Everybody loves making cookies, right? Well, in this case, it’s especially true if you’re talking to studio photographers and referring to the kind of cookies that help make artificial light look more natural.
What’s a cookie in this context? It’s slang for a cucoloris—a sheet of wood, metal or foamcore with a pattern cut out of it, through which light is shone in order to project a pattern on a scene. A cookie is a type of gobo—a light modifier placed between the source and the scene and used to alter the look and feel of the lighting.
Cookies like this are used regularly in your favorite TV shows and movies. See the light on the background wall that appears to be sunlight filtering through a tree’s foliage? Well if that set is on a studio lot, chances are that’s actually a hot light through a cookie.
Cookies can be angular zigzag shapes to create linear slashes and simply break up otherwise flat and even illumination or they can be made of more organic shapes to give the appearance of leaves and foliage. They can even be mocked up to match window mullions or really any other shape through which a light might shine.
You can buy cookies straight from studio suppliers of grip accessories (such as Matthews and American, for instance) or you can make your own. The key if you’re making a cookie is to ensure it’s flame resistant. The manufacturers offer cookies made from wood or wire (the former creates a contrastier pattern, while the latter allows more light through the entirety of the cookie for a subtler pattern), but homemade cookies can be made from simply cutting black foil or even foamcore if they won’t be used with hot lights or placed close to strobes.
Because cookie patterns are adjusted by moving them closer or farther from the light source, the farther from the source, the more distinct and sharp-edged the shadow pattern will be. So if you want a subtler pattern, the easiest approach is to use a piece of black cinefoil and simply use an Exacto knife to cut small organic or geometric shapes in the foil. Then that inflammable foil can be placed close to the light source and bent into shape and manually adjusted to change the positioning of the pattern.
A foamcore cookie will be longer lasting, but it’s crucial these cookies aren’t placed close to light sources. When what you want is a more distinct pattern, though, the cookie can be placed 18 inches or more from the light source and closer to the subject in order to cast strong, sharp-edged shadows onto the scene.
To make a cookie on foamcore, first sketch out the pattern you’d like to create, then use an Exacto knife to cut out the pattern. Be sure not to be too precious with your pattern as it will become indistinct as the light comes through. And don’t worry too much about clean edges on your cuts. That’s the beauty of a cucoloris: there’s no single correct way to make one, and they can be cut in whatever way looks appealing to you.
One other common and simple approach to make artificial light look more natural is to use a plant—a tree branch or potted plant, fully real or even artificial—to modify the light source. In the example shown here, it’s easy to see how the branches and foliage definitely dapple the light and make it look more natural. Just be careful with this, too, that you don’t place the plant or any cucoloris or gobo too close to the light source.