Using Everyday Objects For Making Outstanding Backdrops

I am a big fan of using simple objects or DIYing solutions in my photograph. One thing I always like doing is using a Gobo (photography lingo fo go-between) to make any plain background stand out. Nowadays, I am using a device called the Light Blaster which can act as a dedicated gobo projector, but before I got it, I DIYed my own patterns for the background.

Feature Image

So here are examples of everyday objects I use to create some cool patterns on the background.

Christmas lights and light stands

When I was starting out and practicing photography I always tried to look at shots that inspired me, and try to replicate it to practice my lighting. One shot that I wanted to try was a famous shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair of Lance Armstrong.annie-leibovitz-lance-armstrong

I knew that when shooting my model he would have to be very still, but I still wanted my photo to show some motion.

The first thing I did was to place a softbox above the subject as the main light. I knew that I needed to use a a “slow flash” (i.e. have a “long” flash burst) so the water will show some motion. I used a cheap studio strobe that I knew had a slow flash duration. My camera was set on timer mode to allow me enough time to go by the model side and splash some water on him for when the shutter clicked (talk about low budget).

Because of the slow flash duration, you could actually see some blur on the droplets hinting of right to left motion which made the shot look like the model was moving.

Chirstmas lights Setup Shot
Next challenge was the background. It was too plain. I wanted to add a little bit of spunk to it, so what I did was placing 2 light stands and hanging some Christmas lights between them. But I did not use the Christmas lights for producing any light. Instead, I got a speedlight and gelled it blue, and shot it thru the mesh Christmas lights. This got me some texture on on the background.

Christmas lights gobo

Here is the final shot:

Final Shot Christmas Lights

Punched Cardboard

This was a part of my 365 project – shooting a portrait a day for one year. I really wanted a matrix theme shot :) It’s just me, I know. For lighting I used a mainlight above the subject shot through a softbox, and two speedlights back left and right for the kickers.

Cardboard Setup Shot
I had a green gelled flash pointed at the background, but I was just getting a plain boring green background. I wanted a little bit of texture. I had a cardboard lying around so I got some scissors and just cut some holes in the cardboard and placed it in front of my strobe so I got some textures on my background.

Cardboard Diy

Final Shot

Cardboard Final ShotThe basket

I always bring this blue basket whenever I have a workshop outside the studio. I found it in our kitchen but never brought it back ever since (this got me in whole lot of other troublesm but this is for another post). This is the item I use to show the participants that you can use everyday objects to make your light more interesting.

For this shot I placed the basket behind the subject with a CTB gelled flash inside.

Basket Setup Shot

Basket Final Shot

Now if you just move the basket just a few feet away it will give you all kinds of  different patterns. Here is what it looks like if you place a bare flash inside the basket.

Basket without gel

But to make it a bit more interesting, I normally gel the flash with a CTO gel, this gets a nice sunset feel to the photo.

Basket with cto

Setup Shot

Setup Shot

The final output will look like this

Basket Final Shot

A plant (you knew this was coming)


I got a plant from our garden and placed it right in front of my flash to get some leaves effect pattern on the background. For the main light I placed some CTO gel with a small softbox on the right of the subject. And for the background light, I placed a speedlight with a CTB gel shooting thru the plant on my left.

THe biology of the plant gives a nice random pattern, and if you want a quick change you can always rotate the plant a bit.

Plant Setup Shot

Plant Final Setup

Those were just a few ideas for using everyday objects as a gobo for your photo. What do you use?

  • Adley Haywood

    Great ideas! Have you ever used a ring light to light your subject? I love the catchlight in the eyes.

    I used it last weekend and this was the result.

  • James M. Drake, Jr.

    Nice! Thanks for sharing!

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    Be sure to play with the distance between the strobe, the gobo and the background, this can give you a lot of variation from just one object.