A Beginners Guide to Steel Wool Photography
Warning: Steel wool photography can dangerous. Don’t practice what you’re about to learn just anywhere. Be smart.
The night lit up orange above Northampton’s skate park as sparks flew from a whistling piece of a burning piece of metal raining down around me. Sparks sizzled and popped as I spun it in a whizzing circle in front of me, exploding onto the concrete and shooting off into the darkness like spokes on a bicycle tire.
“Now!” I called to Bryan, a fellow photographer standing about thirty feet away in front of a camera tripod. I could see him playing with dials through the circle of fire in front of me.
Above the whistle and sizzle, I heard the distinct sound of a DSLR camera shutter snap open: “shick.”
I stood in the center of a concrete bowl, surrounded by graffiti and old beer cans. The air became hot. Then, suddenly, the metal burned itself out and quickly turned cold and black. A second later I heard the shutter close.
It’s called “steel wool photography,” and it’s not hard to do.
Step 1: What You’ll Need
First, you’ll need a camera capable of locking its shutter open for at least 10 to 30 seconds. Any DSLR will do, or if you’re into film an SLR should work. In addition, you’ll need a tripod, wire baking whisk, shoelace, 9-volt battery, and steel wool. Here’s the full list:
Wide angle lens
Wire baking whisk
9-volt square battery
Grade #0000 steel wool
Steel wool – exactly as it sounds, extremely fine steel in wool form – can be found in any hardware or large department store, such as Walmart. Make sure to the finest grade available, grade #0000, it makes a huge difference. A lighter can be substituted for the battery; however, a battery is more efficient.
Also, the whisk must have a loop hook of some sort attached to the handle, and the lens should be able to be focused manually. If you wish to get creative, bring an external flash.
I highly recommend wearing proper safety equipment including clear glasses, gloves, a baseball cap, and an oversized hooded sweatshirt. Bring a few small flashlights, and water bottles to flush eyes in case of emergency.
Step 2: Where to Go
Find a dark parking lot other paved space without grass that has privacy and not too many dry leaves. It’s important to find someplace private because spinning steel wool looks a lot more dangerous than it is. I’ve been questioned about it a few times by passing police officers, but have never been harassed.
Abandoned places are unique for spinning wool, as are places with water because of reflection.
Also, keep in mind that sparks could set things on fire. Make sure to check your surroundings for anything dry enough to ignite, or dangerous enough to explode, before you start spinning.
Step 3: Prepare
Wait until it’s dark. Then, inside the car or somewhere with light, tie one end of the shoelace securely to the hook on the handle of the baking whisk. Let the other end drop free. It should look like a medieval weapon of some sort.
Next, open the steel wool and ‘fluff up’ one piece, pulling it apart as you would a piece of freshly baked bread.
When it’s sufficiently pulled apart, cram it through the wires of the whisk, securing it inside. Put the battery or lighter in your pocket, don the safety equipment.
Grab your camera and tripod: Now you’re ready.
Step 4: Framing the Shot
Set up your tripod facing the spacious area you’ve selected. Attach your camera, zooming the lens to a wide angle set to manual focus. Unless you’re trying for something artistic, set the lens on ‘infinity’ focus, or put the focus dial to the ‘infinity’ sign. This will ensure that everything in the frame is tack sharp.
Frame your shot carefully, factoring in the affects the steel wool will have on the final image.
Now put your shutter on 20 to 30 seconds depending on the scene and a variety of other exposure factors, and change to ‘timed shutter,’ preferably more than 10 seconds. If you have a remote shutter release, enabling you to take a picture from far away, that’s even better.
Set your aperture to between 5.6 and about 11. Essentially, the aperture is a collapsible ring inside the lens that allows more or less light into the camera. The lower the number, the more light that’s allowed in. Aperture also affects ‘depth of field,’ or the amount of a scene that’s in focus.
Take a few test shots without the steel wool to make sure all of your settings are correct, and that your framing looks good.
Step 4: Spin Light
Mentally mark a position about 20 to 30 feet away in the open space, facing the camera.
Wrap the free end of the shoelace securely around a few gloved fingers, grasping the wool-stuffed whisk in the same hand. Now, click the camera timer, and run to the position you’ve selected.
With your other hand, pull out the battery.
When you hear the camera’s shutter open, quickly press the battery into the wool. The steel will complete the battery’s electrical current. Immediately, you should see an orange glow. If you have a lighter, hold the flame beneath the wool until it lights. This might take a minute.
Let the whisk drop, and start spinning in a fast yet small circle. At first, don’t let out too much shoelace.
As you spin, the rushing air oxidizes that small spark lit by the battery, fanning it into a raging inferno. After a minute, you should see sparks begin to fly from the whisk, lighting up the area. It’s awe inspiring.
Spin to your hearts content until the wool has burned up. Reset and repeat as many times as you’d like.
There are many variations you can throw into the mix, including experimenting with the off-camera flash. If you’re alone, after the wool has spun out, quickly step aside and pop the flash, illuminating the scene. Or, if you have a friend to help, have them use the flash for you.
Another option is to paint with light using a flashlight.
Above all, be safe and have fun! Happy spinning!