Long exposure photography has become popular as digital cameras have become more common and one of the most fun and interactive type of slow shutter imagery is Steel Wool photography. A simple technique with a few cheap items can produce exciting images limited only by your imagination.
For these types of images, the main items you will need are:
- Steel Wool (fine, #0 – #0000)
- Metal Whisk
- Safety equipment and protective cloths (hooded jacket, gloves, etc.)
You may also like to use a shutter release or wireless remote to set off your camera as to not cause any camera shake during the long exposure shots. Simply bunch up the steel wool into the whisk and have a way to attach it to a flexible wire or rope and you’ll have your tool for spinning. Generally the sparks will fly away from you but you may prefer to wear gloves and a hat/hooded jacket to prevent any sparks landing on exposed areas. Also, you may want to have a fire extinguisher handy. I would also recommend placing a UV filter on your lens as a protective layer to prevent a spark landing on the lens glass itself. The filter will be much cheaper to replace.
Ideal locations tend to be any locations away from flammable items such as dry grass. Abandoned buildings and caves have been popular places for Steel Wool photography. To autofocus, an ideal solution for a dark location is to have the spinner have a light shown on them through some means to make it easier to find them and lock on focus. Then, leave your camera in manual focus with the focus locked unless the spinner moves.
The settings you use depend on the type of effect you would like. 1-2s exposures will give you a few spins and may have the spinner in detail as well. Longer exposures will give more spins, sparks, and a brighter image. If your pictures are coming out dark even in the longer exposures, boost your ISO and/or open up your aperture to let in more light. As the light is bright, you do not need extreme settings. Also because of the brightness of the sparks, darker areas and night shoots are preferred for a larger contrast between the sparks and the surroundings.
Start with simple spins as you begin then try more complicated moves such as spinning it over your head or spinning yourself to make an orb. Generally, we would use one piece of steel wool for one spin attempt that would last about half a minute.
Recently while waiting for clouds to clear up to gain a view of the Red Moon, we decided to spin steel wool on the jetty in Waikiki. Here are the pictures from that night –
You can also have some fun using the steel wool with your bare hands while looking evil.
Here are a couple shots from Lanai Lookout where we spun under the stars.
And here are some from the Wiliwilinui bunker where I spun for the first time.
Doing long exposure on a children’s Ferris wheel produces a similar effect.
Take a look through Flickr and 500px for their collection of steel wool images and you’ll see thousands of images with many more creative ideas executed. If you have any questions or concerns please leave a comment on this post.
All pictures by Marvin Chandra