Incredible Steel Wool Photography!

Steel Wool Photography is a super fun and super easy type of photography. Once you have your camera this project can be FREE. I had to purchase the steel wool and that is it. I already had a the other materials but the MOST you will have to spend on this project is 4-5 dollars.

This is an awesome project for any amateur photographer who just got a DSLR camera. If you don't have a DSLR camera don't worry! I you can probably still do this and I will explain how later!

Step 1: Most Importantly...

To start I want to say that this is not an original idea by any means. This type of picture has been around for many years. There is currently only one other instructable on this topic that I have found, and I want to make a much more in-depth tutorial on the subject.

Next: SAFTEY. As you may be able to see from the cover photo creating this photo involves fire. As you may know fire can be dangerous. Picking a good location is critical and I will go very in depth on this subject later. While I was taking the pictures I am using in this instructable I actually started a small grass fire and had to call the fire department. *Makes very sheepish face* I was able to put out the fire before the department even got there but it was looking pretty hairy for a minute. I WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY FIRES THAT YOU START.

Step 2: How does it work?

Any somewhat experienced photographer will know that creating these photos uses "Long Exposure Photography" but I am not making this for experienced photographers because they probably all ready know how to do this.

The way a camera works is when you press the shutter button a small window is opened up which exposes light to a cameras sensor. This light is the images that we see. The longer the shutter is open, the more light is recorded. We will be holding our shutters open for around 8-10 seconds. When our eyes see light we only see it when it is in the same place. If you move a flashlight we do not see where the light has been, only where it is currently. Cameras can see where the light has been. This is how we see trails of sparks from the steel wool.

If you still don't understand how this works there is tons of information on long exposure photography elsewhere on the internet.

Step 3: What Do I Need?

Incredible Steel Wool Photography!
Incredible Steel Wool Photography!
Incredible Steel Wool Photography!

This is probably the most important step so I am going to break it into 2 steps.

The first step is going to be a list of materials. I will start with a list of materials then I will explain each one.

• Steel Wool (grade 0 or finer. The more zeros the finer it is.)

• A metal cooking whisk

• Some type of string. Flexible metal cable works best since it doesn't catch on fire.

• A lighter, matches, or a 9 volt battery.

Steel wool is the most important part of this tutorial. This is why it is called "Steel Wool Photography" When you light steel wool on fire and spin it around sparks fly off of it and when you take a long exposure photograph of this it creates a very cool picture. Again, remember safety, don't almost burn down a mountain like me. I got 8 pads of steel wool for $4.

The metal whisk is fairly important because we will use this to hold the steel wool. The we will stuff the steel wool into the whisk and the whisk will hold it in place. If you just tried to tie string to a pad of steel wool it would burn off and most likely catch something on fire. I already had a whisk but I found one at walmart for .97 cents the other day.

String. Basically what we are going to do is spin the steel wool in the whisk around fairly fast to create sparks which makes a cool picture. If we just wave around a whisk with burning steel wool a bunch of sparks will hit us square in the face which will probably hurt. The string lets us spin the steel wool further away from our face and in cool patterns. Flexible metal cable is great because it won't catch on fire. I used paracord though because I had some on hand and it worked great. You can get paracord online for a dollar.

Lastly the lighter/matches are used to light the steel wool on fire. If you didn't already know you can light steel wool on fire with a 9 volt battery as well. You just rub the positive and negative ends of the battery against the steel wool. I find this method less effective unless you are doing this in a windy area and can't keep a lighter lit. (Only do this if there is NOTHING flammable within like a .5 mile radius. You can get a lighter for $1. You should probably already have one though.

Sorry a few of these photos are slightly out of focus. I took these quickly with a lens that doesn't have autofocus. Sorry for no photo of paracord.

Step 4: Camera

Incredible Steel Wool Photography!

To take photos you will obviously need a camera. As I have previously stated, we will be using long exposure photography. This means you will need a camera that allows you to set the shutter speed. Pretty much every DSLR camera will have this option. DSLR's are the ones that you can change lenses with. Pro photographers use these and the cheapest ones cost about $400 dollars.

If you don't have a DSLR fear not. If you have an iPhone you can download the app NightCap for .99 (cheaper than $400) You can download this here.

If you have an android you can download Camera FV-5 for FREE

These apps will work but you won't get very good quality seeing as camera phones usually don't take very good photos in low-light conditions. If you have a Canon brand point-and-shoot camera you can also do this.

Canon point-and-shoots if you have a Canon brand camera you can use a program called the CHDK (Canon Hack Development Kit) This is a free program that you can install onto your canon cameras SD card that will allow you to use almost every feature that you can use on a DSLR camera. This will not permanently change your camera and is a great option for those trying to decide if they want a DSLR. This method is slightly more complicated but you can learn more and download it for FREE here:

You will also want to use a tripod because the camera cannot move at all during the photo or it will be ruined. A solid rock may work as well.

For those interested, I used a Nikon D3200 with a 28mm f2.8 lens for a few but ended up using the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens. You can buy the D3200 with kit lens here for $475

Step 5: Set up/Camera Settings

Incredible Steel Wool Photography!
Incredible Steel Wool Photography!
Incredible Steel Wool Photography!
Incredible Steel Wool Photography!

The set up is pretty simple.

First take you steel wool and lightly pull it apart. Don't rip any off, just loosen it up. This helps it burn better. Next stuff the steel wool inside the whisk. Last tie the string to the end of the whisk. I used about 3-4 feet of string. Different lengths will give different results.

Next, set up your camera & Tripod (or sturdy rock) on flat ground far enough away to capture the entire image.

Camera Settings: I took my photos at the current settings: 20mm focal length, f7.1, ISO 800 and a shutter speed of 13 seconds. Setting this up varies from camera to camera or app to app so I you will have to figure out how to set this up on your camera.

For more information on these settings and their meanings, google it. If you are interested in photography you should learn what theses are. I could make and entire instructable on this subject. (Maybe I will)

Sorry for the poor image quality here. I took these with my iPhone, on site in the dark.

Step 6: Location

This part is super important. Unless you want to have a chat with the good old fire department at about midnight (like I did) you should listen up.

It is critical that you choose a location that nothing will catch on fire. A beach is an excellent place to do this because neither water or sand catches on fire. I took my photos in a area surrounded in concrete covered in graffiti. Unfortunately, the wind caught a spark and blew it out of the concrete area and into some grass.

Another important part of location is having a cool location. Places such as concrete drain pipes are super cool because the sparks bounce off the wall and light the whole place up. Be sure to put the camera in a cool place. The sparks aren't the only important part of the picture.

Do this pretty late at night. The darker the better.


Okay, this part is super fun. It is best to have two people for this. You can do it by yourself but it is harder.

Stand in front of the camera and begin to light the steel wool on fire. Light both sides so the whole thing burns. Once it is started tell the person manning the camera to press the shutter button. If you are by yourself, press the shutter, run in front of the camera and light it on fire. You may want a slightly longer shutter speed if you are by yourself. This way you will have some time to get in front of the camera.

Next, SPIN THE FLAMING STEEL WOOL!!! Grab the end of the string and begin swinging it in some sort of pattern. I prefer plain old circles. It makes a cool orb look if you do it right. Do what ever you want to with it though. Photography is about being creative!

Once the shutter has closed be sure to completely extinguish the steel wool if it is still burning.

Thats it! Now you are done!

Step 8: Final Images

Incredible Steel Wool Photography!
Incredible Steel Wool Photography!
Incredible Steel Wool Photography!

Thank you for reading all the way to the end! (or skipping to the end to see my photos)

I loved the graffiti location I chose because it adds so much to the picture. I would love to go back and take more photos except its not a real safe place seeing as I almost burned down a mountain. If anyone does this I would love to see your images in the comments.

In the last photo you can see the grass fire starting in the top left corner of the picture.


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