Steel Wool Spinning

It's going down for real!  Going out in the middle of the night to a remote location to photograph the stars is already creepy fun but adding fire to the equation brings the excitement to another level!

I’ve had some time now to do several “steel wool” spinning photographs and here is what I’ve learned:

The tools...

The tools...

I started with a small whisk as the “cage” to hold the steel wool.  But the wires were too thin to handle the >1200F temperatures and centrifugal forces.  So I bought a larger, stronger, whisk and sacrificed the first one to add some additional “cage” and attitude!

Testing in the snow, 24mm, ISO 500, f/5.6, 10 seconds.

Testing in the snow, 24mm, ISO 500, f/5.6, 10 seconds.

I used “Super Fine 0000” steel wool a half piece at a time.  To light and burn it has to be pulled apart some to fluff it up to allow the air to flow through and maintain the burning reaction.

Two images blended together.  16mm, ISO 1600, f/6.3, 10 seconds.

Two images blended together.  16mm, ISO 1600, f/6.3, 10 seconds.

The amount of air through the wool will control the rate of the reaction.  Spinning speed and the amount of steel wool "fluffing" will vary the amount of sparks.  For my taste I try to go slow as possible as I find too many sparks overwhelming in the final image.  Also since the camera will be on a tripod for the long exposure, it is easy to stack images later in Photoshop using the Lighten blending mode to combine the images with the best spinning action.

Use a 9V battery to light the wool, you will only see a few glowing spots but as you spin it will rapidly ignite.  Also *secret tip*, light it from the tip so it burns at the point of greatest air flow, lighting from near the handle will cause it to compress as it spins into a slow burning ball without as many sparks.

Cutting it too close, ten minutes before sunrise.  24mm, ISO 1600, f/4, 13 seconds.

Cutting it too close, ten minutes before sunrise.  24mm, ISO 1600, f/4, 13 seconds.

It is often recommended to do it during the "blue" hour just before sunrise or after sunset.  However because the light will be changing (and unless you have someone brave enough to do the spinning for you) this requires you to constantly change your camera settings.  Since I'm overly careful and slow with the process I often end up incorrectly exposing these images due to the changing light.

Tight quarters.  14mm, ISO 1600, f/4, 5 seconds

Tight quarters.  14mm, ISO 1600, f/4, 5 seconds

Camera settings vary but I typically use from 5 to 10 seconds, f/4, and 800-1600 ISO.  It depends greatly on the amount of ambient light and how much of the environment you want to include.

Finally safety tips:  Never put your 9V battery near your steel wool stash.  Cover your skin and wear protective safety glasses.  Obviously never spin steel wool near anything flammable! 

Thomas MoorsComment