A Guide to Steel Wool Lightpainting

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Ever wanted to cause some mischief in the night? In this tipster, I'll explain the do's and don'ts of steel wool lightpainting, so you can go out and create some pretty cool photos, and feel like a total badass while doing so.

Some time ago, I was wasting my time on the internet again, when I stumbled upon some incredible fiery photos. I got way too excited (I have the character of a little doggy when it comes to spectacular stuff), did some research, and the next weekend I was ready to try this steel wool photography for myself. I got to say, I had so much fun and I’m pretty pleased with the results too, especially considering that I’m a total rookie when it comes to analog photography. So, I’ve decided to share my experiences with you, because it’s an amazing technique you really should try. Just, try not to burn your city down or something.

Alright, down to business. You need this:

  • Your camera (I used my Sprocket Rocket , but any camera with a bulb setting will do)
  • Film (I used Fuji Superia 200 and Lomography CN 400, both worked fine)
  • A tripod might come in handy, we’re talking long exposure here.
  • A whisk, preferably one you won’t be needing in the kitchen anymore.
  • A lanyard or a steel cable you can attach to the whisk.
  • Some steel wool (the fibers mustn’t be too thick, grade 0 to grade 0000 will do, I used 00), you can find it in any hardware store.
  • A lighter or a 9 volt battery.
  • Depending on how safe you want to play it, some protective clothing, something that doesn’t catch on fire too easily would be nice.
A roll of steel wool, photo taken from here

So, the idea is this: you attach a cable to a whisk so you can swing it around in a circle. This was my very professional construction:


Next, you take a bit of steel wool, enough to fill the whisk. You can puff it up a little, so you get more airflow and more sparks. Fine steel wool ignites easily, using a lighter you can ignite it just a little bit, so the steel wool is smoldering in one or two places. Once you start spinning the whisk, the airflow will cause the rest of the steel wool to catch on fire. Alternatively, you can use a 9 volt battery to ignite the steel wool. If you use a battery, DO NOT keep the steel wool and the battery in the same compartment of your bag, like I said, it ignites fairly easily.
While you are spinning, the burning steel wool will generate sparks, the faster you spin the whisk, the more sparks you’ll get. Depending on the amount, it will burn for 5-20 seconds.

Using a camera with a bulb setting, you can capture this entire sparking process. Obviously it is essential not to move your camera, so bring a tripod or use a stable surface. The easiest way would be to bring some friends along, I don’t think using a cable release is very practical in this case, and you’ll have loads of fun. Here are some of the pictures I took:

Credits: math0165

Now, location is everything here! The sparks will bounce of any surface they encounter, so think tunnels, bridges, narrow alleys, … If you’re lucky enough to have an abandoned factory nearby, perfect, the sparks in the industrial environment will be awesome. One thing you should consider is not attracting too much attention though, you don’t want concerned neighbors or the cops shutting your photoshoot down.

Excited yet? Well, you should, but there’s one more thing, and this is a big one. It’s time to talk about safety.

  • You know how I said location is everything? Well, this applies both to the aesthetical and the practical and safe side of this technique. You’ll be flinging sparks all over the place, and they can fly pretty far, so be sure to pick a spot where you won’t set fire to anything. If you’re spinning near grass, shrubs or trees, only do this after it has been raining, if there is any chance you’ll set anything on fire, don’t do it! Beaches are pretty good when it comes to safety, but be prepared to attract some attention.
  • For your first few tries, I recommend good, protective clothing. Long sleeves, trousers, a hoodie or something else to cover your hair, gloves, maybe glasses. This is even more important when your spinning under a ceiling, because sparks will fall back down on you. It doesn’t hurt when they fall on your hands or arms or whatever, but I guess you wouldn’t want them in your hair.
  • More dangerous than the little sparks, sometimes bigger chunks of steel wool can detach and fly off. These are basically pieces of molten metal and they will continue to burn for some time. If you see this happening, make sure it has stopped smoldering before you continue with your next picture. These bigger pieces are incredibly hot, so be careful.
  • It is a good idea to bring a fire extinguisher, obviously for safety, but it also comes in handy when someone comes asking questions, so you can prove you don’t intend to burn the entire neighborhood down.
  • Make sure you keep the rest of your steel wool somewhere the sparks can’t reach it. One spark on your roll of steel wool and it is very likely your shoot is over.
  • When you are finished shooting, stay on the scene for a couple more minutes, make sure you didn’t start any fires, check the environment properly!

Okay, now you can get started. If you do decide to try it after reading this, send me a message when you upload your pictures or something, I can’t wait to see what all you people can do with this technique. Add some models, include other lightpainting techniques, try some crazy perspectives, find the best location, anything goes. Be careful, but most importantly, have fun!

written by math0165 on 2013-04-01 in #gear #tipster

30 Comments

  1. pangmark
    pangmark ·

    Wow! Total coolness!

  2. weleasewoger72
    weleasewoger72 ·

    I bought some steel wool last year to try this out but haven't got around to doing it yet. I really must get off my lazy ass and try it out.

  3. bunnyears
    bunnyears ·

    I so wanna try this one! Thanks for sharing!

  4. ihave2pillows
    ihave2pillows ·

    haha that's awesome!

  5. dida
    dida ·

    this is in my to do list ;)

  6. segata
    segata ·

    Looks awesome, clothing wise I can recommend mechanics overalls, I know from experiance that they dont catch fire that easiley and protect well from sparks and molten metal, they also pull on easiley over regular clothes so you can pull them on at the loacation rather than risk prying questions whilst on the way. :)

  7. mafiosa
    mafiosa ·

    I've been wanting to try this for a while now.

  8. bsdunek
    bsdunek ·

    Wow, so cool! Safety is important though. I once almost set our garage on fire because I was using a grinder and steel wool was nearby.
    I'm going to try this soon.

  9. math0165
    math0165 ·

    @bsdunek @mafiosa segata @dida @ihave2pillows @bunnyears @weleasewoger72 @pangmark @foro @guitarleo @vicker313 @sobetion @psit @tonantzin @stionojr @andronidze @neanderthalis @ghanndeee @fartstorm @ icuresick @diomaxwelle
    Thanks a lot! I really appreciate it. I'm going to have another session myself in a couple of weeks, I encountered some places where I think this stuff would look great :) Have fun!

  10. math0165
    math0165 ·

    @segata @icuresick see above

  11. sassa_b
    sassa_b ·

    I must admit, this is the most stunning light painting technique I have ever seen :D
    But I guess I'm too much of a coward to try it out myself..

  12. lomographer-88
    lomographer-88 ·

    You said you used the "B" mode, but how long do you open the shutter?
    Nice tipster and nicely explained keep UP!!

  13. math0165
    math0165 ·

    @lomographer-88 : I had no idea myself, so I basically kept the shutter open until the steel wool had stopped sparking, I'm guessing most of these pictures had a shutter time of 10 seconds, in a range of 5-20 seconds. Thanks! :)

  14. ck_berlin
    ck_berlin ·

    I wrote an article about steel wool light painting last year for the german magazine: www.lomography.com/magazine/tipster/2012/11/21/jetzt-wird-e…

  15. stouf
    stouf ·

    This kicks ass so badly that sparkles are coming out of it.

  16. lokified
    lokified ·

    Amazing! Also dangerous. But also amazing!

  17. micky_s
    micky_s ·

    excellent!!!

  18. gm_mcleod
    gm_mcleod ·

    I am SO doing this this weekend!! I'm super pumped!!

  19. stouf
    stouf ·

    This is very similar to @ck_berlin 's article. Where did you get the idea of using a whisk?

  20. math0165
    math0165 ·

    @stouf : He told me in the comments. Didn't know it was there, and apparently it never got translated from German, so yeah. Credit where credit is due, he made some really cool pictures as well :) ck_berlin used a whisk as well, if I look at the pictures in his article. I did some research before I tried it myself, and almost everything I found recommended to use a whisk, so I went with that. Didn't really consider any alternatives. One guy used iron wire to tie his steel wool together, but that didn't seem practical at all to me.

  21. stouf
    stouf ·

    ok, all good mate : ) I am a bit too sensitive with plagiarism I guess...

  22. math0165
    math0165 ·

    @stouf , rightfully so, but I really didn't know. If I write another article I'll check the site a bit more thorough, to see whether I'm not late to the party again or something, hehe :)

  23. math0165
    math0165 ·

    *thoroughly. This site needs an 'edit your comment' button

  24. stouf
    stouf ·

    Cheers : )

  25. ck_berlin
    ck_berlin ·

    @stouf @math0165: My inspiration came from this youtube video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJkBLMhXvcQ
    The guy who made ​​this video is called "PhotoExtremist" and makes a lot of other cool stuff. Check out his youtube channel: www.youtube.com/user/PhotoExtremist?feature=watch

  26. schlogoat
    schlogoat ·

    Some of us can't read German, so I reckon it was needed. Ace article, have just bought some steel wool :D

  27. math0165
    math0165 ·

    @schlogoat : sweet, send me a message when you get the results! :)

  28. buckshot
    buckshot ·

    This technique works a treat! Check out @tacokid's results here: www.lomography.com/homes/tacokid/albums/1954425-rocketfire

  29. math0165
    math0165 ·

    @buckshot @tacokid Awesome shots :) Love the one where you combine the steel wool with the normal lightpainting!
    @schlogoat nailed it as well, check out her photos! www.lomography.com/homes/schlogoat/albums/1955771-night-sho…

  30. math0165

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