Are you one of those photographers who like playing with fire? (And I’m not using a metaphor here. I mean actual fire!) If yes, you will love steel wool photography. It’s both exciting and dangerous as it sounds. To maximize the fun and minimize the danger, read these tips and tricks before you start experimenting.
But first, let’s see what steel wool photography is. Again, I have to stress that steel wool isn’t a metaphor. It’s a heap of very fine steel fibers that is usually used for cleaning and smoothing a surface. What makes it great for photography is the fact that it’s highly combustible.
Basically, when you ignite and spin it in a dark area, it will create light painting effects that will look absolutely stunning on a photo. The best news – steel wool photography is not even that difficult to do it. And it will cost very little or even nothing.
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What Do I Need for Steel Wool Photography?
- A camera. And it doesn’t even need to be a fancy one. All it needs to have is manual mode, as you will need to manually set the exposure.
- A tripod. You will need to mount the camera onto a tripod in order to keep it absolutely still.
- Protective clothes. When you start spinning the wool, the embers will fly everywhere around you. To prevent burns, you need to wear clothes made of natural fibers, a pair of gloves, hat and safety goggles. If you want the subject (person who is spinning the wool) to be invisible, have them wear black.
- Steel wool, obviously. You can get it either online or in a hardware store, but make sure to choose the finest possible grade. Take this as a rule of thumb: the more zeros it has, the more sparks you’ll get. Don’t even try to use grades above 1.
- A steel whisk. There are just two things to avoid here: silicone, since it will melt, and whisks without loops. We need the loop so we can attach the string. If you really plan on playing a lot with this type of photography, you might as well get a set of whisks.
- A string, rope, chain, or dog leash. You need to attach it onto the loop of the whisk.
- A lighter or a battery. I find that a battery does a much more elegant job at lighting up the wool than a lighter. All you need to do is touch the wool with the battery.
As soon as you have all the stuff, the fun with steel wool photography can begin. Just stuff a bit of wool into the whisk. Fluffing it up might help get more sparks. Attach the string to it, wear your clothes, and set up the camera. When everything is set, light up the wool and start spinning – above your head, in spirals, or just about any other way that comes to your mind. Possibilities are virtually endless!
“Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.” – Ansel Adams
Since you’ll want to snap the shapes that the wool makes in the air while spinning, it’s only logical to use long shutter speeds – anywhere between 5 and 30 seconds. Just try and experiment with different exposure times. Now you understand why a tripod is necessary for this operation – it just wouldn’t be possible to get sharp images without it.
As for ISO, let it be the standard rating of 100. You will need crisp images, without any noise. That’s why pumping up the ISO would risk ruining your otherwise cool shots.
And yes, you might want to try and protect your lens with a filter. This advice stands for those of you with deeper pockets, since high-quality protective filters tend to be outrageously expensive. But if you have a top-notch camera and lenses, you should also have such a filter to use on occasions like this one.
“I became obsessed with the storytelling of photography and going on little adventures.” – Cole Sprouse
Additional Safety Tips
- Find a place that is completely dark, without any people, wooden elements, or anything that could easily catch fire. It would be safest to choose a wet environment, near a standing water, or after rain or snow. Also, make sure there is no wind if you don’t want it to ruin your lightshow.
- It wouldn’t hurt to have a fire extinguisher. Cram it up your trunk so you could easily get a solution in case something goes wrong.
- When the session is done, make sure to check the entire area. Wildfire is the last thing you need. First time I tried it, I spent two hours investigating the area afterward.
- Make sure there are no people, children, animals around. Trust me: if you do this right, the sparks will fly everywhere.
- If you aren’t absolutely confident about your skills, maybe it’s best not to even try steel wool photography. It’s easy to perform, but comes with a risk. I’m not writing this article to cause anyone to get hurt. I am just writing it for those who want a taste of adventure and awesome photos as a result of it.