Our How I Took It Contest got an impressive number of steel wool light painting tutorials. I wanted to share this one from Mike Mikkelson as it introduces two new elements that we’ve never had on the blog before: a super smart steel wool cage (rather than the whisker that we usually use) and the creation of a vortex. Enjoy.
I get a lot of comments on my Steel Wool Vortex image, and I have had many people ask me how I took it. Most people are surprised when I let them know that it is steel wool on the end of a cable, lit on fire, and then spun around very fast to create the sparks. Although the art of steel wool photography is not new or unique, I have constructed a re-usable rig that has helped me make some great fire wool images. This thread will explain how I created a custom cage for steel wool photography, and how I made the Fire Wool Vortex image.
- Lighting things on fire can be a huge crowd-pleaser. Every year millions of Americans flock to watch fireworks on the 4th of July. Folks love to set off bottle rockets, M80’s, romans candles, even sparklers in their own backyards. However, each year there are tons of people with less fingers or severe burns due to not being safe. The following is the description of how I was able to use steel wool at the end of a steel cable and create the Fire Wool image.
- Replicating these steps is dangerous and can potentially cause fire, explosions, smoldering ruins, burns, itchy-festering wounds, the condition known as hot dog fingers, or death.
- If you choose try this method of photography, the safety of the area is your responsibility. Just like fireworks, there is risk involved with setting steel wool on fire. It’s not worth the risk of fire or the safety of others if you do not take the proper precautions. In other words, don’t try this at home.
Here are some guidelines I use when setting anything on fire:
- Never attempt this while operating a motor vehicle or heavy machinery.
- Always have a fire extinguisher with you and someone who is knowledgeable and ready to use it.
- Wait until it has recently rained heavily so your area is wet
What I like to do is ask myself before performing this shot, “Is there anything nearby that could catch on fire?” When I say nearby, I mean within 150 feet. Spinning steel wool as fast as you can will shoot chunks of flaming wool in multiple directions. Unsure whether it’s safe? Then don’t.
Should I Light Steel Wool on Fire and Spin it Recklessly?
- Empty Parking Lot with nothing around? Yes
- In the Middle of the woods during dry season? Very Bad Idea
- On a sandy beach with nothing around for hundreds of feet? Yes
- In your house or garage? Very Bad Idea
What equipment do I need?
- Camera with Manual Mode
- Wear a hoodie or hat, long sleeves, and pants. Dark clothing, and possibly goggles/glasses.
- Steel Wool (#0000)
- Lighter or 9V Battery
- Fire Extinguisher
- Spinning Wool Rig (Pending Better Name)
- Maybe DIY Chicken Wire Wool Cage
- Flaming Shards of Death Rig
- Loopty-Loop Wool On Fire Cable Thingie… Um, probably not.
DIY Chicken Wire Re-Usable Wool Cage
I’ve seen other tutorials where the user has had to tie the wool onto the end of a steel cable each time they want to attempt a shot. This didn’t seem to me a very efficient method for this type of shot. I wanted to be able to reload the wool quickly after each sequence, and have something that would be easy to use. The following example is a simple method for constructing a cage to put your wool in and attaching it to the end of a steel cable, saving you time and frustration between shots.
- Roughly 4 feet of 1/16″ steel cable.
- Chick wire or wire mesh
- 1″ x 4″ Pipe
- Dog Leash Buckle
- Sleeve Stop wire crimps
- Extra Wire
- Wire Cutters and Needle Nose Pliers
1. Cut the wire mesh as shown below. This will be bent into the shape of a box. Cut the mesh so that the tabs on the sides are sticking out to be used to hold the structure together. This wire cage will be about 3″ wide on each side, but only about 1.5″ tall.
2. Bend the sides up
3. Use the protruding wire tabs to bend around the sides to hold together. The step requires a bit of patience and it can help to have your needle nose pliers to help twist the tabs around the support wire on the corners.
4. Repeat on all for corners. Hey, wire box.
5. Cut out a top piece with one row extra on one side and bend that down. This will be the lid, and the extra row bent down helps keep the lid in place when closed.
6. Use the extra wire to make a hinge by wrapping it around the opposite side from the bend, and secure the lid.
7. I created 3 hinges with the spare wire. As you can see the lid swivels up to open.
8. Take the steel cable and string through the front opening and the lid. Create a big enough loop so the you can open the lid far enough to put steel wool inside the cage.
9. Here is the wool inside the cage. I used some pliers to crimp down the cable stops.
10. As far as Steel Wool is concerned, I like to use #0000 as I think that it burns the best, but anything with a #0, #00, or #000 will also work just fine.
11. An example of the lid open to slide the wool inside in between each shot. The cable loop is just big enough to allow the lid to open a couple of inches.
12. Here is the cage while closed. If you string the cable in as shown, the cage will remain shut with the help of the bent lid row, and the cable will keep the top closed while it is spinning. The fast you spin the cage, the more pressure the cable puts into keeping it closed.
13. String the cable through the pipe, and crimp the dog leash buckle on the other end.
14. You hold the buckle in your left hand, and the pipe in your right. This allows you to change the radius of the fire wool by just letting cable in or out as you spin it. This is essential for the wool vortex. You start out with the cable all the way extended, and slowly pull the cable back as you spin it!
The best thing about this cage is that it is re-usable in a quick fashion to set up the next shot. Replacing the steel takes only a few seconds. Be aware that the wire cage can be hot, so it is a great idea to give it a few seconds, or dip it in water before reloading.
Manual Focus Technique with Flashlight
This is where having a buddy can help, as I don’t ever recommend doing this shot without a second person. Wherever you plan on standing to spin the wool, have your friend shine a flashlight on their face so you can set the focus manually. On Canon cameras, you turn on Live View and zoom in to set the focus with the help of the LCD screen. Remember, that most likely it will be dark out, so having a flashlight will help in more ways that just being able to set focus.
“Chunks of guys like you…”
You don’t want the sparks to fly at the camera, or other people, so I suggest standing perpendicular to the camera when spinning the wool. Chunks of flaming steel wool will be flying out of the spinning cage. The faster you spin, the farther the flaming sparks are able to fly.
Camera Settings (Manual Mode)
- To reduce the amount of noise, set the ISO to around 200
- Your exposure should be set to 20 to 30 seconds. You can have wool last the entire 30 seconds if you don’t spin too fast.
- I’ve experimented with different f-stops, but get less ghosting with settings around f/9. You should experiment too!
- Some cameras have long exposure noise reduction settings which can help
- Lock the shutter open to minimize camera shake.
- Set the camera to include a 10 second delay.
- This gives you time to get in position and light the wool. It sort just looks like it’s smoldering when you light steel wool. You don’t get the dramatic effect until you spin it, causing oxygen to fuel the fire. Sometimes it take sa second to light the wool, so having the extra time is nice.
- Instead of a lighter, you can also use a 9 volt battery to ignite the wool. Tip courtesy of the Boy Scouts!
- I prefer to use a wide angle lens, but anything will work. The wider the better, as then you don’t have to be as far back from the action. Fisheye lens also work great in thisscenario.
- Is your fire extinguisher ready?
- Did you check the area?
- How about gloves? Maybe gloves would be good too.
- Let’s Rock!
How to get the vortex:
Wearing protective clothing is a good idea. Wearing long sleeves, pants, and a hat or hood is smart. Shoes are also a necessity. Wearing shorts and flip-flops will almost guarantee that you’ll get some sparks on your tootsies and burn you.
Press the camera shutter to start the 10 second delay. You can start trying to light the wool on fire with the 9V battery or a lighter. Once the wool is lit on fire, and you start by spinning the wool in a small arc, I walk towards the camera slowly and let some cable through to lengthen the diameter of the loop. It is normal for sparks to fly out of the cage while spinning. In the picture below, I walked forward less than 10 feet. In this shot, I chose to stop between the cement pillar and the door and finalize the shot. This gives the added benefit of bouncing additional sparks, and creates a framing effect. During this sequence, I had 2 cameras going for each piece of wool lit on fire. You can see that this is the same sequence, but very different results in the final images. Please note that there might still be some wool chucks in the cage, and they will be hot. You should probably know this already, but have a safe spot to set the cage down. How about a bucket full of water???
Canon 7D: ISO: 200 f/9 Exposure: 30 seconds
Canon 5D Mark II: ISO: 200 f/5.6 Exposure: 30 seconds, Using a secondary camera, I was able to get 2 different angles of the same vortex sequence
If you stand in one place and don’t move, and don’t change the diameter of the loop, you’ll get something like this:
Here are additional samples of the steel wool fire vortex. This one is on a pier walking directly at the camera.
This is an example in a very confined space. The walls of this building were cement, and any sparks going over the side went directly into water. You need to remember your surroundings and be safe. Don’t be that guy.