Create a spark filled photo with steel wool

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You can create surreal spark filled photos by burning steel wool during a long exposure photograph. In this article we'll look at what's involved to get great photos like this:

Wheel of sparks from spinning burning steel wool
Black Materia by joo0ey on flickr (licensed CC-BY)

You can watch a video of Evan Sharboneau explaining the technique below. Check out his website and book for more special effects photography ideas and tutorials.

To make a spark filled photo you will need:

  • Thin steel wool, grade 0 or below.
  • Something to hold the steel wool in, a balloon whisk with a long wire attached so you can swing the whisk round works well.
  • A tripod or some other form of support to keep your camera steady.
  • A lighter or 9V (PP3) battery to light the wool.

Fluff out the steel wool, then place it carefully inside the balloon whisk. Attach a long piece of wire to the handle of the whisk. This will let you swing the burning wool around to create showers of sparks.

Psychic ray - burning steel wool spun while walking along the edge of a pool
Psychic ray by Grainsdecesames on flickr (licensed CC-BY)

A long exposure is needed to capture all the sparks, so you need to take the photo when it is dark. If shooting outside, it can be a good idea to find a suitable location while still light, as then you can check for any potential fire issues more easily. If you're shooting inside an unlit building, bring a torch to check for any potential issues.

Set your camera up on a tripod. Because you're shooting at night and want to expose for the burning sparks, the camera's auto exposure modes won't be much use. Set the camera to manual mode, and use the settings of ISO 200, aperture of f/8, and shutter speed of 30s as a starting point.

For focusing the camera, you can either focus the camera manually to the correct focus distance, or use the trick Evan shared in the video above. This is to use a small LED penlight, and place it where you will be standing when burning the wool. Go back to the camera and autofocus on the LED light. When the camera has focused, switch the camera to manual focus to lock in the correct focus.

Depending on how close your camera is to where you will be burning the wool, it may be a good idea to give your camera some protection as well. A soft hat (e.g. a beanie) can be placed over the top of the camera. A clear filter (e.g. a Skylight, UV, or NC filter) can be used on the front of the lens to avoid the possibility of any sparks hitting the front element of the lens.

burning steel wool spun round in a tunnel
louisville-steel-wool by ronald_bowes on flickr (licensed CC-BY)

If you are shooting by yourself, then put the camera on self timer mode, trigger the shutter, and walk to the position where your camera is focused. If you have someone else with you, then they can trigger the camera when you are in position (or vice versa).

As the steel wool burns, burning bits fall off. If you swing the wool around as it burns, this creates a shower of sparks. Taking a long exposure photograph means that the camera captures the trails of the brightly burning sparks as they fly off the steel wool.

You can spin the burning wool in a circle above your head. Or in a circle in front of you. Or spin it in circles around yourself, gradually changing the angle to create an orb. Or walk around while spinning the wool. There are no rules, and all techniques can result in fantastic photos.

Burning Steel Wool Photography
Steel Wool Photography by Betchaboy on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)

While burning steel wool makes for great photos, you obviously need to take some safety precautions. You should cover yourself up as much as possible to avoid being burnt by flying sparks.

Wearing a hooded top or jacket is a good idea to protect the back of your neck and the top of your head. Wear safety goggles to protect your eyes. Don't wear your best clothes when doing this, unless you don't mind the risk of them getting burn marks.

When looking for a location for burning steel wool photos, you first want to consider if the location is safe. If the area is covered with dry grass or leaves, then swinging around burning steel wool is not going to be a good idea.

Concrete and asphalt are good surfaces for working on. They won't burn when the sparks hit them. The sparks can bounce up from the hard surface, which creates a good effect in the photo.

Flame Wall
Flame Wall by DanDeChiaro on flickr (licensed CC-BY)

It is a good idea to try and find somewhere remote, or at least a location where there are unlikely to be any people around. You don't want to risk sparks burning other people. And you don't really want to attract unwanted attention while you're taking the photo.

If you would like to create a burning rain style photo you (or an assistant) will need to position themselves above the scene. This dictates your location needs somewhat, unless you want to bring a step ladder with you.

Having someone stand still with an umbrella under the shower of sparks helps with the illusion of burning rain.

Through the Fire - rain of sparks from burning steel wool
Through the Fire by JDMCompliant (Josell Mariano) on flickr (© All rights reserved, used with permission)

Natural environments can be safe for burning steel wool after it has rained heavily. When everything is covered in rain, it's unlikely to catch on fire.

Burning steel wool sparks wheel outside
steel wool! by Ben Mortimer Photography on flickr (licensed CC-BY)

If you can find a location near water, try getting some shots that include reflections of the burning sparks.

Lava Orb Below - burning steel wool spun in an orb pattern, with a reflection in the water below
Lava Orb Below by Jinx! on flickr (licensed CC-BY)

As a final point, if you want to try making spark filled photos, make sure to be safe. Keep to safe locations where there isn't anything likely to catch fire. And bring a fire extinguisher just in case. Small 1 kg fire extinguishers aren't too expensive or heavy, and may save you from a problem just in case something does catch fire.

Written by Discover Digital Photography

December 23rd, 2012 at 12:28 pm

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