Introduction: How To: Steel Wool Photography

Steel wool photography is a simple and exciting way to create visually interesting photography. Although it has been done, and there are dozens of dedicated communities surrounding this magical light photography, it can be overwhelming to try if you have never done it before.

This simple and (best of all) quick tutorial will get you the fundamentals of shooting so that you can start building your steel wool porfolio.

Step 1: Safety and Materials

Before you begin, ensure you've got the proper safety attire. A hoodie to protect your head, sneakers or other shoes to protect your feet, goggles or classes, and even gloves as not to burn your hands. Be sure that your environment is safe to swing sparking steel wool. Ensure that no establishments or nature will catch fire. Finding the appropriate location ties into safety. Use your best judgement and stay safe.

The materials for creating fire are quite simple:

  • Your steel wool (grade is important, a finer grade of 0000 will burn more evenly, and a little longer).
  • A whisk to house the steel wool (you'll place the steel wool inside).
  • A dog leash to attach the whisk to (this is what you'll be spinning to create the beautiful array of sparks and fire).
  • A 9v battery or lighter (simply brushing the steel wool with the 9v will easily cause it to catch fire)

Now that you have what you need to create fire, you'll need the camera to photograph it. Ensure that you have an SLR or camera with manual capabilities, and a tripod to leave it on. It's a wonderful idea to utilize a friend to help with exposing the images.

Step 2: Creating the Image.

One your camera is in place on the tripod with a long shutter setting in place, you can begin. Once the steel wool is lit, it will begin shooting sparks. My recommendation is to let your partner know to release the shutter simultaneously to you lighting the steel wool, so that you can capture every spark. Once the steel wool begins to spark, swing the wool. You'll have about 10-15 seconds. Swinging the wool in different ways can create different looks to the photography.

  • The traditional "halo" effect: swing the wool in a circular motion. A halo (circle like) shape will be created at the center point, with sparks flying away from it.
  • The orb: swing the steel whilst moving slowing in a circle, standing in the same place.. This will create an orb at it's center point with sparks flying away from it.
  • The spiral: Swing the steel wool in a circular shape and begin to move toward the camera, slowly. This will create a spiraling center point, where sparks appear to be entwined, though still moving away from the center point.

Step 3: Bonus!

Steel wool photography has been done before. A lot. There are forums and message boards dedicated to this fun and daring type of photography. It's up to you to make it visually interesting. Here are some tips to making a better steel wool photograph:

  • Shoot at twilight. It will be light enough to expose for some background detail, bringing some visual interest to the photograph.
  • Think about where your sparks will bounce: Being near rocks, an underpass, a hallway can all create a different feel to the photograph. Use them!
  • Add more light! Bring led lights or glow sticks to add more color and texture to your photographs! You can use them separately with the help of a partner, or have them attached to the end of the whisk, the leash, or simply hold them in your hand.
  • Shoot with people. Obviously, we're being as safe as possible here, but think about making it a portrait. Placement of people needs to be in a safe range, and the use of an external flash in necessary, but can be very fun and interesting.