One you’ve nailed the basics of painting with light and creative light painting, the next thing to try is a technique that’s often called wire wool or steel wool photography.

What is steel wool photography?

Steel wool photography involves setting light to steel wool and then spinning it in the air to create sparks that light up the dark night sky, creating patterns of light during a long exposure.

How to do steel wool photography

Steel wool photography is done in much the same way as painting with light and other creative light painting photography. You need dark conditions to enable a long exposure so that you have time to spin the flaming wool and create the sparks without the surroundings burning out.

Set-up your camera on a tripod, frame the scene and set the camera to bulb exposure mode. Focus the lens on the point where the steel wool will be burning and then set the camera to manual focus mode to prevent the focus from shifting.

It’s useful to have a second (or third) person to help with steel wool photography as one of you can light and spin the wool while the other controls the camera. If you want to do any additional painting with light, the person without the wool can take control of the torch.

What do you need for steel wool photography?

As with other light painting techniques, steel wool or wire wool photography needs a camera that has a bulb exposure mode so that you can control the exposure time yourself. The camera also needs to be mounted on a tripod. In addition, you need a remote release that can lock the shutter open.

If you want to do any additional painting with light you’ll need a torch or similar light source.

There are lots of potential ways for holding the wire wool. During a shoot I did with Rachel Riley and Baxter Bradford, we found that a balloon whisk (the type you might use for whipping cream) worked well. We clipped a dog lead onto a loop at the end of the whisk handle and stuffed the balloon with steel wool. We used a mixture of fine and medium grade steel wool as the fine grade is easier to light while the medium burns for longer.

We lit the steel wool with a couple of matches and span the whisk on the end of the dog lead. The clip on the lead enabled the whisk to spin freely.

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Sparks from steel wool

How to create steel wool photography

Remember that if the shutter is open your camera will record any light from the brightly burning steel wool. That means that you need to get the wool burning and spinning before the shutter is opened. Don’t hang around though, the sparks don’t last very long once it all gets going.

The burning ball of wool glows, creating a streak of light that forms a circle while the sparks fly off in all directions.

Once the sparks stop, dump the whisk in a black bucket of water, or get it quickly out of site while you paint any other areas of the scene with light. If it’s glowing red, it may be recorded in the image.

Camera settings for steel wool photography

Using bulb exposure mode allows you to dictate the length of time that the shutter is open. It’s possible to create a good circle and spray of sparks in as little as 10 seconds, but if you want to paint any other parts of the scene with light you’ll need to keep the shutter open for longer, ideally between 30 seconds and 4 minutes, but 2 minutes is ideal.

Keep the sensitivity as low as possible to minimise noise and extend to exposure time. An aperture of f/8 makes and good starting point, giving you good depth of field. Shoot raw files to give you maximum control over white balance.

Where to do steel wool photography

Steel wool photography needs a long exposure, so that usually means shooting somewhere dark. We shot our examples in a clearing in a woodland on a damp winter evening when there was no risk of fire. Tunnels, caves and old buildings can also provide great venues, with the walls causing the sparks to bounce back for more interesting results. Take sensible precautions to avoid starting a fire and make sure that any hot embers have cooled fully before you leave.

Steel wool photography summary

  • Find a safe, dark location.
  • Put your camera on a tripod and shoot in bulb mode.
  • Use a remote release to lock the shutter open and close it when you’re finished.
  • Fill a balloon whisk with steel wool and set light to it before opening the shutter.
  • Stop the exposure when the sparks finish or hide the steel wool and paint the surroundings with light.
  • Wear black to be hidden in the image.
  • Shoot raw files at f/8 and ISO 200 – or whatever works for the surroundings and light painting.