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Have you ever seen interesting steel wool photography like in this photo before?

This is achieved by using a variation of light painting, done with a material called “steel wool”. Experimenting with steel wool is an interesting experience and can give you stunning images.

How to photograph the milky way This article is a small part of our comprehensive guide: How to Photograph The Milky Way

This technique does not require an expensive setup or pricey gear, which is great news for many photographers.

Let’s begin with the equipment list.

Steel Wool Photography Equipment List:

1. Camera and lens
2. A steady tripod and shutter cable
3. A dark location
4. Steel wool
5. String
6. Stainless steel whisk (DO NOT use silicon)
7. Protective gloves
8. Lighter

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1. Camera and Lens

Much like other light painting photography, you do not need an expensive camera or lens for steel wool photography. All you need is a camera that you can set to manual mode and a lens of your choosing.

I prefer to use a wide angle lens as it can make my photos appear closer and more unique. You could also use a fisheye lens to creatively combine light painting with the barrel distortion produced by the lens.

2. A Steady Tripod and Shutter Cable

Just like long exposure photography, steel wool photography needs a steady tripod to enable your camera to remain steady while exposing. This limits any chance of getting a blurry image.

You will also need a shutter cable to prevent the camera from shaking. A self-timer would also suffice.

3. A Dark Location

To photograph spinning steel wool, a dark location is required to allow for a long exposure time.

4. Steel Wool

There are many grades of steel wool, but I recommend using grade 0 for this kind of photography. You can purchase this from a hardware store or Amazon.

5. String

String is used to spin the steel wool, I would recommend the string to be 1 – 1.5m long.

6. Stainless Steel Whisk (DO NOT use silicone)

The cage of a whisk is used to hold the steel wool. Use the hook at the top of the handle to tie the string to.

Pack the wool loosely in to the whisk to allow oxygen to flow in and accelerate the burn. This is assisted by choosing a finer steel wool, such as grade 0.

Please note: Steel wool will reach high temperatures when lit. DO NOT use a silicone whisk as it will melt.

7. Protective Gloves

Steel wool can be sharp. Wear protective gloves to protect your hands from getting cut while handling the steel wool.

8. Lighter

For lighting the steel wool.

Safety Precaution

Capturing these types of images can be extremely dangerous. Spinning steel wool that is lit can cause sparks to spray out and could cause harm to yourself, your equipment and others.

Please take great care if you choose to try this technique.

Equipment checks and considerations

Ensure that your whisk and string are tied sufficiently to limit accidents.

Never use this technique around combustible items like fuel, oil, cars, etc.

Wear long sleeves and protective gloves.

Only practice this technique in a safe, secluded area, away from the general public.

Put a protective filter on your lens if you are using your camera in close proximity to the lit steel wool. The heat can cause fire stretch which is expensive to repair.

Ensure that all fire is out before leaving your location. I recommend that you remain at the scene for at least 10 minutes to be sure.

Limit your risk of causing an accident by using this technique after rain or near water (like a beach). Dry days in grassed surroundings increase your risk of starting a fire.

Camera Setup

First, set up your camera on the tripod and compose the image. You can use a small torch to visualize where the steel wool will be spinning.

Set your camera to aperture priority mode and manual focus. You can focus with the help of a torch.
 Set ISO to 100 and aperture to f8 to f11 and then meter the scene.

A whisk of steel wool will burn for around 10 seconds. You need to have at least 5 seconds of exposure time to capture the spinning motion.

Set the white balance to auto or tungsten.

Take a test shot to see how to background looks. I prefer 1 to 2 stops dimmer than normal exposure because the burning steel wool will brighten up the environment. If everything looks good, switch to manual mode and copy the metered setting.

Light up the steel wool and start spinning. I normally release the shutter while I start spinning the steel wool for 1 lab. You can experiment with other timings for releasing the shutter.

Spinning Techniques

Once you have set up your camera correctly, you can start spinning wool. Different spinning will offer you a different image. Below are a few techniques that I have learned from my experience.

Vertical Spinning

Spinning vertically will give you a nice fire circle with sparks flying out beautifully.

Horizontal Spinning

Horizontal spinning will make the sparks feel much closer. The sparks flying towards the camera will create a line of attention.

Spinning while you Walk

When you spin while walking, you will get vortex-like images. This spinning technique is particularly effective with a dark background.

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Kevin Choi

Kevin Choi is a freelance photographer who has a love for landscape and wildlife. He's the founder of CaptureTheMoment, and has been carrying a Nikon with him since 2008. He never stops dreaming, and neither should you.