How to Photograph Using Steel Wool

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Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2. | Source
(CC BY-SA 2.0
(CC BY-SA 2.0 | Source
CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

Ready to try a different technique of photographing at night? The are many techniques that can be used to create a photographic project that is both unusual yet can be fun as well as capable of producing some rarely seen and very pleasing effects.

Many of you have perhaps heard of tying a light emitting diode unto a string and twirling it while your camera records the light patterns. Steel wool is nothing more than thin strings of steel which are intertwined into a "mushy" bundle that will actually burn. The project includes some steel wool rated at a consistency of zero (nothing higher), something in which to safely enclosed it, like a wire whisk tool, a string to tie the whisk to, a square 9 volt battery or lighter, a tripod and off course a camera.

"Unmush" the steel wool and place it inside the whisk, tie the end of the whisk with the string cord, set up your camera on the tripod, pre focus your camera unto a specific spot preferably in the middle of where you will be standing while you twirl the steel wool. Once everything is in place, rub the positive and negative ends of the battery onto the wool. Soon it will start to spark and catch on fire.

The fire will last for approximately 20 seconds. Be ready with the camera set to manual focus and the shutter set to B for bulb, which will keep the shutter open until you depress it again. As you twirl the steel wool contraption, sparks will be emitted outwards and their light will be recorded by your camera.

Some precautions are in order before you take on this project; first be aware that you will be "playing " with fire, so keeping a water container near or a fire extinguisher is advisable. The location where to hold this project must also be considered. Since you will be producing sparks you must not do this project where there is anything that can catch on fire such as dry grass, near any combustibles, indoors or near people. Also very advisable is to wear a head cover, a long sleeved shirt, long pants and shoes that completely cover your feet, and eye protection. You should also lightly moisten your clotting prior to commencing, just in case to be safe.

After the steel wool fully burns, some sparks or embers are still possible so exercise care and extinguish it completely. It is also advisable to use a string cord which is manageable, you don't want it so long that it will be rubbing against any surfaces or too short that you risk sparks falling on you.

The twirling motion will show in photos as round light shapes. Because the color of flames tends to be yellowish you should use a tungsten balanced film or set your digital for such. Judge the distance between you and the camera and set the f stop accordingly to catch the action but not much behind it. For added effects, use a colored cellophane placed in front of the lens. This will have the effect of rendering the rays in the color of the cellophane. Alternative you can use a colored filter.

You may have to practice this technique several times to experiment with the shutter speeds and color balance since the cellophane or filters may alter the camera settings.

Keep in mind that since this project requires someone to physically create the movement, you will more than likely be visible in the photographs. If you want to minimize your presence and since this has to be done at night and way from lights, wearing dark clothing maybe be required.

An alternative, although requiring more effort and some technical savvy, is to use a battery powered drill which has been secured onto a table or another platform in order to keep the twirling mass from grinding into the ground, and to which the end of the string cord has been secured or you can also eliminate the cord altogether and by using a long drill bit to which you attach the handle end of the whisk you still get similar results. This set up does not create the same effects because the sparks will not fly outwards as much or as far. You may also need someone to create the spark or flame that will ignite the wool and then to set the drill in motion. You should shoot the images straight on for better effects and to capture the motion in its entirety.

CC BY-SA 3.0
CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

This project can be a creative way of trying different photo themes and new styles and allows one to experiment with various techniques seldom used.

Most of the images obtained this way can be used by photography publications although this project is mostly done to try new things and for fun, since not everything in life or likewise in photography has to be undertaken with profit in mind.

I know I have said it before, but always take the necessary precautions and keep safety in mind at all times.

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© 2011 Luis E Gonzalez

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Comments 13 comments

Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

This is SO cool. Thanks for these ideas. I have photographed fire before but never like this. Whoo!!!


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Hyphenbird: Thank yo, and by the way this project is really easy to master although you should have someone assisting you, preferably with the twirling.


Dana Hinders profile image

Dana Hinders 5 years ago

This is a wonderful and very creative idea. Thank you so much for sharing.


Cardisa profile image

Cardisa 5 years ago from Jamaica

I like this one too Luis. I was so glued to every word. You make it seem to simple but fire is dangerous and with all the wild fires going around, we have to be extra careful. Thanks for the lessons.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Dana Hinders: Thank you , glad that you found it to your liking


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Cardisa: Thank you, not really hard to do with just some small precautions and the seashore or beach are good places to do this.


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

I would need someone else to hold the steel wool and move it around while I took the pictures. I never realized that steel wool was a fire hazard.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

FloraBreeRobinson:Thank you, yes part of the project should involve someone to assist you


randomcreative profile image

randomcreative 5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wow, the examples are stunning! What an interesting technique. Thanks for the detailed instructions.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

randomcreative: thank you


anusha15 profile image

anusha15 5 years ago from Delhi, India

A very informative hub. The pictures were great too. I won't be able to try it any time soon, but may be some time.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

anusha15: Thank you


Perry the Cat profile image

Perry the Cat 4 years ago from Mouskin, Texas

Thanks for sending me to this link. My dad taught me this years ago but I never thought of taking a picture of the fire. I always figured steel wool was just for knitting small cars and scooters.

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