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And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire…

It certainly does – at least for a little while. And it’s a beautiful sight to behold. Am I talking about love, or steel wool spinning? Maybe both!

As a photographer, you’re (probably) interested in the latter. Steel wool is one of the greatest first steps into the world of long exposure photography. What? ‘Steel’ burns!? When it’s ultra-thin – yep. Burning steel wool can be whirled and spun to create fiery, artistic patterns, with sparks dancing across the landscape.

This article will provide you with a step-by-step guide to reproduce your own clichéd…*cough* contemporary art masterpiece. Enjoy!

Equipment Checklist:

DSLR / Mirrorless Camera

Lens (ideally 10-50mm)

Sturdy Tripod

(Optional) Remote Shutter

Metal ‘Cage’ Whisk (Large)

Steel Cable (4 ft & 1/16” thick)

Steel Wool (Size #0000)

Flashlight

Lighter

(Recommended) A hat, hoodie and gloves

The Location

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Photo courtesy of Vincent Cogliandro

With steel wool photography, location really is everything (as with all photography). Spinning in a mediocre location will result in a mediocre photograph. A great steel wool photo masters symmetry and perspective. Here are some tips:

  • Take the picture during the blue hour. This’ll give you just enough light to reveal the environment, but enough darkness to ensure a longer exposure + make your sparks nice and distinctive. Tip: plan your short 20 minutes beforehand so you aren’t scrambling in the dark.
  • Use abandoned buildings, tunnels, and water. These locations are safe (don’t spin near dry grass/wood!). They’ll also give you some great opportunities for your sparks to create interesting, artistic outlines. Bonus: you won’t get arrested.
  • Avoid artificial light. This could ruin your shot. Bonus: the stars and the moon appear in your shot.

 

The Method

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Photo courtesy of Luke Strothman

So, you’ve picked your location. Great job. You should be getting paid for this. It’s time to get down to business. You should be geared up – with hoodies, hats, gloves…and fireproof gloves if you’re a little wimpy. It’s easiest to do with a volunteer, but you can also manage it alone – with a little effort (used timed or remote shutter mode).

Here’s the process, step-by-step, to create your very own fiery masterpiece:

Setting Up

  1. Connect your steel cable to the end of your whisk’s handle. This is your ‘whirler’- the thing you’ll be spinning to create glorious, burning rings of fire.
  2. Stuff the whisk with steel wool. Fill it up.
  3. Set your tripod + camera up in your chosen location. Frame the shot. Set it to ‘B (bulb)’ mode, manually focus on the spot where you’ll be spinning. Set ISO to 100-1600, and your aperture to 8-22 (depends on how much you want in focus). Set it the shutter to remote release mode.

Creative Tips: Try wide-angle shots from a lower perspective. Try a telephoto perspective in a larger, urban space. Choose a tight, narrow tunnel for interesting spark outlines. Use an umbrella or other interesting objects for your sparks to interact with.

Getting The Shot

  1. With your camera and steel wool rig set up, go to your spinning locatio Light the steel wool.
  2. Now, spin your rig in a circle with about 1 metre of loose cable. Try not to change the circle’s shaping too much. Best results come from a frontal circle rather than overhead.
  3. Activate the shutter at the beginning of the spin. Use a shutter speed of 10-20 seconds. A timer might be useful here if you’re using ‘Bulb’ mode.
  4. Examine the shot. Too dark? Increase the exposure compensation. Too bright? Lower it. Blurry? Focus properly (use a torchlight to help). Is the fire-ring undefined? Spin more consistently.

Creative Tips: Try spinning and moving your position for a spiral-effect. Use a figure of eight or under-and-over spinning methods for some interesting effects.

Make sure the results of your spinning hasn’t caused any minor fires (just to be sure!). Continue experimenting with different locations, angles, settings and techniques.

Steel wool spinning is far from unique. However, with a little creativity, out-the-box thinking, and bravery (optional), you could achieve some extraordinary results.

If you have any questions about steel wool spinning, or just want to show off your hard-earned results, comment below!

 

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