Steel Wool Spinning in the Landscape
Today’s technique brings all these elements together in a way that creates beautiful, dramatic and unusual images. It’s called steel wool spinning. The photos may look complicated but in reality it is easy to try out if you have the right equipment, a willing partner and pay attention to safety.
Here’s what you need:
A camera with a manual mode, a cable release or remote (the self-timer will do in a pinch), good tripod, wide-angle lens, UV filter and lens hood. Live View is also useful.
How to do it
Steel wool spinning really is very simple. Simply stuff the steel wool inside the whisk (I use masking tape to hold it in place), set it alight with the cigarette lighter, and get your helper to whirl it around in a circular motion. The burning sparks of steel wool fly out and fall to the ground, creating bright orange trails of light.
Put your camera on a tripod, and set your exposure using manual mode. Aim for a shutter speed of around eight to 15 seconds – there’s no harm in underexposing the background for dramatic effect (I find the steel wool burns for about ten seconds). You’ll need to be shooting at twilight, otherwise it will be too bright. The sparks won’t show up in daylight.
If you shoot while there’s still a little light left you the sky will have a nice deep blue colour. Some people use this technique at night and combine it with painting with light (using either torchlight or portable flash) to build up an image or to capture star trails.
Live View (if your camera has it) helps with focusing, as it may be too dark for you to focus on your subject properly. On my camera, there is enough detail in Live View to focus manually, even when it is too dark to see anything through the viewfinder. Set your camera to manual focus, focus on the person doing the steel wool spinning, and use a small aperture (f8-16) to compensate for any focusing errors. As this is a kind of landscape photo you’ll no doubt want the entire scene in focus anyway.
Shoot Raw so you can make fine adjustments to colour temperature and exposure in post-processing. In the meantime, set white balance to daylight – that will help the camera record the colours accurately.
If you’re using a wide-angle lens (recommended for the dramatic perspective) then move as close as you can to the arc of the burning sparks of steel wool for a strong composition. It is wise to wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible, plus a hat and safety goggles, in case one of those sparks lands on you. You should also use a UV filter to protect the front element of your lens from burning sparks.