A beginner's guide to steel wool photography

A beginner's guide to steel wool photography

Cover photo by Mukti Ariawan

6 top tips for taking photos of spins, spirals and sparks in the dark

Ignite some steel wool and sparks will fly! One of the most stunning ways of painting with light, spinning steel wool in darkness can produce spirals of light, burning rain and other dramatic effects.

However, it pays to know exactly what you're doing, how to stay safe and how to get the best results from a steel wool shoot. Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

1 Equipment 

The first thing you need to buy, of course, is a bag of fine steel wool bales. Available from your local hardware store or online, steel wool is often used to clean and polish objects and surfaces. It’s sold in various grades, with the finest ‘0000’ grade the best suited to photography. However, that's not all you need. Perhaps the most important other thing you need to have is a small metal whisk to put the steel wool in. It needs to have some kind of loop at the bottom because you also need to attach a cable about 5 ft./1.5 meters long to your steel wool spinner. You can get away with some string, but it's better to use something a little more sturdy and less flammable, such as a length of steel chain. You'll also need some kind of lighter to ignite the steel wool.

Playing with steel wool by Robert Váverka - f/10 | 30s | ISO 100
Author tip:

Whether you intend to take photos or create a slo-mo video, it's really important for you to keep your camera completely still. So a sturdy tripod is absolutely essential. It’s also best to shoot in the raw format so you can more easily post-process images. 

2 Staying safe

Steel wool photography is dangerous. You shouldn't be trying to attempt this on your own and nor should you cut any corners when it comes to safety. When you light the wool it will burn at 1,300Fº/700ºC for about 10 or 20 seconds. Whoever is going to be spinning the steel wool needs to be wearing proper eye protection, protective gloves, a hat and sensible, expendable clothing (for example, a tough woolen or canvas coat is going to be a lot less risky than, say, a thin nylon raincoat). Either way it’s important to cover the spinner’s skin.

"Steel wool photography is dangerous. You shouldn't be trying to attempt this on your own and nor should you cut any corners when it comes to safety."
Man made volcano by Fiona Montgomery - f/16 | 25s | ISO 100
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It’s sensible to practice beforehand and prepare for accidents. Before anyone reaches for a lighter the spinner should rehearse spinning the whisk attached to the chain in all kinds of different ways so they’re absolutely comfortable with what they’re about to do. You should also have a bottle of water handy just in case you accidentally set something on fire.

3 Camera settings

The exact settings you use to get the effects you want from spinning flaming steel wool will depend on your lens, the ambient light levels and your camera’s distance from the steel wool. However, a good place to start is – in manual mode – ISO 100 or ISO 200, f/8-f/16 and an exposure of between 10 and 30 seconds. Try a test shot or two to see what works best. You'll probably find that the daylight setting gives you the most accurate colors in the orange sparks flying from the steel wool. You may be able to take a couple of shots per bale of steel wool, but also bear in mind that your camera could well be still exposing when the steel wool stops burning. So ask your assistant to remain where they are even after they’ve stopped spinning the whisk.

"Something I love to do and that lets me be very creative is Steel wool photography... most people don't don't really know what it is but you have probably seen the results at one time or another.... What you can create is so awesome and the photo's created are fantastic...."

Steel Wool and the Bus by Andre von Nickisch - Rosenegk - f/5.6 | 30s | ISO 400
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Since you're going to be working in low light levels or darkness you‘ll need to manually focus your camera. Ask your assistant to stand in the place where they're going to spin the steel wool. Then simply shine a flashlight on them and manually adjust your focus using Live View on your camera.

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4 Get your timing right

Although you need it to be dark for your camera to pick up the lights from the burning steel wool, you don't necessarily want it to be completely dark. Although the burning steel wool will give off enough light to gently illuminate the surroundings, it's better to let nature do that and so shoot at twilight. That way, not only do you get the background really standing out in your pictures, but you also get rapidly changing light levels and, if you're lucky, interesting colors in the post sunset sky. Of course, the problem with shooting at twilight is that you'll have to constantly adjust your settings to allow for the quickly receding light levels.

Steel wool photo during sunset in Lampung, Indonesia. Photo by Mukti Ariawan - f/8 | 16s | ISO 640
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Exactly what lens you choose to put on your camera will affect the settings, but also your composition. A wide angle lens is usually best because it will allow you to capture a wide area of flying sparks. It's wise to use a protective glass UV filter to prevent any sparks from hitting your lens, which might preclude you from using fisheye lenses.

5 Think about location

When you are deciding where to go to do your steel wool shoot you need to think about composition, but also safety. For example, it would be idiotic to spin burning steel world anywhere near dry grass or old wooden buildings. Choose a location where flying sparks aren't going to cause any problems, such as wide open grassland after a lot of rainfall, a deserted beach, a cave or a concrete floor in a deserted building (not wooden). No wood – including trees – shouldn’t be anywhere nearby. Wet ground is not only safe, but can also encourage reflections of sparks. If you can stand the cold, another really interesting time to do a steel wool shoot is after heavy snow.

Fire show in an ice cave, Iceland. Photo by Suranga Weeratunga
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You should think carefully about what you want to have in the backdrop of your images. After all, a composition that merely features steel wool circles against a black background isn't going to be very interesting. 

6 Be creative

There are lots of different effects you can get when photographing burning steel wool. Exactly how the steel wool spins makes a big difference, but so does your composition. For example, steel wool can be spun above the head, or vertically to the side. The spinner can stay in one place as a spin, or they can move as they do so. As the photographer you can change the effect according to where you place the camera. One option is to have the sparks flying right towards the camera, which can be an interesting effect, but you can also capture an area of the composition where sparks are falling from above (an example of that is to get someone to block the sparks with an old umbrella).

A shower of magic and light by Karen Regan - f/5.6 | 8s | ISO 200
Author tip:

You don't really want to be standing beside your camera when the steel wool is ignited. It's much safer if you set up your camera in advance and retreat to a safe distance. So a sensible piece of equipment for steel wool shoots is a shutter release cable or an intervalometer (which may be built-in to your camera) so you can trigger a series of exposures from afar. The alternative is to set a shutter delay on your camera.