How to use a Gobo to add Depth to Your Portraits with Subtractive Lighting



It’s our responsibility as photographers to use the interplay of light and shadow on our subjects to create the third dimension in our two-dimensional media. When the shadows are absent, we should do our best to craft the direction of natural light with tools that do this organically–tools that do not call attention to themselves.

One tool that I often see photographers using outdoors, typically in an attempt to counteract the effects of ambient light on a subject rather than simply crafting existing light, is flash fill. The problem, however, is that the use of flash fill outdoors (especially on-camera flash) frequently results in a very unnatural look and flat lighting—where all of the shadows are gone—which means that they lose the three-dimensional effect that we as artists seek to make our subjects look real. Very rarely is flash used in this manner subtle enough not to call attention to itself.

The answer is subtractive lighting

Subtractive lighting simply involves the blocking of unwanted natural light to create a natural three-dimensional quality to the lighting of people outside. The tools used to block unwanted light are called gobos or flags. Both terms are used in the world of cinematography, but are not used much the still photography world today.

A flag is generally black, opaque, flat, and refers to something you could hold by hand or mount to a stand. As shown in the images below, this tool is used when you have placed your subject in a less than desirable, very open location with flat lighting.


Image with no gobo used

This is typically the lighting you’ll see with your subject out in the open. There’s strong light on both sides of his face, even though the sun is setting behind him. This is what’s referred to as flat lighting and it’s not very interesting.

In the next image you see how this can be corrected. Kathi, my wife and partner, is holding a 42″ flag close to the subject to create a dimensional shadow on the subject’s face.


Showing how the gobo is used

As you can see, just that simple modification of the natural light creates beautiful three-dimensionality.


Image with gobo used (notice the deeper shadow on his left cheek, camera right)

In this next example, we have our high school senior model, Jasmine, in the popular “Freak Alley” in downtown Boise. The sun is setting on camera left and is reflecting off a tall, distant, mirrored building to camera right. We blocked the direct sunlight on the left with our 42″ black flag, creating a nice shadow side on her face. Removing the much brighter sunlight coming from camera left (over 2 stops brighter than the reflected light on the right) also meant that I could open up the lens and slow down the shutter enough to record the dim light in the doorway behind her.


ISO 400, F/5.0 at 1/125th

If you don’t have a flag, you can accomplish similar results using a small natural light blocker, like a tree. This is where the generic term “gobo: (from go-between) comes into use. Gobos can be man-made things like buildings, houses, or a porch and they can also be something natural like a tree, forest, or hedges. Really, just about anything used to block light can be referred to as a gobo. The nice thing about a tree is that it can be in the picture, and act as a gobo to create the same type of lighting (called short lighting, where the shadowed side of the face is nearest the camera) that we used on Jasmine above.

Nick, in the image below, is a big athletic guy so I wanted to create some short lighting to trim down his face. To accomplish this, I leaned him into a small tree for its gobo effect which created a nice shadow on his face. The key to making this work is finding a tree with a small canopy. Since he must be very close to the tree for it to make a shadow on his face, the tree can’t have a big canopy or it will block the main light (the sky) and eliminate my nice deep background bokeh (those nice de-focused specular highlights, that will be a topic for a future article).


200mm lens, f/4.5 at 1/250th, ISO 400

Group portraits using subtractive lighting – more difficult but worth the effort

The hand held flag or small tree works great on individuals, but you need a much larger light blocker when photographing groups. To this end, scout your location for any large groups of trees, hedges, buildings, etc., which could serve as your gobo and help add three-dimensionality to your group portrait.

Again, to be effective, you must place your subject fairly close to the gobo so that you can see its effect (the shadow) on your subjects’ faces. Some photographers may have difficulty seeing this rather subtle effect with the naked eye, so I suggest to my students that they meter for the highlights on the subject’s face and take a test photo. It will be very obvious, when viewing the camera’s rear screen, if you have the shadows you’re looking for. How close, you ask, should the nearest member of your group be to the gobo? Usually about ten feet works for me. If you have a really big, tall tree line, then twenty feet may work beautifully.

In this last example, which was taken about two hours before sunset, the family was placed about fifteen feet away from a large stand of trees on the right. On the left, serving as the main light, is a large patch of clear blue sky with no sun in it. The only direct impact of the sun should be in creating backlight for the background.


145mm lens, f/6.3 at 1/100th, ISO 400

Important caveat: Don’t stress if you can’t find the ideal location that will create the subtractive part of the natural lighting for groups, it’s not always possible. It’s perfectly acceptable to use soft, flat lighting when working with groups, especially large groups, one or two hours before sunset. Just make sure you have the other elements mentioned: keep the entire group in the shade, with the sun only touching the background, and that large patch of blue sky as your main light. We’ve used this technique to create many great portraits over the years.

Using true natural light, modified with the subtractive lighting technique, will produce superior portraits that will always look more natural than any flash technique. In addition, with the money you save not buying speed lights, soft-boxes, stands, weights, and radio triggers, you can invest in a really nice portrait lens. How’s that for a win-win?

If you have any other portrait lighting tips leave a comment below.

For more portrait lighting tips try out these articles:


Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jerry W Venz , a full-time professional photographer for over 25 years, doing portraits and weddings, he used his natural light skills to earn his PPA (Professional Photographers of America) Certification and then his Masters Degree, winning many awards in national and international, professional, print competitions. He offers one-on-one virtual apprenticeships, small group classes, and self-study plans at Visit his educational blog at:

  • ErnieCDougherty

    A flag is generally black, opaque, flat, and refers to something you could hold by hand or mount to a stand. As shown in the images below, this tool is used when you have placed your subject in a less than desirable, very open location with flat lighting.

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks very much.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    ohhh great tip!

  • So funny, I was trained as a theatrical lighting designer and in that world “gobo” specifically refers to a patterned disc placed inside a light source to block part of the light and create an image or texture. I was unaware of its second meaning for photography.

  • Matthew King

    Stephen, you’re not alone in that understanding of gobos. I too was trained in theater lighting and was taught the exact same thing. Interestingly enough, every source I can find on photography agrees with our definition. Yes, technically the term stands for “Go Between Optics” but for practical purposes and clarity in the industry, I have always been taught/told that a flag is a solid go between and a “gobo” has a pattern cut into it. In the examples given in the article, I would just translate the trees as a natural or organic form of flag not as a gobo per se. I guess it’s just the way you’re taught that makes the real difference. Kind of like using bokeh instead of depth of field. Same thing, different wording.

  • Yeah, I’m always thinking of gobos from pattern projecting as well. Lots of people use flag and gobo interchangeably though, probably as pattern projection isn’t quite as common anymore.

    Neat article, thanks for posting Mr. Venz. As someone who enjoys product photography, I use flags a lot but haven’t considered using them with people outside. Much easier than strobing the landscape to match the brightness of people’s faces! 😉

  • Penny Taylor

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  • Jerry W. Venz

    My wife, Kathi, and I met doing independent short films over thirty years ago. She was producing and editing while I worked my way up from grip, gaffer, camera to D.P. ( Director of Photography ). I had the honor of working with Lazlo Kovacs, ASC, on one production. So, that’s where I learned about lighting–in the world of cinematography.
    And, you nailed it, a GOBO is anything that can be placed between your light source and the subject. When we put something that was not opaque–that had holes, cutouts or patterns–we called that a “cucaloris” or a “cookie”.
    Thanks for reading my posting and commenting. Jerry V.

  • shahzad


  • Nice tips. Thanks!

  • Excellent article Jerry! Great tools I can add to my photography hobby. Nice to see a professional photography article here from a fellow ‘Boisean’.

  • as a formally trained still photographer, in my 26 years I’ve always referred to it as something to block light or being opaque

  • mur_phy

    Many years ago when doing photography at the only joint PPOC/PPA Convention held in Toronto, one of the lecturers, Leon Kenamer described Subtractive Lighting as “The creation of highlight and shadow by blocking light from one side of the face”. As time passed Leon also added a light blocker from above to reduce the “racoon” eyes. Whenever possible do exactly as the creator of this article did with the groups and by carefully looking, one can actually create a five light setup when working outdoors without any artificial light.

    One thing that could have been improved would be to use a 2/3 facial view on the football player in red t-shirt such that the nose does not go past the inner edge of the far eye.

    Bokeh outdoors is essentially the same as a cookie being used to create a pattern on the background and again natural devices and not just a cut out device can be used effectively when it is useful to create a non-natural pattern on a background when creating a portrait.

  • Jerry W. Venz

    I was wondering if somebody was going to comment about the source of this technique–MY teacher Leon Kennamer! Nice to hear that somebody had the experience of his wisdom–most photographers have never heard of him. I had the pleasure of one-on-one instuction by Leon (along with a very small class) for a whole week, at PPC’s West Coast School, at the Brook’s Institute, over 20-years ago. He was brilliant in his use of “Gobos” on individuals but I had to adapt his technique, using natural large gobos, for my group portraits. To this day his words are always in my mind when looking for the light at a new location, “The light is at the edge of the forrest.”

  • mur_phy

    As mentioned, the convention was created by well know Canadian photographer, Al Gilbert for whom I was both photographer and movie man at that time. A few years later I had the pleasure of learning under the tutelage for a week long with Joe Zeltsman. Learning lighting, posing etc from many fine photographers in those years allowed me to have a successful career for 33 years as photographer and teacher before retiring in 2000 just short of 57 years. I still enjoy viewing and learning the techniques of photographers to this day.

  • arkhunter

    Yes, this is what I was thinking too. Gobo=patterned thing to go between the light and subject, casting some sort of shadow pattern, a flag would be to block light form the subject or even the camera lens.

  • Sohi Videostill

    best photography .

  • I’ve always known this as a flag, not a gobo. A gobo is a light modifier that leaves a pattern of light.

  • Jerry W. Venz


    a dark plate or screen used to shield a lens from light.

    a partial screen used in front of a spotlight to project a shape.

    a shield used to mask a microphone from extraneous noise.

    Chris, I don’t come from the theater world, but from the motion picture world, and we called what you are describing a cucoloris. A gobo (or flag) is used to “go between” the light source and your subject and thus blocking light. The point here is not haggling over terminology, but the use of these tools to control light…what every you want to call them.

  • Gah! You’re right. I worked in video and TV for 20 years, and for some reason, I had a brain fart. Yeah, we call them cucolorises, or cookies. I did some theater work too, so I may have just transposed the two.

  • Brooklyn Born

    I have always been confused because I have seen “gobo” used both ways. Glad to know I’m not crazy.

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