Steel Wool Spinning

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Steel wool spinning tutorial

Photography opportunities don’t finish once the light gets low. If you have a cable release and a good tripod then the creative possibilities continue well into dusk.  The photo above was taken when it was nearly dark and shows the type of dramatic images you can make at this time of evening. You can create similar images yourself with little more than some steel wool, a whisk and some string. Here’s how.

What you need

  • Steel wool.
  • A whisk.
  • String.
  • A cigarette lighter.
  • Masking tape.
  • Fire extinguisher.
  • Protective clothing.
  • Willing helper.
  • Dramatic location.
  • A camera with manual mode, cable release (or remote), tripod, wide-angle lens, UV filter and lens hood.
  • Common sense. Fire is dangerous, so exercise all due caution with these techniques. I’m not responsible if you burn yourself or set something alight!

How to do it

The steel wool spinning technique is very simple (and a lot of fun). Take a wad of steel wool, pull the strands apart (to let the air in) and stuff it inside the whisk. I used masking tape to hold it in place as the steel wool had a tendancy to fly out before it had fully burnt. Then tie some string to the end of the whisk. Get your helper to set the steel wool alight with the cigarette lighter and then use the string to whirl the whisk around in the air. The burning steel wool escapes from the whisk and flies to the ground, creating bright orange light trails. All that’s left for you to do is find a good viewpoint and take the photo.

Camera technique

When we tried this we found the steel wool burned for around 10 seconds or so before fizzing out. I used a shutter speed of 15 seconds for each photo. I set the exposure mode to manual and used settings of ISO 400, f13 and 15 seconds throughout the shoot. This seemed to work well. The background was too bright in the first few images, so I darkened it in post-processing. In the last couple of photos the sky is almost pitch black thanks to the fading light.

You’ll get a dramatic image with a wide-angle lens. The first time Kathryn spun the wool I positioned the tripod well back so I could see where the steel wool was falling. Then for the next shot I moved the tripod forward so it was on the edge of the falling sparks. I stepped back from the camera after pressing the cable release (a remote would be even better) to avoid the sparks. I fitted the lens with a UV filter and lens hood so that the front element wouldn’t be damaged if any burning metal hit it.

I used manual focus. I focused on Kathryn before she started spinning the steel wool and let the small aperture take care of depth-of-field. As it got darker I couldn’t see her clearly in the viewfinder, so I used Live View. In Live View the camera amplifies the image so you can see it more clearly on the LCD screen. You can also use the magnify button to zoom in on the spot where you want to focus. This makes it much easier to see if the lens is focused where you want.

Observations

  • Burning steel wool is hot. The person doing the spinning needs to cover up as much as possible. A hat and safety goggles are a good idea.
  • The same goes for the photographer, if you are within range of the sparks.
  • The steel wool flies off a long way. Make sure you’re trying this in a location where no-one else will walk close by.
  • Don’t try this somewhere with flammable material or dry grass nearby. Take a fire extinguisher in case you set something alight.
  • We took these images in a set of deserted WWII bunkers near Wellington. The location was ideal because I could position the camera below, above and level with Kathryn to create this set of images. Also, being concrete, we couldn’t accidentally set the bunkers on fire.
  • Shoot Raw. That way you can adjust colour temperature in post-processing (I used a setting of around 9200K for most of these).

More inspiration

Take a look at the photos of Jules Marshall and the Spinning Wool Flickr group to see how other photographers are creating dramatic images with steel wool spinning. They use a variety of techniques including using gelled flash to light the background during the long exposure.

These articles will give you some background on the photography techniques used to create the images on this page:

Using Manual Mode

Playing with Fire

More photos

Here are some more images from the shoot:

Steel wool spinning tutorial

Steel wool spinning tutorial

Steel wool spinning tutorial

Steel wool spinning tutorial

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