Introduction: Incredible Steel Wool Photography!

Picture of Incredible Steel Wool Photography!

Steel Wool Photography is a super fun and super easy type of photography. Once you have your camera this project can be FREE. I had to purchase the steel wool and that is it. I already had a the other materials but the MOST you will have to spend on this project is 4-5 dollars.

This is an awesome project for any amateur photographer who just got a DSLR camera. If you don't have a DSLR camera don't worry! I you can probably still do this and I will explain how later!

Step 1: Most Importantly...

To start I want to say that this is not an original idea by any means. This type of picture has been around for many years. There is currently only one other instructable on this topic that I have found, and I want to make a much more in-depth tutorial on the subject.

Next: SAFTEY. As you may be able to see from the cover photo creating this photo involves fire. As you may know fire can be dangerous. Picking a good location is critical and I will go very in depth on this subject later. While I was taking the pictures I am using in this instructable I actually started a small grass fire and had to call the fire department. *Makes very sheepish face* I was able to put out the fire before the department even got there but it was looking pretty hairy for a minute. I WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY FIRES THAT YOU START.

Step 2: How Does It Work?

Any somewhat experienced photographer will know that creating these photos uses "Long Exposure Photography" but I am not making this for experienced photographers because they probably all ready know how to do this.

The way a camera works is when you press the shutter button a small window is opened up which exposes light to a cameras sensor. This light is the images that we see. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is recorded. We will be holding our shutters open for around 8-10 seconds. When our eyes see light we only see it when it is in the same place. If you move a flashlight we do not see where the light has been, only where it is currently. Cameras can see where the light has been. This is how we see trails of sparks from the steel wool.

If you still don't understand how this works there is tons of information on long exposure photography elsewhere on the internet.

Step 3: What Do I Need?

Picture of What Do I Need?

This is probably the most important step so I am going to break it into 2 steps.

The first step is going to be a list of materials. I will start with a list of materials then I will explain each one.

• Steel Wool (grade 0 or finer. The more zeros the finer it is.)

• A metal cooking whisk

• Some type of string. Flexible metal cable works best since it doesn't catch on fire.

• A lighter, matches, or a 9 volt battery.

Steel wool is the most important part of this tutorial. This is why it is called "Steel Wool Photography" When you light steel wool on fire and spin it around sparks fly off of it and when you take a long exposure photograph of this it creates a very cool picture. Again, remember safety, don't almost burn down a mountain like me. I got 8 pads of steel wool for $4.

The metal whisk is fairly important because we will use this to hold the steel wool. The we will stuff the steel wool into the whisk and the whisk will hold it in place. If you just tried to tie string to a pad of steel wool it would burn off and most likely catch something on fire. I already had a whisk but I found one at walmart for .97 cents the other day.

String. Basically what we are going to do is spin the steel wool in the whisk around fairly fast to create sparks which makes a cool picture. If we just wave around a whisk with burning steel wool a bunch of sparks will hit us square in the face which will probably hurt. The string lets us spin the steel wool further away from our face and in cool patterns. Flexible metal cable is great because it won't catch on fire. I used paracord though because I had some on hand and it worked great. You can get paracord online for a dollar.

Lastly the lighter/matches are used to light the steel wool on fire. If you didn't already know you can light steel wool on fire with a 9 volt battery as well. You just rub the positive and negative ends of the battery against the steel wool. I find this method less effective unless you are doing this in a windy area and can't keep a lighter lit. (Only do this if there is NOTHING flammable within like a .5 mile radius. You can get a lighter for $1. You should probably already have one though.

Sorry a few of these photos are slightly out of focus. I took these quickly with a lens that doesn't have autofocus. Sorry for no photo of paracord.

Step 4: Camera

Picture of Camera

To take photos you will obviously need a camera. As I have previously stated, we will be using long exposure photography. This means you will need a camera that allows you to set the shutter speed. Pretty much every DSLR camera will have this option. DSLR's are the ones that you can change lenses with. Pro photographers use these and the cheapest ones cost about $400 dollars.

If you don't have a DSLR fear not. If you have an iPhone you can download the app NightCap for .99 (cheaper than $400) You can download this here.

If you have an android you can download Camera FV-5 for FREE

These apps will work but you won't get very good quality seeing as camera phones usually don't take very good photos in low-light conditions. If you have a Canon brand point-and-shoot camera you can also do this.

Canon point-and-shoots if you have a Canon brand camera you can use a program called the CHDK (Canon Hack Development Kit) This is a free program that you can install onto your canon cameras SD card that will allow you to use almost every feature that you can use on a DSLR camera. This will not permanently change your camera and is a great option for those trying to decide if they want a DSLR. This method is slightly more complicated but you can learn more and download it for FREE here:

You will also want to use a tripod because the camera cannot move at all during the photo or it will be ruined. A solid rock may work as well.

For those interested, I used a Nikon D3200 with a 28mm f2.8 lens for a few but ended up using the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens. You can buy the D3200 with kit lens here for $475

Step 5: Set Up/Camera Settings

Picture of Set Up/Camera Settings

The set up is pretty simple.

First take you steel wool and lightly pull it apart. Don't rip any off, just loosen it up. This helps it burn better. Next stuff the steel wool inside the whisk. Last tie the string to the end of the whisk. I used about 3-4 feet of string. Different lengths will give different results.

Next, set up your camera & Tripod (or sturdy rock) on flat ground far enough away to capture the entire image.

Camera Settings: I took my photos at the current settings: 20mm focal length, f7.1, ISO 800 and a shutter speed of 13 seconds. Setting this up varies from camera to camera or app to app so I you will have to figure out how to set this up on your camera.

For more information on these settings and their meanings, google it. If you are interested in photography you should learn what theses are. I could make and entire instructable on this subject. (Maybe I will)

Sorry for the poor image quality here. I took these with my iPhone, on site in the dark.

Step 6: Location

This part is super important. Unless you want to have a chat with the good old fire department at about midnight (like I did) you should listen up.

It is critical that you choose a location that nothing will catch on fire. A beach is an excellent place to do this because neither water or sand catches on fire. I took my photos in a area surrounded in concrete covered in graffiti. Unfortunately, the wind caught a spark and blew it out of the concrete area and into some grass.

Another important part of location is having a cool location. Places such as concrete drain pipes are super cool because the sparks bounce off the wall and light the whole place up. Be sure to put the camera in a cool place. The sparks aren't the only important part of the picture.

Do this pretty late at night. The darker the better.


Okay, this part is super fun. It is best to have two people for this. You can do it by yourself but it is harder.

Stand in front of the camera and begin to light the steel wool on fire. Light both sides so the whole thing burns. Once it is started tell the person manning the camera to press the shutter button. If you are by yourself, press the shutter, run in front of the camera and light it on fire. You may want a slightly longer shutter speed if you are by yourself. This way you will have some time to get in front of the camera.

Next, SPIN THE FLAMING STEEL WOOL!!! Grab the end of the string and begin swinging it in some sort of pattern. I prefer plain old circles. It makes a cool orb look if you do it right. Do what ever you want to with it though. Photography is about being creative!

Once the shutter has closed be sure to completely extinguish the steel wool if it is still burning.

Thats it! Now you are done!

Step 8: Final Images

Picture of Final Images

Thank you for reading all the way to the end! (or skipping to the end to see my photos)

I loved the graffiti location I chose because it adds so much to the picture. I would love to go back and take more photos except its not a real safe place seeing as I almost burned down a mountain. If anyone does this I would love to see your images in the comments.

In the last photo you can see the grass fire starting in the top left corner of the picture.

Check out my instructable on other long exposure techniques!


legamin (author)2014-07-17

just a note... For those without a pro lens, or a lense that constantly tries to focus on each spark during the exposure (most can be turned off during bulb) or those who just want to do it the way the 'Old Timey' photographers did it.. Try 'Pin Hole' photography! Buy an extra body mount dust cap {$1.00 ea.} on eBay (most dslr's) figure out where the exact center of it is. Then drill a 1/64th hole (roughly equal to f-48 on a cloudy day). *I bought four caps for 1/64th, 1/32nd, 1/16th and 1/8th...the last of which is pretty big to use outdoors in sunlight*

For those of you who really want to go old timey, use this instructibles but simply use a coffee can lined with very black felt and a slightly convex back board to put your film on about mid-point in the can. The can should have a 1/8th hole drilled in front of the film mount.. This is fun stuff and this instructibles gives you all the info to do the images....except that you can short contacts of a powerful car battery to produce a great "flash" in your 0000 steel wool...

MattBothell (author)legamin2014-07-18

Hey I really like this idea about pinhole photography! Also, if you are having issues with a nicer lens constantly focusing on different sparks, take a flash light and place it where you will be doing the steel wool, focus the camera in AF and then lock the focus by switching it over to Manual Focus!

MattBothell (author)2014-07-18

Thank you to everyone who commented about protecting your lens! THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. I forgot to add it into the instructable but I did use a UV filter to protect the lens. They are not very expensive and can save your lens!

Make Zone (author)2016-07-09

Hi, just wondering if the whisk is important for the experiment?

Make Zone (author)Make Zone2016-07-09

also I'm using fv 5 as my camera on android, may I know the settings there?

AndrayaE (author)2016-03-24

me and my family was there when they took that pictyre

AndrayaE (author)2016-03-24

me and my family was there when they took that pictyre

jjam0137 (author)2015-10-13

Hi, Although this is an old post, i'm so glad I came across it. As a newbie to photography, these instructions were precise and clear. They have given me the confidence to try out something that looks so amazing . Thank you :)

_The_Kate_D made it! (author)2015-09-01

These instructions were awesome. After 2 flaming steelwool pads flying out of the wisk we finally got great results in the 3rd try - with no humans hurt in the making of this photo! Can wait to do it again in a cool spot! Thanks Matt!

ahill35 (author)2014-09-24

You can do this with a 35 mm right?

MattBothell (author)ahill352014-09-28

You sure can!

American Ruin (author)2014-09-25

Awesome pics! This would look amazing after a rainy day, when there is still a decent amount of water on the ground. I imagine the reflections would look fantastic!

nick121792 made it! (author)2014-08-07

Took these last week. Just getting around to uploading them

MattBothell (author)nick1217922014-08-19

Awesome! They look great. Mind if I ask what camera set up you used?

Cambenora (author)2014-07-30

Fantastic images!

Tip: next time, take a watering can with you (to douse any fires...)

Noel Pulleine (author)2014-07-28

Yes, very nice. I read every post with much interest. I did quite a bit of special effects in my young days including B/W and colour infrared. I will interest you all with a short story. Many years ago I read a photographic mag (film days) about how to photograph the main street of a busy town at mid-day without any person in the picture (most of the time). It goes like this.. you not only set your camera on (bulb), you also use neutral density filters ND, and mine were glass by Kodak. They also made gelatin filters in 3 inch squares (75mm). you could buy a set.. 2x, 3x,4x & 8x.. not sure of the numbers but you only needed 4 filters because that sequence could make any number in between too. So a 8x Kodak Wratten ND filter in the bulb setting at say f11 for 60 seconds would give a great result. Because it only recorded an image that was static and not moving like cars and people, it worked. Colour was a bigger problem because of a thing called reciprocity failure this was a lot of fun but you definitely need to invest in a tripod, a cable release with locking etc. Great with ocean and waterfalls too. Enjoy.

nick121792 (author)2014-07-24

Just got home from shooting pictures. they came out amazing. Cant wait to do this more often

grangerknives (author)2014-07-21

Very clever. Very creative. Nice effect. Great result! Great Instructable!

macrumpton (author)2014-07-18

I used to do this with sparklers back in High School, back in the precambrian era when the only cameras used film.

CosmicBrambleclaw (author)2014-07-18

Love this idea :) its sort of like fire poi in a sense, really awesome ^_^

now to get a dslr camera...-3- I wish I had enough to buy that canon camera at walmart

gravityisweak (author)2014-07-15

Great! Thanks for sharing the camera settings, for an easier starting point. I'll definitely be trying this. I'll make sure to share the results. Were your photos taken in complete darkness? I was about to ask if there was external lighting in the final photo, then I saw that you wrote it was a fire! Oops, lol. Great photos! I think I'd like to try hooking this to a cordless drill to get perfect circles with really small openings.

Cordless drill is an awesome idea! And it wasn't pitch black it was almost a full moon with city lights behind me that night but it was still dark enough to do it fine.

baecker03 (author)2014-07-17

just remembered after reading a comment below that it does not flash over the cameras own memory, although I do remember reading there is some small minute inherent risk.

Andre Miranda (author)2014-07-17

Great pictures!

I have a Canon SX130is. After reading your tutorial I went searching for the CHDK and there they say that some problems have been reported using it on this camera model.

Do you think it's worth tyrying or there is really some risk of damaging the camera?

baecker03 (author)Andre Miranda2014-07-17

there is always a risk when you flash a device, but as long as you ensure it has been done previously without any errors it should be fine. I put it on my rebel T2i without any problems... dont currently use it, as I haven't gotten the time to play with it.

legamin (author)Andre Miranda2014-07-17

try searching bull item boards and asking questions. You can call the manufacturer for free at Canon and I have found them VERY helpful..hanging on and answering every silly question regarding my first truly professional level camera (Canon) for 20 minutes and still asking if I had any more questions and giving me his desk phone number! I don't have it handy but just Google Canon.

billgeo (author)Andre Miranda2014-07-17

As far as CHDK goes, there is no danger to the camera as you never reflash your camera's firmware, CHDK just boots from the SD card.

But with your camera you don't need CHDK anyway.

You can set up to 15sec of shutter, and thats more than enough to do steel wool photos!

By the look of the manual, you can select slower shutter speeds, however you don't have the "bulb" function to what I can see. As far as actually being able to do it, its worth a shot (no pun intended)! I would agree that finding something to protect the lens would be a good idea. See if you can find a really nice clear piece of glass, or even get a filter from a store and tape it to the camera right before you make the shot.

Good luck!

legamin (author)2014-07-17

LOL! In the last frame it seems that we are treated to the source of your indiscretion and subsequent introduction to the fire crew! What a great instructibles. I haven't done bulb shots in the dark fo thirty-five years...I'm excited to get out there and turn that 'kid' loose again!

berdandy (author)2014-07-17

Nicely done. I do have a tip that you might want to add: ensure you're a very good distance from the steel wool with a zoom lens, shoot through a solid acrylic sheet, or a lens filter. If a flaming bit of steel wool happens to hit the front of your lens, that lens is ruined.

billgeo (author)berdandy2014-07-17

Also a hooded jacket comes in very handy!!!

jakerobinson (author)2014-07-17

When I was in high school and very active with a 35mm, I would set the camera to manual aperture to hold it open... I would sometimes hold the camera up at night when I was riding in a car and got some awesome effects of on-coming cars and street lights. Interesting, as I was moving the streets lights gave off a dotted-line pattern due to AC current. I also experimented with just holding a flashlight and making patterns - I was able to spell out words (although very rough)

kbc2 (author)2014-07-11

that is cool! i have been interested in photog, i had heard something about exposure time but had no idea how. saving up for camera now. thanks for all info you put into it. Word of advise..... keep a fire extinguisher on hand, relatively inexpensive around 30 to 40 for smaller ones. As much as i play with fireworks and gunpowder...... there is always 2 or 3 extinguishers VERY close at

purplemutant (author)kbc22014-07-17

I would like to reiterate what has already been said. You should start off with whatever camera you already have. There is no point in buying a fancy camera when you are first getting into photography. "crappy" cameras can be lots of fun to shoot with. I enjoy shooting with low res cameras. I have gotten some excellent photos with a 1.2 MP camera on a PDA. Here is an example on my deviant art page.

So work with what you have first. Once you have been at it for a bit and decide you really enjoy photography, THEN you can think about getting a new camera.

If you have any questions let me know.

gravityisweak (author)kbc22014-07-15

If you are just getting into photography, your phone can be a great starting point. Camera+ for the iphone is absolutely the best you can get, and can learn plenty. Also, this cheat sheet is worth its weight in gold.,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/18ix76yt6pvyljpg.jpg

killbox (author)2014-07-17

Its a good idea to run with a UV filter on the camera (really to protect the lens) a friend of mine was doing this and got a small chunk of burning steel stuck to the lens coatings. much cheaper to replace a $20 filter.

Moi桑小天使 (author)2014-07-17

Cool ! I'll try it.

jbent (author)2014-07-15

I've done this several times fairly easy

teem93 (author)2014-07-15

so good

patsheldon (author)2014-07-14


makendo (author)2014-07-14

super effective

jessyratfink (author)2014-07-14

These photos are great! Pretty scary you almost set a mountain on fire though :P

nerfrocketeer (author)2014-07-11

Great work!

Jan_Henrik (author)2014-07-11

Very cool Instructable, very classic! :)

About This Instructable




Bio: Sneakers, photography and more.
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