How to create photos like this using steel wool and a lighter

September 10, 2014, 1 p.m.

Wire Wool Goes Wild!

You can break out the pyrotechnics in a cool yet simple and cheap way, creating amazing images like this while having a lot of fun. Here's what you need and how to do it.


Camera with ability to set exposures for 10-30 seconds


Steel wool, Grade 0, 00, 000 (the finer the wool, the shorter the burn time, with more sparks and more delicate fire trails)

Wire kitchen whisk with a loop in the handle (the more tines in the whisk, the better to form a secure cage for the wool)

A 2- or 3-foot length of wire or metal cable



Protective clothing and goggles


1: Find a safe place to try this. Seriously. This is the most important part since, you know, you're dealing with fire flying all over the place. We suggest heading to the beach, a parking lot well away from anything remotely susceptible to flame, or somewhere with a lot of concrete to keep things contained such as the spot in this image. It is especially wise to try this only after it has rained so everything around you is nice and damp. Don't try this anywhere with dry grass, leaves, trees, houses... any place in which your photo will become evidence of unintentional arson. Next you want to make sure you aren't flammable -- this means long sleeves and pant legs, gloves, a hat, goggles, and of course have a fire extinguisher handy. It's your responsibility to play it safe; don't be the winner of the next Darwin Award.

2: Now that you have your materials, your protective gear, and a very safe, nonflammable location, it's time to put together your light painting gear. Cut a 4"x4" piece of wire wool. Gently pull it apart a little to create more air space, and loosely pack it into the wire whisk so it fills the whole cage. Loop one end of your length of wire through the loop of the whisk, knot it a couple times -- it's a good idea to look up how to tie a few kinds of solid knots! -- and twist the shorter end around the longer end so that is nice and secure. Remember you're going to be spinning this at high speeds and you don't want it flying off, so take time to knot it correctly.

3: Get your camera set up on the tripod. Keep your ISO low, between 100-400, to minimize grain. Shutter speed can be anywhere form 10-30 seconds depending on ambient light. You can try this during the blue hour after sunset to capture more of the background, or in complete darkness. Your shutter speed will vary depending on the effect you want to create within the lighting you have. Your f-stop depends on what effect you want as well, but try starting at f/8 and go from there.

4: Setup your scene. Get your camera in place. Double check your knots, your protective clothing and the location of your fire extinguisher just in case. Light your steel wool. Trip your camera's shutter, and start spinning!

5: Check your exposures to make sure your settings are letting you get the amount of fire trails you want. Adjust to longer or shorter shutter speeds or higher or lower ISO. And experiment with your scene -- try other angles to the background, setting your camera at different heights, or lighting up rocks or other elements in your scene. Play around, have fun, and be safe!

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Google+, and Facebook.