting drama, story, or effect on the subject.
When are Gobos Used?
Gobos have an extreme degree of utility in photography. They can all increase the interest or understanding of your audience by simply existing.
Here is the common scenario when to use your gobo:
1. Adding Drama
Using a gobo can significantly darken your scene by adding shadows but leaving the scene with an adequate amount of light in the scene.
Shades contrasting with beams of light add this feeling of drama and texture to your scene.
2. Additional Narrative
The quintessential part of an image is the story and meaning behind it. Your gobo will aid you in getting your point across to the audience.
It can also take form in many different ways. Maybe you’re leaning more into a darker and more mysterious story with your image, or maybe your subject hiding away from someone.
Vertical bars created by the gobo can imply various meanings to the audience, like the imagery of the subject being held in captivity.
Horizontal bars of light and shadows can be interpreted as an office setting since they resemble window blinds.
The shapes of the shadows produced by gobos are useful in creating powerful imagery that supports the narrative of your image.
3. Making a Flat Scene More Interesting
Light and shadows are like two sides of the same coin, and one cannot exist without the other.
These situations with an overwhelming amount of light or shadows will often look dull and flat. Luckily, this can be easily fixed by using your gobo.
Adding details that further strengthen your image’s story will often work than having nothing behind the subject.
You can also work around with the objects surrounding you and use them as your Found In-Place gobo.
Making A Gobo at Home
Using a gobo in photography for lights is pretty convenient for the majority of photographers.
The only downside is its price, if you are buying it, which can be expensive and requires studio lights. Luckily, gobos aren’t that difficult to make at home!
This makeshift gobo projector is nothing new, yet it can compete with the professional gobo projector when done correctly.
You only need a cardboard tube (preferably a sturdy one), a standard 18-55m kit lens that usually comes with your DSLR, and a sharp knife. With all materials ready, follow these instructions:
1. First, clean the insides of your cardboard tube. If the tube was a food container, make sure to clean all the grease too.
2. Cut off the ends of your clean cardboard tube.
3. Cut out rectangular slots to accommodate your speed light.
4. Cut out rectangular slots to accommodate your speed light.
5. Wrap the cardboard tube around the lens to create a snug fit around the tube.
6. Wrap the cardboard tube around the lens to create a snug fit around the tube.
7. Slide both lens and spacer into the cardboard tube and tape in place.
8. You can make this spacer ring from cardboard to fit the focusing ring into the cut-off part of your tube. Then glue the spacer ring to that part.
After that’s done, you can now make a “gobo gate” that simply acts to hold the gobos in place. You can first create your cardboard gobo:
1. To start things off, cut a square piece of cardboard that fits the flange on your gobo gate.
2. Then draw a circle on it, and use the end of your tube as a guide.
3. Trace out the outer part of your cardboard and draw your gobo shape into it.
4. Make some details within the circle and cut some out as you see fit.
5. Tape the gobo onto the gate and place the flange gate over the other end of your tube attached to the lens focusing ring.
To further explore the topic of making DIY gobos, check out this video by Joe Edelman:
The gobo is a great, simple ‘light-stencil’ tool that has been used for a long time to add depth and drama to pictures.
Almost anything can be turned into a gobo, from cut-out cardboard to the trees on the streets.
Bigger gobos are great for intricate details, while the smaller ones are convenient to use for small-time gigs.
You can certainly buy gobos if you want but making them at home is pretty straightforward.
Jon has been a passionate photographer for 10+ years. Fun fact is that he has a collection of around 300-400 cameras that his family has collected over the years. Outside of photography, he has a Masters Degree in Engineering and has 13 years experience working in the industry across the globe.