Steel wool photography is a light painting technique that produces amazing results. You can get a steel wool photograph with a few simple items, and there are a lot of possibilities to explore with that material.

What is Steel Wool Photography?

Steel wool is a cleaning product that is typically used to polish surfaces or get rid of tough deposits. It looks like wool, but it’s actually made out of thin metal fibers.

Steel wool photography is a light painting technique that calls for lighting a piece of steel wool on fire and capturing the glow of the steel wool.

What Do I Need to Create Steel Wool Photos?

You will need a few items:

  • Steel wool. The best steel wool for photography is grade 0 or finer.
  • A lighter.
  • A stainless steel whisk.
  • A rope or string.
  • Protective gear.
circle of yellow light

Image by Free-Photos (Pixabay License)

How to Take Steel Wool Photographs

Start by loosening the steel wool. You need to obtain a ball of loose steel wool that you can stuff inside of the steel whisk.

Attach the steel whisk to your rope or string. Light up the steel wool, and turn the steel whisk in the air and take a long exposure pic.

Important Safety Precautions

Be careful when capturing steel wool photographs. Steel wool will shoot metal sparks when you turn it.

Use a small quantity of steel wool to do a few photography tests. Figure out how far a spark can fly, and make sure there aren’t any flammable materials around you. You can share the results of your tests with other photographers to get some photography tips!

You should wear a long-sleeve shirt, avoid clothes made from materials that could easily catch fire, and should wear protective gloves and glasses. You can find more tips from experienced photographers about protection for this type of photography.

Equipment Checks and Considerations

Here are a few tips about using the right equipment for wool photography steel.

A Camera and Lens

You can get a great steel wool photo by using the manual mode on your camera. With manual mode, you will get better results if you use a wide-angle lens since sparks can fly out in all directions.

Steel Wool

Steel wool is a very inexpensive material. It burns quickly, and it will take a few tries before you master this technique. Use fine-grade photography steel wool, and burn small quantities at a time.

Safety Gloves

You should wear thick protective gloves. We also recommend wearing safety glasses, covering your hair, and wearing protective clothing.

String or Rope

You need to use a string or rope to spin the burning steel wool. Use a sturdy string or rope, and make sure it’s not made from flammable material.

Stainless Steel Whisk

You need a steel whisk to hold the steel wool in place when you spin it. Stainless steel can be exposed to high temperatures without damages. Do NOT use a silicone whisk for steel wool photography.

Match or Lighter

Use a grill lighter to light the steel wool. The longer handle will help you keep your hands away from the steel wool.

Tripod and Shutter Cable

You can achieve the unique light painting effect through long exposure. Set your camera on a tripod while shooting and use a shutter cable.

Dark Location

Steel wool photography looks best in dark locations. Your burning steel wool should be the main source of light to get the full effect.

Camera Setup

You might have to experiment with your camera setup. You can’t capture a steel wool shot without a tripod since you need to increase exposure time.

You should test different distances, and think about how different sources of light will impact your photograph.

Share the results of your experiments with photographers who like to experiment with light painting, and subscribe to their blogs and social media. They will have plenty of useful tips about using the manual mode on your camera, adjusting your shutter speed, manual focus, and other manual mode settings for shooting wool photography steel.

Different Spinning Techniques

You can add diversity to your steel wool photography portfolio by experimenting with different spinning techniques.

Get started with a simple spinning motion to create a circle in front of you. You can also use a pendulum motion for an abstract light painting, or form a figure-eight curve.

Spinning As You Walk

You can create a unique effect that looks like fire in motion if you spin the steel wool while walking. You can walk from one side of the shot to the other, or walk toward or away from the camera.

Horizontal Spinning

You can create a dramatic effect by spinning the steel wool above your head, or around your feet. You should do a few tests to make sure your equipment is sturdy enough before you attempt this.

 Vertical Spinning

Vertical spinning is easy to achieve. You can spin the wool in front of you or form a circle on your side.

main creating yellow light

Image by fbhk (Pixabay License)

What Camera Settings Should You Use?

Adjusting your camera settings to get a burning steel wool effect can be tricky. If you’re new to adjusting settings manually, there are plenty of YouTube channels you can subscribe to for getting useful tips.

Shutter Speed

You need to slow down your shutter speed to get at least one full spinning motion. The ideal shutter speed is anywhere between 5 and 30 seconds. Increase the shutter speed if you want to walk while you turn the steel wool or if you want to get more sparks in your shot.

Aperture

Using an aperture of f8 or f11 ensures that you will capture enough light from the fire without getting interference from other sources of light.

ISO

You can typically get good results with an ISO of 100. You can capture steel wool images during the evening or at night and should adjust your ISO based on how dark it is.

Exposure

You can adjust the exposure to focus on the burning steel wool itself, or on the foreground to get the magical effect of the sparks flying around.

Focal Length

The focal length depends on how far you set your camera. You can get good results with a focal length of 20 to 35mm. Make sure the camera is at a safe distance from any flying sparks and adjust your focal length..

Focusing

We recommend focus manually on the spot where you will stand with the burning wool.

Post-Processing Steel Wool Photography

You can get a more aesthetic result by adjusting highlights and shadows, or working with the white balance in your image. Playing with the white balance and the color balance will introduce nuance to your light paintings, and you can add a blur effect to the sparks.

Get Creative

There is a lot you can do once you master the basic steel wool photography technique:

  • Find different settings for your pics.
  • Use different types of spinning motions in your image.
  • Walk while you turn the wool.
  • Zoom in on the sparks.
  • Add props.
  • Capture pics with reflective surfaces near the steel wool.
  • Introduce other light painting techniques, like glow sticks.
  • Subscribe to photography blogs to learn more about light painting.

Playing With Fire: Steel Wool Spinning in the Landscape

We like the idea of incorporating your light painting into the landscape. Look for lines that define the landscape around you. Think about how the circle of steel wool and flying sparks will follow or break these lines.

You can fill white space with steel wool effects, or combine light painting with other sources of light. Subscribe to photography social media accounts that use light painting to get more tips and ideas!

Steel Wool Spinning Inspiration

Steel wool photography is a popular trend! Look at what other photographers are doing on social media to get some ideas.

Mastering the Technique

We recommend doing a few tests so you can get used to the technique and make sure you can do it safely. Once you feel more comfortable, explore different spinning techniques, explore what you can do with your settings, and focus on editing.

How to Use Steel Wool for Beautiful Light Painting Photographs

Steel wool makes for some amazing light paintings because of the spark flying. You can combine it with other light painting photography techniques:

  • Use LED lights to add color to your background.
  • A neon sign can create a cool effect.
  • Tape some glow sticks to your clothes or to your whisk.
  • You can use torches to have other sources of fire.

Additional Questions

Here are a few frequently asked questions about steel wool photography.

Is Steel Wool Photography Illegal?

  • You should check local ordinances about fires. Places like national parks have bans on fires due to forest fire risks. A lot of areas have ordinances against lighting fires within 50 feet of highways and houses.

How Can I Add Color to Steel Wool Photography?

  • You can introduce color by adding glow sticks or LED lights to your shot. You can also play with the color balance during the editing process. Subscribe to social media photography accounts from different photographers to see how they add color to their shots!

How Can I Capture a Photography Steel Wool Portrait?

  • You can focus on the person spinning the steel wool, and use the steel wool to illuminate your subject. You can create dramatic portraits with your model standing in the middle of fiery sparks!