When making a trek to Adorama for some new toys, you never expect one of their staff to come up to you and ask “Do you want to burn some steel wool . . . in the store?” After totaling up the cost of all the electronics that would be damaged and/or destroyed, burnt to a crisp and coated in charred steel, I thought it would be a great idea. Now don’t get me wrong, there are thousands (if not tens of thousands) of videos on YouTube, but there’s a lot of tips that I had to figure out while trying it out. The technique is actually really simple, and there’s not much gear required at all.
- Camera and lens (required) – If I have to explain that you need a camera and lens to shoot steel wool photography, maybe you should not be trying to take pictures of burning objects. However, I do recommend a wide lens (I usually use my 17-35mm) to capture all of the flying pieces of steel wool and some of the environment around the spinner.
- Tripod (optional) – Now when I shoot steel wool, I always have a tripod with me, but to be honest, you may not need it. You can always rest your camera on a bench, rail or table top. The point is to keep your camera stable (and not in your hands) while you or another person is spinning the steel wool.
- UV Filter (optional) – Now there is no reason why you NEED a UV filter on your lens to shoot steel wool. However, you have got to keep in mind that there will be flaming clumps of steel wool flying about at high speeds. Small clumps often separate and are still on fire. You got to ask yourself: If a flaming piece of steel wool hits your camera lens, do you want to replace a filter or do you want to replace a lens?
- Rope/Cord/String/Leash (required) – Yeah, I’m going to have to call this one a requirement. If you don’t have anything to swing the steel wool around with, you’re pretty much left with a flaming piece of metal in your hand. Not cool. (See what I did there?) Make sure you get a cord that’s at least two and a half feet long. Swing steel wool in small circles may make an interesting fire cocoon effect, but that means you have sparks very close to you.
- Whisk (optional) – Now while I will admit that having a whisk is optional, I think it’s one of the most important materials to keep this technique safe. I’ve already stated that pieces of steel wool can separate and go flying out while still on fire. A whisk acts as a cage to keep the steel wool in place. Don’t buy a cheap one either. Thin whisks will melt very easily and leave huge gaps for the steel wool to escape and whisks with few bands are pretty much useless. If you’re attaching the whisk by the loop at the end of the handle, make sure it’s very sturdy. You don’t want your whisk flying into someone’s face while containing burning steel wool. Don’t believe that the whisk is very important? Then check out this picture of my neck after trying this with a 99 cent store whisk. Those dots are pieces of steel wool still in my skin.
- Remote (optional) – I usually go photo walking with at least one or two other photographers, so I really don’t need a remote trigger for my camera. But if you’re going to try this alone (Mother of all that is holy, don’t! If an accident happens, who’ll be there to help?), a remote will help you trigger your shutter without constantly running back to your camera. You can also try using the exposure delay or self timer features (if your camera has these features), but a remote would be much more convenient.
- Non-flammable / Empty Location (required) – Yeah, I said it required. Suppose you go burn down a building or a forest or blind someone. What’s the first thing out of your mouth when the cops come? “Brooklyn said to do it!” I will not get sued for your injury-causing negligence so make sure where ever you decide to try this is empty and doesn’t have anything that could catch fire. The beach is a good place when it’s empty.
- Steel Wool (required) – Yeah, so how do you plan on shooting steel wool . . . . without steel wool? Granted, sparklers may make a safer substitute, but they’re nowhere near as grand! Most videos will tell you to get a fine (0) steel wool, but I’ve noticed that the fine steel wool is difficult to light if the weather is cold, windy and/or the air is moist. Extra-fine (00) has never given me a problem. Stick to 00, 000 or 0000 grades of steel wool.
- Lighter/Battery (required) – So the sparks come from setting the steel wool on fire and spinning it around. Why would I need a battery you ask? (Someone did not watch any of the videos on the link I provided.) If you don’t have a lighter, rubbing the terminals of a 9-volt battery can spark the steel wool. If you put the battery in a sock, you can ward off anyone trying to steal your camera! (Can you tell I was born and raised in Brooklyn?)
If you’ve ever taken long exposures or tried light painting, you pretty much know the basics of shooting steel wool photography:
- Compose – Set up your tripod and compose your shot. I usually compose my picture as if I am shooting an urban or landscape style shot and add my steel wool as the main component. A dark blue sky compliments bright burning fire very well. Moving clouds or water in the background will also add another component to your photograph.
- Expose - Set your ISO, aperture and shutter speed to expose the background to your liking. I recommend setting the aperture between F7.1 and F13. Apertures at F16 or higher can start dimming the steel wool. Setting the aperture lower than F7.1 may make it difficult not to overexpose.
- Loosen – No, not you! Well okay, maybe you want to stretch. When your done, unravel and loosen up that piece of steel wool. It usually comes in a densely wound pad. If you keep it that way, it will be more difficult for oxygen to get in those fibers and help it burn. Loosen it until you can see through it, but don’t rip it to pieces.
- Stuff – Stuff the steel wool into the whisk, but not too much. Too much steel wool in the whisk will make the steel wool dense and harder to burn.
- Attach – Clip the end of your dog leash to the loop on the handle of the whisk. Deciding where you want the sparks to go will determine how you spin the leash.
Now you’re ready to light your steel wool and take a picture. Try spinning for a second before you trigger your camera shutter. This way you can have a perfect circle in the final shot, instead of seeing a light trail where your whisk was laying on the ground.
- The clothing you are wearing can change your image. Darker clothing won’t show in a long exposure picture in the dark. Light clothing will reflect a lot more light. Also, wear loose layers of clothing in case a piece of steel wool hits your shirt. Loose clothing is quicker and easier to remove. Also, don’t wear anything valuable. Burning steel wool can leave little holes in your clothing that you might never even notice while it’s happening.
- Goggles are a really good idea to protect your eyes. A hooded sweater might help to protect eyes and hair too. Especially if you use Aqua Net. Oh yes, I went there!
- Find a spot that has a non-flammable structure and direct your sparks towards it. The light from the sparks will define the shape of the structure or object.
I’ve included converted this tutorial as a PDF so you can take it with on your phones or tablets. As always, feel free to send me questions or pictures of steel wool that you have taken. If you want to try this technique with others, the NYC Photographers MeetUp group is having a Steel Wool event this Saturday. We’re also having a Steel Wool Photography Contest, so stay tuned to see the top images submitted by the attendees.