Steel Wool Photography Tutorial

Steel Wool Photography is both super fun and really easy too! The most expensive item you will need is your camera, so if you already have a DSLR camera, this project can be FREE. The rest of the materials (we’ll look at these later) you may already have; if not they are easy and cheap to buy. I had everything apart from the steel wool to begin with, but the most you’ll need to spend on this project is around $4 to $5.

If you would prefer to watch some videos on How to do Steel Wool Photography please Skip to the bottom of this article where we have included a few Youtube videos to cover this topic as well.

This is an awesome project for any amateur photographer who just got a DSLR camera. But don’t worry if you don’t already have one, because you can probably still do this. I’ll explain later how you can do steel wool photography with your iphone later.

To start, I’d just like to say that this type of photography is nothing new: in fact, this technique (and the images produced by using it) has been around for many years. So let’s look at how to begin and what you’ll need to complete a fun project in Steel Wool Photography!

Step 1: SAFETY FIRST

OK, so you may be thinking

“how can a camera and a bit of steel wool be dangerous?”

but if you’ve seen the cover image, you’ll notice that fire is involved! Just a small spark in the wrong place, at the wrong time, can lead to fire spreading and getting out of control very quickly. In fact, it’s already happened to me: I was following the instructions but still managed to start a small fire (sheepish face) and had to call the fire department. Luckily I managed to put the fire out before they arrived, but flames spread quickly and for a moment it was pretty hairy out there! That’s why, as well as taking normal care in following the instructions, picking a good location is critical – and I’m going to go into some depth on this subject later. Meanwhile, remember – WE WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY FIRES THAT YOU START!

steel wool photography fire

STEP 2: How Does Steel Wool Photography Work?

Any photographer (with a reasonable amount of experience) knows that to create these types of images, you need to use ‘long exposure’ photography. So the following details are aimed at those of you who don’t know how to do this. Until now, that is!

The Importance of Light

If shutter speeds seem confusing, imagine going into a darkened room. You can see a little, but not the full details, or colors, of what’s in the room. So you open the curtains, the light floods in and hits the objects in the room, and your eyes. A camera works in a similar way – it needs the light to fall on the object you want to capture, and also needs the light to go into it’s ‘eye’ – the sensor.

So think of the shutter being like curtains: when you press the shutter button a small window is opened and light travels to the camera’s sensor. The longer the shutter is open, the more light gets in which results in a better quality photograph. For this project, we will be holding the shutter open for around 8 – 10 seconds.

A camera sees not only where the light is, but (unlike our eyes) where the light has been. For example, if you move a flashlight, you can only see where the light is now. A camera, because it sees where the light has been, can capture it – that’s how we see trails of sparks from the steel wool. If you still don’t understand how this works, you’ll find lots of information about long exposure photography on the internet. To start off, here are a couple of helpful links:

http://digital-photography-school.com/8-tips-for-long-exposure-photography/

http://www.bwvision.com/complete-guide-long-exposure-photography-2016-edition/

STEP 3: What are you going to Need to create Steel Wool Photos

First, I’m going to give you a list of materials. Then I’m going to explain each one and how to use them.

  • Steel wool (grade 0 or finer). The more zero’s, the finer it is.
  • A metal cooking whisk
  • Some type of string. If you can, use flexible metal cable because this won’t catch fire
  • A lighter, matches, or a 9-volt battery
  • DSLR or Mirrorless camera (you can use your iphone too, but more on that later

Steel Wool:

steel wool photography

This is the most important item in this tutorial (it’s called ‘Steel Wool Photography, after all!). I managed to get eight pads of steel wool for $4.  When you set the steel wool alight, then spin it around, sparks fly off of it. (Again, remember safety – don’t almost burn down a mountain like me!). At this point you take a long exposure shot, and it creates a really cool image.

Metal Cooking Whisk:

metal wisk for steel wool photography

This is fairly important because we need it to hold the steel wool firmly before lighting it. We do this by stuffing the steel wool into the whisk, which will hold the wool firmly in place. Even though I already had a whisk, I decided to buy one for 95 cents at Walmart the other day. Whatever you do, don’t just tie the string to the steel wool – it will burn off and most likely catch something on fire.

String:

This allows you to spin the steel wool away from your face. Imagine, if you just stuff the wool into a whisk and set fire to it, then wave it around, a load of sparks will fly off and probably hit you square in the face! String is also more flexible, allowing you to wave the steel wool easily, and fast, so you get more cool patterns. If you’re concerned about using string, go for flexible metal cable as, unlike string, this won’t catch fire. Or, you could use para-cord – I had some of this already and decided to try it out. It works great – and you can get it online for around a dollar.

Lighter/Matches/9-Volt Battery:

Used to set the steel wool on fire. To use the 9-volt battery, all you do is rub the steel wool against the positive and negative ends of the battery. BUT if you’re doing this on a windy day, make sure there’s nothing flammable within a 5-mile radius. I found this method less effective than a lighter or matches, so I only use a battery if the wind is too strong to keep a lighter or matches alight. Out of the three, a lighter is best and you probably already have one. If not, you can pick one up for around a dollar.

DSLR Camera:

dslr camera

Last but by no means least, this is the only expensive item – unless you already have one. Even so, there are ways around this and I’ll go through them in this section. But first, what kind of DSLR camera can you use?

The good news is any! That’s because all DSLR cameras allow you to adjust the shutter speed, which you will need to do in order to take long exposure images. Popular with professional and amateur photographers alike, the prices range from around $400 and up.  

Here are a couple beginner DSLR Cameras we would suggest:

But you don’t need to break the bank by going for the most popular and up-to-date model. Well-known brands are constantly updating their cameras year on year, and the older models (say around five years previous) will still be excellent, at a fraction of the price. For example, you could either buy a cheaper DSLR that is brand new, but of basic range, or bag yourself a real treat – an older model of a more expensive make, (such as Canon or Nikon for example) that will give you the quality and range of use far superior to the cheap, brand new, one.

Can you do steel wool photography with an iphone?

Well I am glad you asked, of course you can.  Steel Wool Photography without a DSLR camera: If you have an iPhone, you can use this instead. All you need to do is download the app ‘NightCap’ which costs around $1.99 for the new version. Take a look here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nightcap-pro/id754105884?mt=8

Alternatively, if you have an Android, you can download the Camera FV 5 for FREE here (but listen to the video information first before downloading):

http://download.cnet.com/Camera-FV-5/3000-12511_4-76145202.html

…..or for around $3 here:

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.flavionet.android.camera.pro

Of course, you won’t get the same quality as a DSLR, but it gives you a chance to practice first, and have some fun, before buying a camera. Even so, these apps work fairly well considering the low-light conditions.

STEP 4: Lets Go Take Some Steel Wool Photography Shots

Before capturing images, you’ll need to set everything up – but it’s pretty simple. Just follow these steps:

  • Take the steel wool and lightly pull it apart, without ripping any off; just loosen it. (This helps it to burn better)
  • Stuff the steel wool inside the whisk
  • Tie the string to the end of the whisk (I used around 3-4 feet of string, and different lengths will give different results, so you can enjoy experimenting)
  • Adjust your camera settings. These are the ones I used:
    • 20mm focal length (lens)
    • F 7.1 (F number)
    • ISO 800
    • Shutter speed 13 seconds

The above settings will vary according to the type of camera, or app, you are using. Take your time and try out different settings – you’ll soon find the best ones. Otherwise, you can Google ‘DSLR camera settings’, or generally browse the internet. If you’re interested in photography, not just special effects like the Steel Wool method, you’ll need to have some understanding of the above settings.

steel wool photography tips

THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT

(Unless you want a chat with the fire department around midnight, like I did, then listen up!)

Steel Wool Photography Location!

Remember the ‘incident’ I shared with you at the beginning? Here’s the in depth details I promised:
It is CRITICAL you choose a location where nothing can catch fire. A beach is an excellent place, as neither water nor sand is flammable! I took my photographs in an area surrounded by concrete.  I also took some on a grassy field outside my house too.  Unfortunately, the grassy field wasn’t wet enough – the wind caught a spark and the rest went up in a puff of smoke, no pun intended.
Amazing Steel wool Photography
Choose as cold a location as possible (it doesn’t have to be freezing!). Concrete drainpipes, for example, are super cool because the sparks bounce of the walls, lighting the whole place up! A cool place benefits the camera too – they don’t do well in heat, and extreme heat can cause permanent damage. Even short periods in sunlight on a hot day can cause problems with condensation getting to the lens. Condensation is just a type of moisture – and moisture of any kind is bad for cameras.

Choosing the right time for Steel Wool Photography

The later at night, and darker, the better your pictures will turn out.  After all our goal is to create a burning circle with flying embers and sparks through the night.  Kinda hard to capture that during the daylight hours if you know what I mean.

Positioning your Camera Properly

You’ll need to keep the camera really steady for two reasons:

  1. Cameras, however sturdy they feel, can easily blow over due to wind, or topple over if placed on an uneven surface. This can cause expensive damage.
  2. If someone is holding the camera for you, they will get ‘camera shake’. Even the steadiest hand is not good enough, because cameras are highly sensitive to the smallest of movements or vibrations. This will lead to loss of quality of the image, with blurring or graining for example.

So keep your camera safe and steady by using a tripod on a flat, even surface; or carefully place it on a sturdy flat-topped rock (or one with an ‘alcove’ or space you can lodge it into, keeping the camera firmly in place). Make sure you are far enough away to capture all of the image, or if not zoom out fully – this may help.

Now we get to the BEST PART – A Swinging Ball of Fire

(it’s best to have someone with you for this as it makes things easier):

  • Stand in front of the camera and carefully light the steel wool. Make sure both sides of the wool are alight so the whole piece is burning away
  • Tell the person with you to press the shutter button gently but firmly.(If you are alone, program the camera to delay the shutter opening for, say, six seconds. Then press the shutter button and move into position in front of the camera).
  • SPIN THE FLAMING STEEL WOOL!!! Grab the string and swing into a pattern of your choice. I just do plain old circles – BUT this makes a cool ‘orb‘ if you do it right!
  • Once the shutter has closed, immediately extinguish the steel wool if it is still burning.

So why not have a go yourself? Don’t be afraid to be creative with your patterns – after all, that’s what photography is all about!

Steel Wool Photography Tutorial
steel wool photography idea

Steel Wool Photography Videos

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply