Sunday, February 6, 2011

DIY Steel Wool Long Exposure

Happy Sunday Everyone!
Let's take a look at setting up your own steel wool photoshoot. This setup is cheap and easily executed, and yields amazing results. There is a lot of potential using steel wool for different types of setups, but today we're just going to cover the basics.

What you need:

  • Your camera
  • Tripod - not completely necessary but it will make your shoot much easier. If you don't have a tripod you need a stable, flat surface that will adequately keep your camera still enough for a several-second exposure.
  • Steel Wool - #000000 works best (or the finest grade you can find). Check your local hardware store.
  • Steel Cable - get 10ft. or more of steel cable at the hardware store while you're getting the wool.
  • A lighter to light the steel wool
  • A bucket with water - precautionary measure! A fire extinguisher also works!
  • A flashlight will help you setup your shot and keep you from falling in holes in the dark
Assuming you have a camera and tripod already, this setup is going to set you back less than ten bucks and probably less than five.

Ok then, let's get started. Bust out a piece of steel wool and your cable:

Prep your steel cable. Use a pair of pliers to secure one tip of the cable then twist it in the opposite direction that the cable is wrapped in. You're fraying the cable apart so you can tie it around the steel wool:

Now it's simply a matter of tying the cable around the piece of steel wool. "Fluff" the steel wool apart a bit and you will get a bigger series of sparks (at the cost of it burning up faster).

How to use this setup - the objective is to hold onto the end of the cable, light the steel wool, and start spinning it around in circles. This causes the sparks to fly outward from the point that you are spinning, creating a great circle of sparking firey goodness.

Now you are ready to head out into the darkness to start shooting! Good locations are the same as those that would be good for any long/night exposure shot. Avoid locations with lots of dry grass, brush, or foliage. Your sparks are going to be flying several feet in the direction that you are spinning the cable and it's important to keep everything else from catching on fire. A river / lake makes a good location, as do concrete buildings.

This shoot is going to be most easily captured with a buddy, so grab a friend and head to your location. Setup your camera and tripod while your buddy stands about where you'd like to capture the steel wool. Have them use the flashlight to help with your framing of the scene. The steel wool is going to stay lit for upwards of 10 seconds, so set your shutter speed for around that. An fstop if 5.6 ish will give you enough depth-of-field, and you can use your ISO settings to alter the composition to your liking (want stars in your shot? higher ISO. want to only show the sparks from the wool? use a low ISO).

After that it's just a matter of tying the steel wool to cable and lighting it up with a lighter! Once lit, open your shutter and have your friend simply spin the cable around in circles, figure 8's, etc. and have fun!

This shot was taken with a 10sec exposure at f4 and ISO 200. I setup across the river from my buddy and he lit the wool and spun it around in fast circles for me. Bonus on this shot, as the sparks hit the water they bounced off and created very nice patterns:

Image Copyright 2011 CRS Creative LLC.


  1. now thats impressive. when i have a bunch of time on my hands ill have to try it thx!

  2. That's an incredible photo! I may actually have to try this. :D


  3. awesome, looks amazing, i need to try it

  4. Oh good god, that's amazing. I gotta try this sometime. I was actually searching for a good photography blog, followed. Thanks for the comments, btw!