Light Painting with Steel Wool

By Dan Giuliante

a976faa5-cf00-4588-b221-6b433b6fa8f6No matter how old you are just about everyone loves to play with fire, and if you’re a fellow photographer, it’s even better!!!  In this tutorial I will take you from start to finish in how to create great images with steel wool.

Before I begin telling you how to create your images, safety should come first.  It is best to have water or a fire extinguisher, goggles, and wear nonflammable clothing.  Taking these precautions can prevent any unnecessary injuries. Now let’s get to the good stuff.

One of the best parts about light painting with steel wool, besides being able to play with fire, is your supplies will cost you less than $10.  You will need to purchase a whisk, steel wire, fine steel wool, and a lighter.  When purchasing the steel wool, the finer the grade is, the more you will have burning pieces fall out of the whisk which will result in your light trails.

Start by tying the steel wire to your whisk.  Make sure your knot is secure because you will be swinging this around like no tomorrow.  Once your knot is secure, take a nice piece of your steel wool and stuff it inside your whisk.  You can either pack it in there tight, or do the complete opposite.  I tried both and it gives you different effects.  I would recommend stuffing different amounts into your whisk to see the different types of light trails the wool will leave.

After collecting your necessary supplies, you now have to find a good location.  A good location is one that is for the most part remote and does not have people or cars.  Remember, you will be using a long exposure, so a passing car or a person walking by can ruin your image.  Two good places to try, which are my favorites, is the beach or a countryside location away from any trees or brush.

Finally, when you are at your location, you are going to want to set your camera up on a sturdy tripod and use the manual mode setting.  That’s right!!! I said it, manual mode!!!  A good starting point is an aperture of at least f/8.0, and an ISO of 1000.  Depending on the amount of light available and the length of your exposure, this will change.  I was lucky enough to have a friend with me who helped me chose my focus point.  I had him face my camera and shine a light on his face.  I used that as my focus point.  Once my camera was in focus, we knew where he would be standing for all of the shots once we lit the steel wool on fire.  When creating your image, I would recommend using all different exposures.  Try a longer shutter speed and a lower aperture, and a shorter shutter speed and a higher aperture.  The longer the shutter speed the more light you will see in your image.  However, you will see less fine detail in the bouncing of the sparks; you just need to see what style appeals to you.

After you have taken a ton of images and found your favorite ones, you can do some post processing if needed.  If you’re new to post processing, just the slightest bit of adjustments and cropping can take an image a long way.  This is what the image looked like prior to a few adjustments.  All I did was play with my blacks and highlights, then cropped, and only a few minutes later I had my final image.

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Before every shoot I like to research the area and different styles of photos that can be taken.  It helps with coming up with some of your own ideas and gets those creative juices flowing.  Once you see the types of images you can create, get creative!!!  Spin your wool on different angles, at different lengths, walking while spinning, or even add props such as an umbrella.  If you can get a few friends involved you can have some fun and even attempt to have a spark war!!! (Make sure your friends are wearing goggle for this one)  So go on, go have fun playing with fire and get creative!!!

Here are some other perspectives from the shoot!

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