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How to Do Steel Wool Photography: The Essential Guide

How to create amazing steel wool photos

This article was updated in April 2024 with contributions from Simon Ringsmuth and Andrew S. Gibson.

Sometimes, you can find ways of taking amazing pictures without spending much money at all, and one of the best examples of this is a technique called fire spinning, sometimes also known as steel wool photography.

Capturing amazing steel wool photos usually involves just a couple of basic items – available at any hardware store and grocery market – and a little creativity. Once you understand the simple process, you can create breathtaking, even otherworldly, images. This technique is accessible to anyone willing to experiment after the sun sets, from beginners to professionals. And the results are always a unique blend of fire and motion that can transform literally any space into a scene of dramatic beauty.

In this article, I share my approach to amazing steel wool images, along with plenty of example photos so you know what to expect.

Let’s dive right in!

What is steel wool photography?

50mm, f/13, 30 seconds, ISO 200

At its core, steel wool photography is an exciting blend of light, motion, and creativity. It starts with something as mundane as steel wool – the kind you might find in a kitchen or workshop. When this wool is lit and spun rapidly, it becomes a source of glowing sparks that you can capture with your camera.

The key to successfully capturing this display is in your camera settings. A long exposure, often 10 seconds or more, ensures that your camera records the sparks as bright trails against the dark background.

The results of steel wool photography are nothing short of breathtaking. But as I discuss in the next section, safety is crucial. Do this in a safe area away from anything flammable, and have water or a fire extinguisher ready. Wearing protective clothing is also a good idea. When done safely, steel wool photography produces breathtaking images, capturing the dynamic movement of light in the dark.

Steel wool photography safety warning (please abide!)

Before I go into detail about what it takes to create an image like this, I need to make it abundantly clear that fire spinning is dangerous, not only to yourself, but the area around you, and even your camera equipment. Please follow these safety precautions:

  • Take care to only do this where you have plenty of open space, and nothing around you that will catch on fire.
  • Make sure that you wear thick clothing such as full-length pants, closed-toe shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, and something to cover your eyes (glasses or safety goggles) and hair.
  • Never do this in a field of grass or near a house, dry wood or brush, or near anything that could potentially catch on fire.
  • Also make sure to put plenty of distance between your camera and the sparks, as they fly farther than you might think!

The images you see in this article were all taken at night on a deserted beach where nothing else could start burning, and my camera was far enough away from the subject to avoid any wayward flying sparks or smoldering embers.

How to photograph steel wool: what you’ll need

You may already have some of the items necessary for a fire-spinning photo, but if not, you can easily find everything you need for only a few dollars. You can add additional things such as multiple chains and whisks to create different effects and styles, but for a basic fire spinning shoot you can start with the following trinkets:

A chain, wire wisk, connector, and steel wool are all you need to create amazing fire-spinning images.
A chain, a wire whisk, a connector, and steel wool are all you need to create amazing fire-spinning images.
  • A few lumps of fine steel wool (thick stuff works okay, but the finer steel wool is better: 0-0000 grade)
  • A small chain, roughly half a meter in length (1.5′)
  • A wire whisk commonly used in baking
  • A small clasp or carabiner to fasten the chain to the whisk
  • Something to light the steel wool on fire (cigarette lighter, grill lighter, etc.)

Other items necessary for the shoot include:

  • A tripod for your camera
  • A wide-angle lens (I shot the top picture at 50mm, but I would have preferred something wider like 35mm)
  • A flashlight, so you can see as you’re setting up your camera and planning the shoot
  • A friend who is willing to hold a spinning fiery object attached to a chain

How to prepare for a fire-spinning photoshoot

Steel wool photography

Once you have all the things you need, preparing for your photos is fairly simple. Stuff a wad of steel wool into the whisk (fluff it up a bit so it gets some air), attach the whisk to the chain, and you’re all set. Fine steel wool is better (I used grade 00 for these images) because it will burn easier, and send more sparks flying around during your shoot.

The basic idea involves lighting the steel wool, which will cause it to smolder, then spinning it around in the air, which will cause sparks to shoot off in every direction.

While the steel wool won’t exactly burn like a piece of paper, twirling it in the air will cause sparks to fly all around. By using a long exposure on your camera, you can capture an incredibly dynamic image not unlike something you might see during a fireworks display at an Independence Day celebration.

50mm, f/9.5, 20 seconds, ISO 200

The fire-spinning method

After your chain, whisk, and steel wool are ready, you will need to find a location and decide how to frame your shot, which is why it can be handy to have a friend help you out. You can do steel wool photos by yourself, but it really helps to be able to direct someone else who’s doing the spinning so you can get everything positioned exactly how you want in the shot.

It helps to draw some lines in the sand or dirt so your helper knows precisely where to stand, and depending on how dark it is, you may need to use your flashlight to help get everything positioned just right.

The rest of the process is fairly simple, but it will probably take a great deal of trial and error to get the shots you want. Set your camera and tripod low on the ground, several meters away from your friend, and have them shine a flashlight on their body so you can lock focus (either use autofocus to lock, then switch it to manual – or try back button focusing).

Large apertures should be avoided since you want a very wide depth of field, and you won’t need to worry about gathering enough light because the sparks will be plenty bright to show up even with small apertures. Use a long exposure time of 20 or 30 seconds, and a low ISO of 100 or 200.

When you are ready to take the shot, have your friend hold the lighter under the steel wool until it starts glowing. That’s your cue to press the shutter button, then just stand back while your friend spins the chain and the sparks start flying. One trick is to use your camera’s 2-second self-timer so your friend has a bit of time to light the steel wool on fire before the actual exposure begins.

35mm, f/10, 6 seconds, ISO 200

Steel wool photography ideas and examples

Once you get the hang of the basics the rest is all about finding a technique that works, to get the shots you want. You can try lots of variations to get different photos such as:

  • Stand in place and twirl the chain in a circle
  • Stand in place and twirl two chains, one on each side
  • Walk across the frame while spinning the chain to create a giant glowing tube
  • Have multiple people in the shot spinning multiple chains
  • Flash an off-camera speedlight on rocks or other background elements to add depth to the shot
50mm, f/13, 20 seconds, ISO 200
50mm, f/13, 20 seconds, ISO 200

With a little practice, you can get some astounding results, and it’s always good to shoot in RAW so you can tweak the colors, and pull some details from the shadows later on if you want. If you search online for “fire spinning photos” (or steel wool spinning) you will find thousands of images, using all sorts of variations on this basic technique. I realize it’s somewhat cliché to say this, but the possibilities really are endless.

Steel wool spinning
Here, my helper spun the whisk in a circle around her head. (Image by Andrew S Gibson)
Steel wool spinning
My helper spun the whisk in a circle before her, creating a different shape. (Image by Andrew S Gibson)

If you shoot while there’s still a little light left, the sky will have a nice deep blue color. 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
This photo was taken after the light had faded from the sky. A 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. (Image by Andrew S Gibson)
Steel wool spinning
A 215-second shutter speed 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. (Image by Andrew S Gibson)

Steel wool photography: final words

Well, there you have it:

The simple, step-by-step process for capturing beautiful steel wool photos.

As you can hopefully see, getting solid results doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does take some perseverance and experimentation!

Ultimately, fire spinning is another form of painting with light, as the light from the burning steel wool illuminates the landscape in a new and interesting way.

Have fun!

Now over to you:

Do you plan to try steel wool photography? Do you have any tips or images to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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