DIY Photography Tips

DIY Gobos

Easy and creative portrait lighting tricks

Did you know that a dog toy, a toddler’s wheelbarrow, a house plant, a can of cheap hair spray and even a roll of toilet paper could be some of the best accessories you could own for shooting portraits and models? They can be used as gobos!

You’re probably thinking I have taken this DIY stuff a little too far, but rest assured, this is not a joke. I am confident that I’ll soon have you thinking up similar ideas on your own.

What is a Gobo?

So what I really want to talk to you about are DIY GOBOS. A gobo is a light modifier. If you want to learn a bit of the history of gobos, be sure to watch this video: One Light Fashion Shot using two DIY Gobos.

So where do you get gobos? You can purchase gobo projectors like what DJs use at wedding receptions, but they aren’t nearly as bright as strobes, plus the number of gobo designs are limited. Or you can purchase a gadget like the Light-Blaster that I talked about in my video Light Blaster – Solution for Boring Portrait Backgrounds – REVIEW, Lighting Tutorial and Photoshoot, but it too has a limited amount of gobos available. And, while you can make your own gobos for it, I do love the Light Blaster for its ability to project your own images as backgrounds. OR your best option for gobos is to make your own. That way, the results in your portraits and modeling shots are unique to YOU and your photography.

DIY Gobos

One of the easiest ways to make a gobo is to use the same material that we use for the Walmart Reflectors – Foam Board. You can get 20” x 30” sheets at Walmart for just under two dollars or get a slightly thinner version at Dollar Stores for just a buck and of course you can get it in packs of 10 at You will need an Exacto knife, which you can find at Art and Office Supply stores or at Amazon and a straight edge ruler. It’s also a good idea to use a cutting mat or at least some old cardboard under the foam board when you cut it so that you don’t ruin your tabletop or floor.

Simply draw out the shape that you want to use on the foam core. After you draw your shape, use your Exacto knife to cut out the design and then place your gobo between your light and the background or between the light and your subject.

Now some of you are going to ask me; how close should the light be to the gobo and how far from the background or subject should the gobo be?

There is no single answer for that. You have to experiment and play with it to see what YOU like. I will show you this little tip: below is that same gobo with the slits. I have it placed about 3 feet from the background and the closer the light gets to the gobo the bigger and softer the lines appear on the background.

Moving light closer to Gobos

As I move it away, the lines get sharper but the gobo covers less of the background.

moving light away from gobos

This part is physics folks, not photography. But don’t panic – you don’t need to be a physics expert – just pay attention to the light and experiment.

Hopefully by now you have realized that you can use a cheap set of mini blinds that you can get at Amazon for 10 bucks to create window light as well.

Again, there is no “this is the right way” distance and power settings… you have to experiment. The settings and distance will be determined by your shooting space, equipment, and most of all, your taste.

DIY Gobo Examples

You can also add colored gels to your lights like you see below. In this example below I have a blue gel on camera left and an orange gel on the camera right strobe, but then I taped a yellow gel over the slots on the gobo.

model in front of background lit with multicolored gels and gobos

There are no rules – experiment!

Here is another example, shot with the circles cut into the foam board:

model in front of grey background with yellow circles projected

You can see below that I just have the foam board propped up about a foot in front of my speedlight and about 3 feet in front of a seamless gray backdrop.

Light behind model with yellow gel shooting through gobo to backdrop

So let’s get to the dog toy, wheel barrow, house plant, hair spray and let’s add in a fan for good measure….

Here is a recent portrait shot with three speedlights:

model in front of blue background

I went for a clamshell lighting with two umbrellas and I reversed them.

One umbrella on top as reflector, one umbrella below as gobo

The top one I am shooting light through it and the bottom one I am reflecting light off of it. Why do it this way? Because you can. Stop following the rules. Learn how to see light instead. But here is the cool part: the interesting pattern on the background is created by placing a blue gel on the third speedlight and putting a dog toy in front of it.

light behind model with dog toy gobo between it and background

FULL DISCLOSURE:  No dog toys were harmed in the creation of this shot, but my dog Buddy was very stressed about me using his toy for a photograph. So please, be kind to your puppies if you steal their toys for studio props.

Here is another interesting background created with the same three light setup and a houseplant:

Model in front of orange background with houseplant gobo

Or we can try a kids wheelbarrow:

model in front of blue background with wheelbarrow gobo

Maybe a small table fan:

Model in front of black background with yellow table fan gobo

That hair spray I mentioned:

model with cloud of yellow behind her

This was actually supposed to be water from a spray bottle, but the nozzle clogged. Remember – being a good photographer is being a GREAT problem solver – so I grabbed a can of my trusty AquaNet and used it instead. No, I am not spraying it on the model. I laid two towels on the floor and I am spraying behind her. This time the third speedlight is on a short stand behind her head and aimed directly towards the camera.

The moral to the GOBO story: pretty much anything you can put between a light and the background or a light and your subject can be a really cool gobo. You just have to be a little creative and be willing to experiment. The fact is, you are only limited by your own imagination.

So go pick up that camera…and…oh right, the toilet paper! Seriously do I have to explain everything? It’s your turn. Be creative see what you come up with – post your results in my Facebook group. Be sure to tag your image with the hashtag #toiletpapergobochallenge.

So go pick up that camera and shoot something because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!

Did you know you can create your own projected Gobos? Watch this video:  Light Blaster – Solution for Boring Portrait Backgrounds – REVIEW, Lighting Tutorial and Photoshoot

Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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