Top 7 steel wool spinning tips for long exposure photographs

April 12, 2017

I have a photographer friend who invited me out one winter’s evening to do some steel wool spinning.  I’d never done it before, and had wanted to for some time, and so I jumped at the chance to give it a try.  If you haven’t heard of this, it is a long exposure photographic technique, where you have someone spin steel wool that is burning to create a very unique & interesting photo.  Here is an example from the photos we did:

steel wool long exposure
2.5 seconds f/5.6 ISO 1600

And so, without further ado, here are my

TOP 7 TIPS FOR STEEL WOOL SPINNING

TIP NUMBER ONE:

You must use extreme caution when doing this!  Select a location that will NOT cause a fire to start.  You will be sending burning metal fibres everywhere when you do this, so away from anything flammable is best, and have a fire extinguisher ready.  You also risk burning yourself, so protective glasses, gloves, and clothing is important.  This technique has caused many fires, and there is even a case of a famous landmark being burned to the ground by some careless photographers.  Please take this advice seriously!  We took the photos over a creek, in the middle of winter, so the fire risk was extremely low.  This is the most important thing I want you to take away from this post!

TIP NUMBER TWO:

You need some steel wool!  The finer wool is typically best…So SUPERFINE grade ‘0000’ or something similar.  They burn better than the coarse kind.

steel wool spinning tips

 

TIP NUMBER THREE:

You need a metal whisk.  The steel wool gets stuffed into the whisk, and the whisk is attached to the end of a chain or rope.  Now of course different people have different specific techniques, but this is the method that I used to create the photos you see here.  I used a rope, with a little extra length, so I could easily adjust the spin wider or smaller if I wanted.

steel wool spinning tips

steel_wool_long_exposure
3 seconds f/1.8 ISO 1600

TIP NUMBER FOUR:

Use a lighter to ignite the fibres of the steel wool (it burns very easily), and then start spinning!  The airflow from spinning will cause the fibres to burn up quite quickly, in a matter of seconds, depending on how fast you spin.  Sparks will fly off as you spin…And again, the harder you spin, the further they will fly.  Apparently a 9V battery will also ignite the steel wool if you touch both contacts to it, but I haven’t tried this method.  Another tip… If you are doing this in the winter, like we were, be sure to keep your lighter warm, so in an inside pocket if you can.  My friend’s lighter was frozen, and wouldn’t work, but luckily I had another that did.

steel wool spinning

 

steel wool long exposure
2.5 seconds f/5.6 ISO 1600

TIP NUMBER FIVE:

CAMERA GEAR

You’ll need a tripod for sure, as you will be shooting long exposures.  Don’t try shooting these handheld, unless you are going for some kind of abstract/artistic look!

Ideally, you should use a remote trigger to start & stop the exposure also, as this will eliminate any camera shake than can occur from simply pressing the shutter on & off with your hand.  Alternately, you can set a timed release for the shutter…So that you can set the exposure time, press the shutter, and a couple seconds later it will start to take the photo, without any camera shake.  That is in fact what I did.

A good flashlight is important (more on this in the next tip), and a headlamp also.  Not only to help you see where you are going, but to check your camera settings in the dark also.  They are super cheap & handy for so many things (not just night shooting!).

steel_wool_photography
2 seconds f/1.8 ISO 1000

TIP NUMBER SIX:

CAMERA SETTINGS

Setting the focus in advance of shooting the photo is important.  So you should be in manual focus mode for sure.  Because you will be shooting at night, or in the dark, a strong flashlight is very important.  This will allow you to light up your subject (typically the person spinning the steel wool) to allow you to set the focus.  Let’s face it…It is hard to see in the dark, let alone focus a camera.

Most of the photos you see here are between 2-4 seconds in length.  That seemed to be about the right balance to capture some ambient light, without blowing out the light from the spinning steel wool too much.  This will of course depend on your aperture, and ISO settings also.  You can check the captions for the camera settings I used on each photo.  Every situation will be different though.  As we arrived the sky was still bright, so we were shooting at low ISO & a closed down aperture.  Here is one of the first photos, with some light in the sky:

steel wool spinning
4 seconds f/16 ISO 250

Then once it got dark, we dialed up the ISO, and dialed down the aperture, to adjust for ambient light.  Here is another example later on, when it was dark.  We actually used a couple of our flashlights to add some light onto the falls at the same time:

steel wool spinning
4 seconds f/5 ISO 1000

TIP NUMBER SEVEN:

Importantly, be sure you have a buddy with you!  I imagine you could do this on your own, but it really would be a challenge.  Having a second person will be the best way to do it.  One of you can be shooting the photos, while the other is spinning the steel wool.  And it is just safer too.  You are creating a fire hazard, so an extra person is invaluable.  Plus…It is so much more enjoyable to share in this fun technique with a friend!

steel_wool_spinning
2.5 seconds f/5 ISO 1000

BONUS INFO & TIPS:

A lot of trial & error will go into getting just the right shot.  Framing, focus, & setting your exposure time is tricky to do at night.  Steel wool spinning is challenging also…As sometimes it won’t burn quite right, or your spinning arc will get interrupted somehow, or the steel wool will just fly out in a clump!  So be patient, and have fun experimenting.  Of course, we were also scrambling over icy rocks on a freezing creek in the middle of winter, so that alone was an adventure!  A good sturdy pair of waterproof boots definitely helped us in this case.

I personally was shooting with a Fuji XT1 mirrorless camera & a 16mm 1.4 lens.  The camera doesn’t matter too much, but of course, be sure you can shoot in manual mode to control all your focus & exposure settings.  Having the right lens is important too.  You want to be sure to able to capture what you need in the frame.  Typically these types of photos are done with wider lenses, but of course, you can experiment with the framing as you see fit!  My 16mm Fuji lens is actually about a 23mm lens when you take into consideration the crop factor.  I love my Fuji as it is such a light camera, and produces amazing results!  I’ve sold much of my heavy Nikon DSLR gear since I switched to using the XT1.

 

Here are a couple more shots from that night:

 

steel_wool_spinning
4 seconds f/5 ISO 1600

I even like the look of this technique in black and white:

steel wool photography
3 seconds f/1.8 ISO 1600

 

Well hopefully this will inspire you to go out & experiment with steel wool spinning!  Just remember to be very careful.  Choose your location wisely (stay out of the dry grass or dry forest, or in a wooden structure), have fire extinguishers with you, and wear protective gear as necessary.

Please leave me a comment below with any questions, or other tips & advice you might have to share.

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VIEW & ADD COMMENTS +

Hi Ashton, were you spinning it once it was lit? It is the airflow from spinning that keeps it burning. 0000 should burn just fine that way. Hopefully that helps, let me know!

I have a question about lighting the wool: how do you get it to stay lit? I have 0000 grade steel wool and tried lighting a small amount to see the burn rate, and I got a few sparks, but mostly it just started to glow, and when I pulled away the flame it went cool. Thanks for any feedback.

Hi Karli, Glad to hear it it! This technique is so much fun. Just remember to stay away from dry areas/flammable objects when you do it, and have fun! If you can, I’d love to see your results, so please share them! Cheers. 🙂

This is amazing I love love it. I have just started photography at a college an can’t wait to try this.