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Photos and blog by Brian Yungblut

The origin of the term cookaloris is entirely unknown and its etymology is shrouded in mystery and debate, with a number of Hollywood myths attempting to shed light on the matter. Even the spelling of the term varies (I’ve found cuculoris, kookaloris and cucalorus variations). Despite its fuzzy history, however, it is generally accepted that the technique was first discovered in the film industry. In the early days of filmmaking, leaves on a tree branch partially blocking sunlight striking a wall or scene would show an interesting pattern. This lead to irregular patterns being cut out of sheets of plywood to act as a “gobo” (go-between) to replicate the effect; and the cookaloris was born.

The resulting light pattern is termed “chiaroscuro”, an Italian word meaning “light/dark”. This lighting effect is notably referenced from paintings of the 17th century.  Painters of this early era used light and shadow as a device to direct the viewers’ attention, set a mood, create drama, and add interest to their artwork.  

model featuring cookaloris lighting

 You can create chiaroscuro in the studio using any object between your background light and your backdrop. In my first studio I had a large clay vase on a plinth that I could turn at angles and created endless patterns on my backdrop for interesting effect. A potted plant can also work very well but it’s cumbersome, difficult to manipulate, and not something you want to transport. However, keep this in mind if ever you are on location, say shooting in a hotel lobby; use what is on hand to add drama to your image.

There are simple options for constructing a cookie; a good option for studio use is to cut out patterns from a sheet of construction paper or mat board. I find that heavy construction paper works very well; it’s easy to cut out and can be easily rolled for storage or travel.  This construction paper cookie can be clipped to a light stand or light boom in front of your studio background light. Organic shapes work best when you are using the device to add interest to a plain backdrop or hide unwanted information from a cluttered scene. You can also add some fun to a shot using known patterns like star shapes; or try circles to simulate bokeh. 


Note that the color of construction paper used may affect your results.  Black or white paper will create the same pattern and diffusion, but white paper will create softer fall off where black paper will create a little more contrast. This difference is less noticeable as your cookie is placed further from your light source. Double sided black paper will help limit bounce back from your light source.

As you move the cookie further away from your backdrop and closer to your light source, you blur the edges and mingle the shapes of your cut out pattern. The closer your cookie is to your backdrop, the more in focus your pattern detail will appear; but the cookie size will need to increase for the same coverage.

Additionally, a cookaloris can be put to use in front of a key or fill light for dramatic effect.  You will often see evident use of a cookaloris in the movies on an actor’s close up. For example, patterns such as rippling blue water or sparkling gold reflections will be illuminated on the actor’s face using a cookie lit from below with a colored gel.

To make the effect of the cookaloris stand out, that is to increase the contrast between light and dark, you may need to scrim your other lights to keep them from spilling onto your backdrop.

model featuring chiaroscuro lighting effect

Remember that cool colors recede and warm colors appear closer if you want to add depth to your final image. For example, if your model is wearing an orange dress, using a cold-colored background will give the illusion of increased depth. Try a second cookaloris in front of your main light or fill light and place it to project a pattern onto your model’s torso. This will add a more narrative feel to your image, help vignette your frame, and direct attention to your subject.  

Whether you are shooting stills or video, the variety of applications for a cookaloris are only limited by your imagination.

Have fun, take chances…


Model: Jolease Genge

Styling: Jolas Design

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