Steel Wool Photography

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Steel Wool Photography

Guest Post by Andrew Morris:

Once upon arriving in the Outer Banks, we loosely planned what days we would be doing what. I planned the photo outings around that. Shot some stars and sunsets (mostly) but there was one photo I really wanted, something I haven’t done in a long time; steel wool photographs.

Steel Wool Photography

What is steel wool photography? You may have seen photos floating around the web in your time. But steel wool photography is actually lighting steel wool on fire and swinging or moving the steel around while leaving your shutter open for an extended period of time.

My first time trying this technique worked out better than expected, well sort of, we almost set the field on fire… whoops! – But the images were great!

steel wool final 2

Items Needed

Ok so, how do we achieve this technique? Here is a list of things that you will need:

•Steel Wool
Steel wool resembles a Brillo Pad but finer. Steel wool can be found in any hardware store. Depending on the hardware store it can be kept in different places. Ask. It is sold for a couple bucks and you get 8 ‘pads’ in each packet. There are different grades of steel wool. The one you want to try first is the 0000 (four zeroes) grade. There is 000, 00, and 0. I would stick to the ‘0’ grade – you can try the ‘1’ grade but I found it doesn’t work as well.

steel wool pack

•A Metal Whisk (emphasis on the metal part)

You will put the steel wool inside the whisk and this will house the steel wool as you swing or move it around. I usually end up going to the dollar store and buy one or two of these – since they are cheap, one may break – save money where you can.

•A Lighter or 9v Battery

A lighter or battery to light the steel wool on fire. Yes, you are lighting metal on fire.

•A Rope or Chain (or something to swing the whisk around)

Attach the whisk to the rope or whatever have you. Secure it tightly so the burning ball of steel along with the metal whisk doesn’t fly off and possibly hurt yourself or someone else. I have used camera straps, paracord, and just regular rope. All work great.

•A Dark Place and Cool Looking Location

This can be hard to find. A dark place is easy. Finding a place that is not too populated and has interesting characteristics, not so much. Be on the lookout for places! Research in your area/where you are going to be to find an exciting location.

•Camera and Tripod

Goes without saying but a sturdy tripod is a must.

•Shutter Release

Preferably, not necessary though.

•Flashlight

Always good to have in your camera bag for low light situations.

steel wool final 3

The Process

Once you have all your materials gathered. You are ready to shoot, but how?

Grab your first ‘pad’ of steel wool and unfold it. It most likely will be fold up in fourths. Now, spread the steel wool apart. This is get air inside the wool while crammed into the whisk. Spread it apart just so it looks like you are going to rip it in pieces. Once the wool is spread apart, cram it into the whisk that is already attached to the rope, or whatever you plan on swinging.

Set up your tripod and camera. I recommend taking a few test shots to compose your image before trying this technique. When you are satisfied with your composition, it’s time to get swinging!

Light the crammed steel wool in the whisk using the battery or lighter. Once the wool ends are burning, trigger your shutter and you can start swinging!!!! It will look like a sparkler! Swing until the steel has stopped burning and the sparks have stopped.

Review your image and make adjustments if necessary, and repeat!

There are three things that happen when attempt steel wool photography: hot embers on skin if not wearing protective clothing (long sleeve shirt and pants will do), the police, and great looking image.

While in the Outer Banks and directly after our first swing of steel wool, the police appeared. They made sure weren’t shooting fireworks as reported by some local. The three officers questioned us, we explained what we were doing and I asked if they wanted to stick around to watch the image take place. They did. Once the exposure was complete we displayed the image and officers started to chuckle and were pretty jazzed about the ‘show’. They left us to continue and this is the final image from the trip.

WARNING! – You are dealing with fire and metal. Please take precautionary measures to insure your and others safety.

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