In the world of lighting design, gobos are often a go-to tool. While they may look like simple discs, once in place, they can completely transform a space, imbuing an area with patterns or designs through the strategic use of light and shadow.
If you are curious about gobos, including what they are, how productions use them, and what kinds are available, here’s everything you need to know.
What Is a Gobo?
A gobo is a piece of equipment or lighting tool that allows a person to project an image using light. The word gobo is an acronym derived from “goes before optics,” which alludes to it’s physical position on a fixture. It’s essentially a cap or template that sits in front of a light source. That way, when light shines through, only part of it makes it past, causing the light projection to create a shape.
The resulting shape could be created by either the light portion or the shadow portion of the design. It all depends on the goal of the final look.
One of the most widely known examples of the gobo concept is Batman’s bat-signal. The spotlight has a cap placed on it with cutout spots that create Batman’s symbol. That template is a gobo.
When Are Gobos Used?
Gobos are more common in the stage lighting world. They can be excellent additions to events and concerts, and they also make their way into the theatre.
Now, does this mean that you’ll never see gobos in television and film lighting? Not necessarily. They can be great additions to any scene where placing light and shadows incredibly strategically is a necessity.
Additionally, gobos are used in still photography. Again, a gobo allows a person to project light and shadow in a particular way, so photographers may use them for artistic shots, model photoshoots, product photos, food photography, and much more.
In the end, gobos allow anyone to place shadows strategically. For example, a gobo for an event may create a light projection with a company logo, a band’s name, or a featured speaker’s name.
With productions or photography, a gobo can cast shapes that augment the scene. For example, a gobo could create a pattern that mimics light passing through gridded window panes.
Ultimately, gobos are used any time a light designer wants to project a light and shadow-based image that isn’t occurring naturally in a space. It can be purely decorative, or it may work as a type of special effect.
The Different Kinds of Gobos
A steel gobo features a design that’s cut out from a piece of metal. The sections that are cut out dictate the design that appears when light is shone through.
One benefit of steel gobos is durability. The material itself is tough, so it can stand up to heavy use, being dropped, and being hit against hard surfaces.
However, steel gobos also come with drawbacks. Depending on the design, connecting pieces of metal may have to stay in place to sustain the design. For example, if you want to project the letter “O,” the center of the O can’t simply float in space. It’ll need some metal connectors to hold it to the template, which some may consider less than ideal.
Glass gobos work a lot like steel gobos, allowing a design to be applied that dictates where the light shines through. However, glass gobos feature printed designs instead of cutout ones. As a result, there is no need for the connecting pieces like you’d find in certain steel gobo templates.
Additionally, since the design is printed, it may support greater complexity. This makes it an ideal approach for intricate projections that may be too hard to cut out of steel.
Unlike steel gobos, it’s also possible to create color glass gobos. The approach is similar to stained glass, where areas of the design are tinted by also transparent enough to allow light to shine through, adding color to the light projection.
When it comes to drawbacks, the material itself is usually the biggest one. Comparatively speaking, glass is fragile, so it’s more likely to be damaged if dropped or hit against a hard surface.
Also known as transparency gobos, plastic gobos, like glass, can be full color. They also do reasonably well when it comes to durability. They aren’t as fragile as glass but are less robust than metal, putting in the middle.
When it comes to drawbacks, the biggest one is that plastic gobos can only be used with LED lights. Other lights, like halogen bulbs, run very hot. So much so that the high temperature has the ability to melt the plastic. If a cooling element isn’t used, or if it fails while the light is on, the plastic gobo will usually end up ruined in a matter of seconds.
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