Steel Wool Photography Tutorial

Kicking light painting up a notch, steel wool photography fires up the imagination by making sparks.

While steel wool photography appears to have an underground following, I’ve combined it with flash photography to introduce models into the composition.  First I’ll explain the artificial light set-up that I used to light up my friend Mike.  Then I’ll tell you how I got the sparks.

Lighting Set-Up

The lighting set-up, à la strobist, is very simple.  I used my Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash and shot through a Westcott 2001 43in. Optical White Satin Collapsible Umbrella at a 45 degree angle from the model on camera right.  I used the silver bounce (Collapsible Reflector Disc -42″ Diameter – Silver/Gold) on the left to make sure the other side of Mike’s face was lit up and that his hood didn’t create too many shadows.  I had him dressed in black, because I knew this was going to be a long exposure and I wanted to minimize any blur.  I also wanted to use him as an assistant to light more fires later in other shots not using flashes and didn’t want him showing up at all.

Behind Mike to the right, I used my Canon Speedlite 420EX Flash in a Westcott 2219 Mini Apollo Softbox Kit.  This was to make him stand out a bit from the background by adding some light to the rim of his hood and top of his shoulders.  In this photo, I am not sure whether it actually worked, probably because I was forced to put it a bit back (and too far from Mike) in order to keep it safely afar from the sparks.

My Canon EOS 5D Mark II, sitting on my Gitzo basalt tripod, communicated with the Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash

Artificial lighting set-up for above photo.

using a pair of Pocket Wizard II Transceivers, the gold standard in wireless flash photography.  The 580EX II in turn communicated with my 420EX through Canon’s own master/slave wireless capabilities.  While there was a surprising bit of a flash delay, it wasn’t a problem here since I was shooting with long exposures.  I couldn’t hook my 420EX to another Pocket Wizard because the flash does not have a PC jack.  What I should have done was brought my other 580 EX II.  But we live and learn.

Other photography equipment used include a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens, B+W Filter 77mm Clear UV Haze with Multi-Resistant Coating (010M),  tripod, remote trigger, 3 light stands, 2 umbrella adapters, and a boom to hold the bounce/reflector.

Let the Sparks Fall Where They May

Before you start the shoot, you will need to go shopping.  I found everything at a dollar store and my neighborhood Home Depot.

  • Steel wool.  While I got mine at Home Depot, Amazon.comalso has some for sale.  Be sure to get one that has grades 0-0000.  Don’t get anything grade 1 or higher, since it won’t light on fire right.  I prefer Homax Products #106080 8PK #0000 Steel Wool Pad.  They’re cheap (less than $4 a bag), so get a lot.
  • Whisk.  Get a whisk (or 3) that has a loop at the handle end.  Don’t waste your money at Bed, Bath & Beyond.  Theirs are around $10 each and don’t even have hooks on them.  I got mine at the local dollar store.
  • Dog leash.  You will be using this to hook to and swing around the whisk.  Make sure it feels comfortable in your hand and that you can get a smooth circular swing with it.  I would not use a chain, unless somehow insulated, since you will need to carefully stop the swinging leash while the steel wool may still be burning.
  • Igniter.  While you can use a 9-volt battery to light the steel wool by rubbing them together, I find that it slows down the process, which becomes a pain when you’re racing against the shutter.  I suggest a lighter, preferably one of the jet flame kinds.
  • Flashlights.  Since I was using a model, I just used a flashlight on him to better focus my camera.  However, if you are not using a model, you may want to bring an LED light to place near your subject area in order to focus before shooting.  LED lights and flashlights also make great tools for light painting.
  • Black clothing.  While Mike is wearing black at my stylish option, it is mandatory that the “flame thrower” also wear all black to avoid showing up in the shot.  By moving around in the dark with a slow shutter speed, this will help the flame thrower remain invisible in the resulting shot.  Wearing a black hoodie with long sleeves and a pair of black pants does the trick and also protects your skin.
  • Safety equipment.  Bring a portable fire extinguisher, just in case.  Also bring a bucket to add water to so you can extinguish the steel wool (and bring a gallon or two of water if your shooting location does not have a water source).  The bucket also acts as a handy carrier for the aforementioned spark-making equipment.  In addition to protective clothing, also consider gloves and goggles.  You may also want to consider a spray bottle to spritz your model and yourself before the shot just in case any fiery steel wool escapes.


Once you have all of your equipment, be sure to pick a safe location.  Do not shoot near dry grass or wood structures that would catch on fire.  I personally prefer shooting near brick, stone, and asphalt locations.  Not only are they safer, but the sparks bounce nicely.  The images in this post were taken in DC’s old boilermaker shop, which is currently undergoing construction to be converted into retail space.  Other ideas include over pools and other water reservoirs.  The beach is also fun.  Some photographers shoot on open roads, but that can be dangerous, especially at night, and on wet grass, but that just looks a bit cheesy IMHO.

After you place your equipment, set up your camera functions.  For the shot above, I set the following: ISO 200, f/5.0, 30 seconds.  I also took some shots between 8 and 25 seconds.  Even though the flash freezes the model, Mike had to remain extremely still to avoid any ghosting or additional blur.  He did an incredible job in this really long exposure.  It’s a miracle that our best shot was at 30 seconds, which was necessary since I needed the extra time to run into the shot after the flash set off and to light the steel wool.  Let’s just say that there were a lot of outtakes.

When you are set up at your location, attach the leash to, and stuff some steel wool into, the whisk.  I recommend stretching out the steel wool a bit to poke through the various whisk wires.  Doing so will allow more air flow and will better prevent the flaming steel wool from escaping and flying somewhere you don’t want it to land.

In this shot, I stood outside the frame to avoid being in it went the flash went off.  I remotely triggered the camera and got into place.  Here, I stood behind Mike (back-to-back) and crouched a bit below his shoulder.  While I tried to line my feet up so his would block mine from the camera, I wasn’t that successful.  In the end, however, I was able to Photoshop out my feet using the clone and spot healing tools.

After getting into place, light the steel wool on fire, and start swinging the leash in a circular motion.  When the shutter closes and the steel wool continues to burn, even if the sparks stop, take another shot.  You will still get some cool effects.

When your steel wool burns out, douse and extinguish the still-hot remaining amount and the whisk in the water bucket. Refill. Relight. Repeat. Enjoy while hot.

One Response to “Steel Wool Photography Tutorial”

  1. [...] There’s also another nice tutorial on negativespace. [...]

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