Playing with fire: steel wool spinning in the landscape

A post by: Andrew Gibson

Focal length 21mm, shutter speed 15 seconds.21 mm focal length, shutter speed 15 seconds.

If you’ve been following my articles no doubt have you tried painting with light or using a wide angle lens for landscape photography. You may have found some interesting ways to exploit the color contrast between blue and orange and are certainly aware of the magical quality of light at dusk.

Contemporary technique brings all these elements together in a way that creates unusual, beautiful and dramatic images. It’s called steel wool spinning. The pictures looks complicated but in reality it is easy to try out if you have the right equipment, a willing partner and pay attention to safety.

Here is what you need:

Steel wool (you can get these from hardware stores, the finer grades are best).A stainless steel guard and a length of strong cord.A willing helper. You can use your camera’s self timer and the steel wool spin yourself, but much easier to have someone do it for you.A dramatic location. One that looks good when viewed from a wide angle lens. Also a where people probably are not too short walk in the immediate vicinity and be hit by flying sparks, or with anything that threatens to catch alight.Calm weather. The less wind the better.A camera with a manual mode, a cable release or remote (the self timer will do in a pinch), good tripod, wide angle lens, UV filter and lens hood. Live View is also useful.

Steel wool spinning is really very simple. Just stuff the steel wool in the Garde (I use masking tape to hold it in place), set it alight with the cigarette lighter, and get the helper whirl it around in a circular motion. The burning steel wool sparks flying off and fall to the ground, bright orange trails of light.

Steel wool spinning21 mm focal length, shutter speed 15 seconds. Here, my helper span the guard in a circle around her head.

Steel wool spinningFocal length 19 mm, shutter speed 15 seconds. My helper span the guard in a circle for her, make another.

Put your camera on a tripod and set your exposure using manual mode. Goal for a shutter speed of about eight to 15 seconds-there is no evil in underexposing the background for dramatic effect (I find the steel wool Burns about ten seconds). You will need to be shooting at dusk, otherwise it will be too bright. The sparks show up not in daylight.

If you are shooting while there is still a bit light on the left is you will notice the sky a beautiful deep blue color. Some people use this technique at night and combine with painting with light (using torchlight or portable flash) to build up a picture or to capture star trails.

Steel wool spinningFocal length 17 mm, shutter speed 30 seconds. This photo was taken after the light had faded from the sky. The 30 second shutter speed was necessary to capture the stars. Note that it doesn’t matter if the steel wool for less than 30 seconds shutter speed burns. The idea of using a slower shutter speed is to reveal detail in the background. If I had used a shutter speed of 15 seconds, the burning steel wool would look the same (if it burns for about 10 seconds) but the background would be darker.

Steel wool spinningFocal length 17 mm, shutter speed 215 seconds. The slower shutter speed has captured the movement of the stars. I asked my helper to rotate the guard into a circle as she walked along the beach, make a different pattern.

Live View (if your camera has it) helps to focus, as it may be too dark for you to focus on your subject well. On my camera there is enough detail in Live View to focus manually, even when it’s too dark to see anything through the viewfinder. Set your camera to manual focus, concentrate on the person who the steel wool spinning and a small aperture (f8-16) to compensate for any focusing errors. If this is a kind of landscape picture is you will no doubt want to the whole scene in focus anyway.

Shooting Raw so you can fine adjustments to temperature and exposure in post processing. In the meantime, white balance for daylight

This entry was posted in Photography and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply