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Steel Wool Photography: Everything You Need to Know

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One of the most impressive effects of LightPhoto is the one achieved with steel wool. With this tool, we can create really spectacular effects in our shots. As we will see later, it does not take a lot of investment to do this technique, and its execution is very simple.

I remember that one of the first things I did when I discovered night photography was to buy steel wool. Seeing those images of lightning earrings sparking all over the place piqued my curiosity and I couldn’t wait long to try it out.

I will tell you first what you need for this type of photo and how to make them. Then, I’ll tell a short story of my first experience and maybe you can pick something out of it as well.

Let’s begin.

Material for Steel Wool Photography

Except for steel wool, you can surely find the rest of the materials looking around the house. The following ones are those that I used, but you can always change some materials for others to get a different effect. Within this technique, there are many ways to execute it, but one of the simplest is the one I tell you below.

Fine Steel Wool

The fundamental thing is, of course, the wool.

You can find it in hardware stores. Steel wood is used to polish surfaces, it is very cheap and comes in rolls, so you can buy as much as you need. When you order it, don’t forget to ask for the FINE one. That is very important. Why? It is the one that burns the best and does not come off when moved at high speed. Those of other thicknesses do not light well, and when we make the turn, pieces will come off, taking away the homogeneity that is so pleasing in these shots.

Small Painter Roller

I recommend that you buy a simple roller – the simplest and cheapest you can find. With the smaller roller, it will be easier for us to grasp it, and you will be able to have more control when making the circumference. Hence, the perfect circles are achieved more easily.

A Cord or Rope

Be generous with the length. The rope we will pass through the hole of the roller control, and we will make a knot. The length that we leave hanging is important because that is how the circumference will be wide. A roll of thin rope is sufficient.

An Office Clip

Additionally, the rope should be linked to a hook that attaches to the steel wool. An office clip will do the job of holding the steel wool tied to the rope just fine. It also makes it convenient for us to replace it. Some also use the typical metal whisk to place the steel wool inside. You run the risk of the burning wool detaching but if done properly, it is quite unlikely. So that is another option to keep in mind.

Lighter

It may seem silly but write it down as well. It feels very bad to prepare the scene and not have a lighter.

Flashlights

They will be useful both to focus and to move at night.

Tripod

As you will understand, freehand shooting is impossible or not recommended at all, so I advise you to do this process with a tripod.

Preparation for the Steel Wool Night Photo

First, obviously, we will put the wool in the support (the clip), and we will take the roller (by the roller, not by the handle). Your roller should have a hole in the handle to pass the rope through it and tie a knot so that it does not come off. If the roller does not have a hole, you can use masking tape to attach the rope to the handle of the roller.

Tie the other end of the rope to the clip. I usually leave enough rope and wrap the excess around the handle, so I can adjust the size of the circumference. Finally, have about 10 to 15 cm of steel wool within the clip.

I Propose the Following Technique

We position ourselves on the site that we want to make the figure. Then we light the steel wool with a lighter. When it has been lit, we begin to turn, and when we have “mastered” the turn, our partner will activate the camera.

You can stop the shot whenever you want, even before all the wool is consumed (it will last about 5 or 6 seconds, it depends on the amount).

Trick: You can compress the steel wool so that a few big sparks come out, or open it up so that it is better consumed and many more sparks consequently come out. It all depends on the result you are looking for.

Adjusting the Camera

There is a configuration that will help you get the correct exposure for this type of photo in dark spaces.

Set your camera to f/8 and ISO400 and you will get the correct exposure for the sparks that jump out. The circumference will obviously appear burned by the time it is illuminated during the shot. Try these settings and lower the ISO if you see that the scene is overexposed.

As for the exposure time, select the BULB mode. As you know, to adjust it you will have to take the shutter speed beyond 30″ and the BULB mode will appear. It consists of the shutter being kept open while the shutter button is pressed.

Holding down the shutter can make you move the camera unintentionally and your photo comes out jittery. A trigger cable is the best solution here. For more budget-friendly options, there are copies of the originals and they work perfectly. Choose the one that is compatible with your camera and gain much with little money invested.

Tip: If you get lost with these terms, I advise you to research this first and practice with your camera. You can also bring a photographer friend with you that knows about this stuff.

Taking the Shots

  • Find the angle from where you are going to photograph and place the camera on the tripod. Also place the person who is going to do the circumference with the steel wool, which further indicates that they will not be able to move once you have focused.
  • Focus using the flashlight, illuminate your partner, focus with the automatic focus, and then change it to manual so as not to modify it during the shot.
  • Turn off the flashlights.
  • Ask your partner to light the steel wool and start rotating the roller with the arm locked, that is, the circumference is marked by the movement of the roller, not the arm.
  • As soon as you see that it has started to release sparks and the circumference is already happening, press the trigger in BULB mode, and when you think it has been enough, release the trigger without your partner having stopped spinning the yarn. Any movement with the wool lit will be captured by the camera, so if your partner leaves the scene with the steel wool still on, they will leave a trail of light behind.
  • Try again by changing the scene or the position of the circumference. Place it over your head like a cowboy lasso, behind you, on the side, include items such as an umbrella, or create a story. Have fun while experimenting!

One More Technique to Practice Which Is Also Fun

In development, you can play with the highlights to give more strength to the sparks, saturate the oranges and yellows, or change their tone.

Use walls to bounce the sparks. Try doing it with several people and circles, moving while doing the circles, etc. There are thousands of possibilities, you can even include flash hits to illuminate the surroundings of the scene. You already know that as long as you do not release the shutter the shot will not stop so you have time.

Precautions

Help: To take shots with steel wool, I recommend you go with someone because it will be much easier to take the shots. Why invite someone else to come with you? It will be an interesting experience even if they don’t like photography. If you decide to do it, just be prepared to practice your patience as well.

Be very careful: Forget about practicing this technique in dry times or places with the risk of fire! The best places are abandoned buildings, beaches, river banks without vegetation, parking lots, etc. It is a dangerous activity in which you can easily cause a disaster, so be extra careful. Also, try to do it with long sleeves, a hat or cap, glasses, and other protective clothes or accessories. As they say, whoever plays with fire ends up burning.

The steel wool that I usually handle (fine steel wool) does not burn. But if a piece were to detach, and fall in contact with our skin, it can cause certain injuries. Usually, it is nothing as serious for you to go to see the doctor, but some burn marks can be seen and felt.

I’ve been doing these scenes for a long time, and I’ve never had an accident, but it’s always better to be safe …

Well, on a certain occasion, I did have one for not taking the necessary precautions. Once I left the ball of wool in sight, a spark fell on it and came out burning. Needless to say, I had to step on it until it went out. A waste of good steel wool, pitty.

My First Experience

My friend brought his professional photography equipment, a Canon 1D Mark-IV reflex camera, and several of his L-series lenses from the same Japanese manufacturer. For the example photo that illustrates this night photography article, we used a Canon 24-70mm F2.8 lens. So we used enviable photographic equipment for these steel wool light painting photos.

The purpose of this outing was to make the first contact with this type of technique since my friend and I talked about it some time ago. Then, it only remained to get down to work. For this we got the necessary materials to take the photos – a painter’s roller with a long but small arm, steel wool, wire, and a lighter (those mentioned in the beginning). Photographic equipment consisting of a tripod, camera, and lens. If possible, a locking self-timer to take photos in bulb mode is much appreciated.

To take these photos we use the material and equipment as follows:

  • Reflex camera mounted on a tripod with a self-timer (we did not have a locking shutter)
  • One photographer located in the camera objective (me)
  • Another photographer performing the effect (my friend)
  • To achieve the effect, we added pieces of steel wool to the handle of the painter’s roller and we took it upside down to be able to draw circumferences once we had the wool on. Long exposure of the camera and non-stop spinning until the end of the exposure.

I moved from left to right in the photo to draw a kind of corkscrew to be seen in the photo. The gear and settings used for this light painting photo are as follows: Canon Eos 1D Mark-IV camera, Canon EF 24-70mm F2.8 L-series lens, Manfrotto tripod with articulated ball head, exposure time 30 seconds, ISO speed 50, 24 millimeters focal length, and aperture of F/11.

A Final Word From Run Gun Shoot

All in all, it was quite fun any time I did this kind of shot. The sparks are amazing and it was quite a sight to see. Also, if you have more people with you doing the same thing, or creating different circumferences, the result will be absolutely astounding. My favorite part is when sparks bounce off the wall! It takes a lot of time to perfect such an effect but it is definitely worth it!

Do you think you can do it? Do you have any unique ideas for your steel wool photography session? Try it out as it is easy, cheap, and much fun! And be cautious.  A photo is not worth burning down anything.

Article by:

RunGunShoot Team

Our detailed review has been contributed to by multiple members of the Run Gun Shoot Review Team to ensure the best research and highest standard of quality. Have a good or a bad experience with one of the products? Please let us know, we love the feedback!

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