Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Spinning Fire with Steel Wool Photography

You can achieve spectacular long exposure fire shots using burning steel wool and a few simple supplies. This article will lay out exactly what you will need and how to prepare to safely experiment with this technique.

steel wool photography, photography, steel wool, spinning fire, how to


The supplies needed for spinning steel wool are simple, inexpensive, and can be easily obtained at your local hardware store. First, you need steel wool. Not the scrubbing brushes sold in the grocery store, but the abrasive steel wool for cleaning and polishing. Super fine grade steel wool (#0000) is recommended for its ability to throw sparks, but you can have success using any of the fine grades (up to #0). A package of 12 pads costs around $6 at the hardware store.

Supplies needed for steel wool photography
Second, you need a system for spinning the steel wool. For this, you will need a wire whisk (no plastic handles), a key ring, and a short length of chain, around 2-3 feet. I found the key ring and cut-to-order chain for $1 a foot at the hardware store, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond had a set of three wire whisks for $4. (Although I was also able to find some very inexpensive wire whisks at the thrift shop, they were missing a ring on the end to attach to the chain.)

You will also need something to ignite the steel wool. You can use a 9V battery and simply rub it into the steel wool until it ignites, or you can use matches or a lighter.

Finally, for safety’s sake, you should wear long pants and long sleeves, as well as a hat, to protect your hair and body. Darker clothing will help you blend into the shadows and disappear from the picture. You may also want to consider gloves and protective glasses or goggles. Be sure to have a filter on your lens to protect it from sparks. You should also bring a wet blanket or a jug of water to extinguish any small sparks that might catch.


You want to choose a location that is safe as well as photographically interesting. An ideal location would include a non-flammable surface, flooring, and possibly structures. The images for this article were taken at a state park inside the remnants of a stone barn with a concrete floor. Some spinning was done on the grass just outside the barn structure, but this was after a period of nearly two weeks of constant rain. Other popular locations for steel wool spinning include tunnels, such as the now-abandoned train tunnels along bike trails, or beaches. Put simply, you want to be sure that there is nothing easily flammable within at least a ten-to-twenty foot radius of the spinner, as it is the still-burning chunks of steel wool flying out of the whisk that create the fantastic sparks and light trails.

Choose a safe location for steel wool photography.
The remains of this stone barn has a concrete floor.

Steel wool spinning works best in lower light situations that allow for an extended shutter, but it depends on the mood and feeling of the image that you are trying to create. An ideal time for such photography is during the ‘blue hour,’ a period of roughly an hour from after the sun sets, when twilight occurs and the sky records as remarkable shades of deep blue on the camera. It is during this period when you have the best chance of recording long, vibrant exposures of the steel wool in combination with the rest of the scenery. Images taken after the blue hour will rely solely on the light of the steel wool itself, darkly rendering the rest of the image.

steel wool photography, photography, steel wool, spinning fire, how to, long exposure photography, night photography
During the blue hour (left), you will be able to maintain color in the sky and background,
while later on in the evening (right), the sky will render as black.
Blue Hour Steel Wool Photography by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Evening Steel Wool Photography by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Making the Shot

You will have the most success photographing steel wool if you have your camera on a tripod and use a remote shutter release. (See this article for how to use your tripod to its maximum potential.) You do not need a DSLR camera, but you need to be able to manually set the shutter speed on your point-and-shoot. I found that a shutter speed of 8-10 seconds rendered a good portion of spins and sparks, while also allowing me to capture two to four images for each time spinning. I started with an aperture of around f/14 during the blue hour and stopped down to my widest, f/3.5, as the night deepened. There is also a lot of creative preference here for what you are looking to capture in your image. If you want more spins and sparks, use a longer shutter. If you want more of the background exposed, use a longer shutter or a wider aperture.

You may need to assist your camera in finding the proper focus. The easiest way to do this is to have the person spinning stand in place, shine a flashlight on them if it is too dark, and focus the camera. Then turn the autofocus off, and your lens will remain focused on that spot. With a point-and-shoot you may need to wait until the person starts spinning and use the fire to focus.

steel wool photography, photography, steel wool, spinning fire, how to, long exposure photography, night photography
Steel wool orb shot using a point and shoot camera (by Jessica)

I highly recommend that you practice spinning the whisk on the chain before placing and lighting the steel wool. You want to hold your arm out straight, parallel to the ground, and spin the whisk in a circle parallel to your body. As you get more comfortable, you can also try things like spinning the circle above your head, turning your body around while spinning, or walking side-to-side while spinning to create spirals.

Once you are ready to go, load one or two steel wool pads into the whisk. Fluff them up once inside for maximum oxygen and sparks. Then light them using any of the methods above (battery, matches, lighter, etc.). The steel wool will smolder until you start spinning. The motion through the air will feed the fire and create the bursting sparks. You will have more sparks the faster you spin. Continue spinning until the fire is extinguished or your arm gets tired. Have a place designated where you can rest the whisk and remaining stump of steel wool until it is cool enough to reuse.

Those are the basics; the rest is up to you. Try different motions or angles. Think about having multiple people spinning or use props, such as a wet umbrella. Spin closer or farther from walls and floors to see how the sparks bounce and react. Try different locations or backdrops. But above all, have fun and be safe.

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