Light Painting With Burning Steel Wool: The Complete Beginners Guide

light painting

Over Christmas break I had the opportunity to try something out that I had wanted to attempt for quite a while. This is to do light painting with steel wool. I know you’ve seen the cool pictures on Google or Tumblr of people ringed by swirling sparks. Well, this is a step by step guide for the complete novice on how to do one of these pictures.

I started out by watching this very helpful video on YouTube, and this was my basis of how to get started trying this out.

The Gear:

First thing you need is a DSLR / SLR camer, or a mirrorless camera that has manual settings on it. This will allow you to take a long exposure photograph needed to capture the sparks paths.

Second: You need something to hold the steel wool. I used a very basic metal whisk. Make sure it’s cheap, and make sure you don’t care what happens to it. Also, try and get one where the strands of metal are fairly close together so that it holds the steel wool in.

Third: I got some medium weight string to use as my pendulum when swinging the whisk around. You’ll notice in the video he has a setup using medium gauge wire and some attachments. Since I’m just trying this out for the first time I didn’t bother going out and paying for this stuff. String worked just fine.

Fourth: A small flashlight. You’re working outdoors in the dark, and you’ll need it for focusing / camera manipulation and such.

Fifth: A remote control for your camera (or a friend to hit the button for you). You can pick up a cheap nikon one like the one below for under $15. It is useful for family group shots or any type of long exposure where you want to eliminate camera shake.

And Last: Steel wool. I used 0000, but according to the video anything between 0 and 0000 will work about the same.

The Clothes:

First things first. Get a pair of safety googles or glasses. If you’re under 30 and think you’re too cool for saftey, think again. The world is a beautiful place, it helps to have both eyes to see it.

Second: Wear a hat, scarf, bandana or whatever your style is. (Not a wool beanie) Burning hair stinks like hell, and you’ll look funny if you burn holes in your hair.

Third: I wore long sleeves and pants because it was cold. I didn’t notice any sparks actually hitting my body that would make this mandatory, but why take the chance.


I chose to shoot these images on a dock at the lake. However, you can really do this anywhere. The things to keep in mind are: Is anything around you flamable? Is it legal? Will it provide a cool background or reflection?

Setting Up:

I wanted to take pictures around 25 to 30 seconds long. This would give me time to get a full burn on the steel wool. Since I was about 90 miles away from Atlanta on a lake in the middle of nowhere, there wasn’t a lot of light pollution, but there was a half moon. I ended up setting my camera on Manual setting to f4.5 for 25 seconds and ISO 250. By using a low ISO I was able to reduce noise, and slow down the camera to the speed i wanted.

This is where the mini maglight came in. I placed the mini mag on the ground where I planned to stand in lantern mode (top screwed off and placed on the end of the handle like a stand). I then focused the camera on the light while in auto-focus mode, and then switched the camera to manual focus. This set the focus on the camera, and stopped it from looking to refocus each time I tried to take a picture.

I then took the below picture to see how my setting turned out. I liked what I saw, so I locked down my camera and my tripod.

I then took a few practice pictures using my mini maglight instead of the steel wool and whisk.

Interesting side note: Since I was using a mini maglight that was essentially uni-directional I ended up with the first picture of the X whenever the flashlight swung back away from the camera.

Once I was happy with the pictures I was ready to start. You’ll notice I changed directions and locations on the dock, and even changed once again after my second burn.

I was now ready to start trying the burn runs.  The first thing I learned is that it’s fairly easy to light the steel wool. However, don’t expect to see flames. You’ll see just a light smoldering where you light it, and this is fine. Once you start spinning the whisk the air flowing through will cause the burn to increase and to drive sparks off of the steel wool.

I had my camera set up to use the remote with a 2 second delay. So I light the steel wool, then hit the remote button, and then had two seconds to start slowly spinning the whisk before the exposure started. Each burn lasted about 20 – 25 seconds depending on how fast I spun the whisk. I started out with pictures spinning the whisk in a circle in front of me. Since I was almost perfectly still I show up in the center of the circle.

Next, I spun the whisk over my head lasso style. This gave me a lower spread of sparks in the image, but I do like how the sparks are skipping off the water.

And lastly, I spun the whisk alternating from side to side in a crossing pattern over my body.

So that was my experience with doing this for the first time. It wasn’t hard, and it made some really cool pictures. If you enjoy long exposures, or want to try something new I definitely recommend trying this out. I hope this write up was helpful for the amateur photographer just starting out.

Let me know if you have any questions or feedback.


Let Me Know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s