Playing With Fire: Steel Wool Spinning in the Landscape - Digital Photography School
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Playing With Fire: Steel Wool Spinning in the Landscape

Focal length 21mm, shutter speed 15 seconds.

Focal length 21mm, shutter speed 15 seconds.

If you’ve been following my articles no doubt you have tried painting with light or using a wide-angle lens for landscape photography. You may have found some interesting ways to exploit the colour contrast between blue and orange and are definitely aware of the magical quality of the light during twilight.

Today’s technique brings all these elements together in a way that creates beautiful, dramatic and unusual images. It’s called steel wool spinning. The photos may look complicated but in reality it is easy to try out if you have the right equipment, a willing partner and pay attention to safety.

Here’s what you need:

  • Steel wool (you can get this from hardware stores, the finer grades are best).
  • A stainless steel whisk and a length of strong cord to tie it to.
  • A willing helper. You can use your camera’s self-timer and spin the steel wool yourself, but getting somebody to do it for you is much easier.
  • A dramatic location. One that looks good when viewed through a wide-angle lens. Also one where people are unlikely to suddenly walk into the immediate area and be hit by flying sparks, or with anything that is likely to catch alight.
  • Calm weather. The less wind the better.
  • A camera with a manual mode, a cable release or remote (the self-timer will do in a pinch), good tripod, wide-angle lens, UV filter and lens hood. Live View is also useful.

How to do it

Steel wool spinning really is very simple. Simply stuff the steel wool inside the whisk (I use masking tape to hold it in place), set it alight with the cigarette lighter, and get your helper to whirl it around in a circular motion. The burning sparks of steel wool fly out and fall to the ground, creating bright orange trails of light.

Steel wool spinning

Focal length 21mm, shutter speed 15 seconds. Here, my helper span the whisk in a circle around her head.

 

Steel wool spinning

Focal length 19mm, shutter speed 15 seconds. My helper span the whisk in a circle in front of her, creating a different shape.

 

Put your camera on a tripod, and set your exposure using manual mode. Aim for a shutter speed of around eight to 15 seconds – there’s no harm in underexposing the background for dramatic effect (I find the steel wool burns for about ten seconds). You’ll need to be shooting at twilight, otherwise it will be too bright. The sparks won’t show up in daylight.

If you shoot while there’s still a little light left you the sky will have a nice deep blue colour. Some people use this technique at night and combine it with painting with light (using either torchlight or portable flash) to build up an image or to capture star trails.

Steel wool spinning

Focal length 17mm, shutter speed 30 seconds. This photo was taken after the light had faded from the sky. The 30 second shutter speed was required to capture the stars. Note that it doesn’t matter if the steel wool burns for less than the 30 second shutter speed. The idea of using a longer shutter speed is to reveal detail in the background. If I had used a shutter speed of 15 seconds, the burning steel wool would look the same (as it burns for around 10 seconds) but the background would be darker.

 

Steel wool spinning

Focal length 17mm, shutter speed 215 seconds. The longer shutter speed has captured the movement of the stars. I asked my helper to spin the whisk in a circle as she walked along the beach, creating a different pattern.

 

Live View (if your camera has it) helps with focusing, as it may be too dark for you to focus on your subject properly. On my camera, there is enough detail in Live View to focus manually, even when it is too dark to see anything through the viewfinder. Set your camera to manual focus, focus on the person doing the steel wool spinning, and use a small aperture (f8-16) to compensate for any focusing errors. As this is a kind of landscape photo you’ll no doubt want the entire scene in focus anyway.

Shoot Raw so you can make fine adjustments to colour temperature and exposure in post-processing. In the meantime, set white balance to daylight – that will help the camera record the colours accurately.

If you’re using a wide-angle lens (recommended for the dramatic perspective) then move as close as you can to the arc of the burning sparks of steel wool for a strong composition. It is wise to wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible, plus a hat and safety goggles, in case one of those sparks lands on you. You should also use a UV filter to protect the front element of your lens from burning sparks.

Steel wool spinning inspiration

Take a look at these links for some more inspiration:

Flick Steel Wool Spinning group

Steel wool spinning at 500px

Raining Fire Photography (article)

Hopefully this article has inspired you to give steel wool spinning a try. Ultimately, it’s another form of painting with light – the light from the burning steel wool illuminates the landscape in a new and interesting way.

Have fun.

Mastering Photography

Mastering Photography ebook by Andrew S Gibson

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over fifteen photography ebooks and he's giving two of them away. Sign up to his monthly newsletter to receive complementary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Jeff E Jensen

    Great tips and images, Andrew! These images are a lot of fun to create. The only other tip I would add is to be very careful where you do this as the sparks can start a fire.

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/06/painting-with-friends.html

  • minuett

    Thank you for this information, Andrew. As a starting point, could you please estimate how far away the camera should be from the spinner so sparks don’t hit the camera? If you mentioned it above, I apologize for missing it!

  • mak

    Too dangerous but looks wonderful.

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    It depends on a number of factors: how long the string is, how fast it’s being spun, is there a breeze? Best way is to do a trial run first – stand well back and let your spinner do his or her thing. Then you can see the range of the sparks.

    You might also want to keep your distance to include more of the background. Here’s one we did last night:

  • marius2die4

    Your article inspire me and I want to try some photo soon. Tank you!

  • minuett

    That’s exactly what I did. I tried it for the first time last night, based on your directions (and by “I”, I mean I had my son spin, and I stood well back with my camera!) Thanks again for the info..it was helpful! Here’s our attempt:

  • marius2die4

    The images are excellent. The article are well written. Congratulations!

  • http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/ Andrew S. Gibson

    Awesome. Look at those sparks go!

  • Ken-K

    You mentioned shooting manual but didn’t mention aperture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zulhilmi.ghouse Zulhilmi Ghouse

    I’ve been wondering this for a while now… Aren’t the sparks harmless? You know, like the sparks from sparklers?

  • mbush

    Very cool shots, but you should remind people to be aware of where they do this. Not so long ago a couple of brainless photogs started a fire on Yuerba Buena by San Francisco playing with steel wool. One guy screws up and it gives everybody a bad name.

  • Todd

    Nice info but please spell check before your submit your article. It’s SPUN the whisk. Not SPAN.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    Thanks Todd I’m on it! As the new Managing Editor of dPS I will be reading and proofing all articles so hopefully I’ll catch stuff like this. If you find others though please either comment or email me at editor@digital-photography-school.com and I’ll get it fixed! Thanks for your diligence

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    Yes that is important – safety is #1!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    NO! they are not the same as sparklers because they are flying bits of melted steel! The wool burns and flies through the air and yes you can start a fire if you aren’t careful.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    Choose whatever aperture you need for Depth of Field. I generally start at f/8 for night shots and adjust as needed if I need a longer or shorter exposure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zulhilmi.ghouse Zulhilmi Ghouse

    Thank you for clearing that up =)

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    no worries, be safe!

  • Cal

    an effect as this, can be used as texture over another image in various modes, such as the most common “Multiply”.. to give your image a unique perspective.

  • Todd

    Thanks Darlene for taking the time to reply. Appreciate it.

  • devansh

    On the point of how to focus accurately, I’d like to suggest, the helper/spinner could hold a flashlight and the photographer can focus on the light, in the AF mode.

  • Dewey

    Shooting in the Rain Awesome..I did Machu Picchu in the Rain and Fog in August..
    But a couple of my Frames caught the corner of my Umbrella.. But I was able to Crop them out…

  • http://www.lightpaintingtactics.com/ Light Painter

    I gave few tries and made physiogram from steel wool

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