Videos: Steel Wool Light Painting

Posted by Gary Ramey on June 7th, 2012

Warning! Even though burning steel wool creates spectacular effects, it is dangerous and you need to take safety precautions for yourself and everything around you!!

The first video does a great job of giving you a brief rundown of how to take photographs of burning steel wool but I highly recommend that you also view the second video before trying out the technique. The second video goes into much greater depth about the process and the reasons for needing to be safe.

Equipment Needed

  • Steel wool (000, 00, or 0 — 000 burns easier than 0)
  • Wire whisk (egg beater)
  • Chain (even though you could use something else, I suggest using something non-flammable like a metal chain)
  • 9-volt battery or cigarette lighter
  • Gloves (the second video shows what can happen to your hand when spinning the wire whisk around)
  • Hat or hoodie
  • Long sleeves
  • Protective goggles (surprisingly, neither video mentions protective eyewear)
  • Fire extinguisher (the second video describes that happened when a wad of molten metal hit the windshield of their car, caught the windshield wiper on fire, and damaged the windshield itself)
  • Wet cloth
  • Camera capable of taking long exposures
  • Tripod
  • Shutter release
  • Flashlight

Safety Precautions

  • Make sure you are not near anything that can catch fire — dry grass, wood, cloth, paper, etc. can easily ignite
  • Immediately after it has rained is a good time to spin burning steel wool in order to reduce the chances of catching something on fire
  • The distance the sparks fly depend on how fast or hard you spin the steel wool — ensure that you are not near anything that could catch fire
  • Wear the protective clothing and goggles listed under equipment
  • Don’t try this alone! I suggest having someone else trigger the camera and have the fire extinguisher ready

Both videos show someone at the shore of a lake or the ocean when taking photographs of burning steel wool. Check your local ordinances to be sure that you won’t get arrested! For instance, the following is an excerpt from Fort Lauderdale’s Beach Rules and Regulations.

No person shall discharge any fireworks on any portion of the City Beach unless done as part of a special event authorized by the City. Fireworks shall mean any combustible or explosive composition or substance or combination of substance or any article prepared for the purpose of producing a visible or audible effect by combustion, explosion, deflagration or detonation, including sparklers.

Considering that burning steel wool is quite a bit more dramatic than a sparkler, it would not be a good idea to try this on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. Check your local ordinances! Who knows? You might be able to apply for a permit.

Camera Settings

  • Manual for everything including focus (auto functions will fail at night)
  • ISO 100 for Canon cameras and ISO 200 for Nikon cameras
  • F/9 (the first video recommends a more open lens but from my experience, it is better to stop down the lens when taking night shots so that focus is not so critical)
  • Shutter speed depends on the ambient light in the scene (the second video gives a great explanation of how to layer two exposures in Photoshop so that you can expose one photograph for the environment and another for the burning steel wool)
  • Turn off image stabilization

Follow this link to find out more about burning steel wool and other special effects.


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