Steel Wool Photography

Steel Wool Photography

Today, we’re going to find out how to create steel wool photography, like in the cover photo above, but without the fire department getting involved. I’ve seen these steel wool photos all over the internet. I’ve seen them on Instagram, where they’re pretty popular because they look insane. If you really have no idea how it’s done, check out these 20 steel wool photography tips that will help you do everything in an awesome and safe way!

20 Steel Wool Photography Tips

If you’re going to create some steel wool photos, read these useful photography and photo editing tips. I’ve tried to cover everything that could help you do everything well and safely the first time.

Tip 1. Learn What Steel Wool Photography Is

steel wool photography

To take steel wool pictures, you need to use long exposures in order to capture the red-hot embers moving in the air from rotating flaming steel wool. These glowing coals are very bright. When they are in motion, the camera captures the band of light, creating a mystical image. If you are experienced in shooting large, open-air fires, you will surely see long light trails that are made by flickering embers. It is possible to imitate this effect by setting fire to steel wool and carefully spinning it.

Tip 2. Gather Necessary Equipment

equipment for steel wool pictures

Camera and Lens. Steel photography doesn’t require expensive gear or special lenses. It is enough to have a camera that is capable of shooting in manual mode and a 17-50mm lens.

Recommended camera:

Canon EOS 6D SLR Camera

This is a basic full-frame camera with excellent performance and it is capable of shooting in dim light. The Canon EOS 6D SLR is compact and very user-friendly for beginners. This mid-range camera produces amazing image quality. Moreover, it is rather affordable, which is a great advantage.

The best variant to use is a wide angle lens. It makes the image more vivid and extraordinary. If you like experiments, use a fisheye lens. It allows for combining light with the barrel distortion in an original way.

Recommended lens:

Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM

This is a large-aperture standard zoom lens that covers a focal length from 17mm wide angle and offers a large aperture of F2.8 throughout the entire zoom range, making it ideal for many types of photography, especially portraiture and landscapes, and is good for steel wool photos.

A Steady Tripod and Shutter Cable. Steel wool long exposure photography requires a stable DSLR tripod to stabilize the camera while exposing. This prevents image blurring. It is also necessary to have a shutter cable to avoid the camera shaking. It is advisable to have a self-timer, as well.

Steel Wool. There are many varieties of steel wool for photography, but it is better to use grade 0.

Pixco Photography Props Steel Wool

One of the most proven manufacturers of steel wool. Can burn for about 20 seconds. It burns fast, so take a lot of fine steel wool to take as many photos as you can.

String. People use string or a dog leash to spin the steel wool. I recommend buying a 1 – 1.5m long string.

Stainless Steel Whisk. In order to hold steel wool, use the cage of a whisk. Tie a rope to the hook, which is at the top of the holder. The wool should be placed loosely to allow oxygen to penetrate into the whisk and speed up the burning. Thinner steel wool provides faster results, like grade 0. Remember: Steel wool will be very hot when it starts burning. Don’t use silicone whisks because they will melt.

Stainless Steel Mini Whisk

This is a great set, which is useful not only in the kitchen, but also for steel wool photography.

Protective Gloves. Steel wool is rather sharp and can hurt your hands. It is necessary to wear protective gloves to care for your hands.

Lighter. The safest and the most convenient way to ignite the fibers of the steel wool is to use a lighter. Remember that it burns quite easily. Start spinning in order to get the fibers burning. In this case, steel wool will burn within a few seconds, depending on the spinning speed.


A stylish and comfortable lighter with a protective button and comfortable covering.


Tip 3. Follow These Steps

Look though these easy instructions to learn how to do steel wool photography:

  • Step 1. Fasten the whisk to the chain or cable. It is better to use a length of about 2 feet.
  • Step 2. Take some steel wool and stuff it in the head of the whisk. Do not put it too tightly, as the air will have to pass through it in order for the steel wool to burn. I prefer to make it fluffy before packing it into the whisk. In this case, the sparks will be much brighter.
  • Step 3. You can ignite the wool with the lighter. There is no need for the wool to be on fire. Light just several parts to make beautiful sparks.
  • Step 4. To have the sparks moving through the air and flying from the whisk, you need to hold another end of the chain and perform circular movements.
  • Step 5. After a person begins spinning, get your camera and take an image. Shooting at 10-second exposures, you will be able to take 2-3 shots before the steel wool burns out.

It is necessary to practice a lot before shooting. Specifically, you should know how to stop spinning gradually without hitting yourself. If the whisk strikes you as you are stopping it, you may be burned. I recommend having a bucket of water in case you’re shoot far from a river or the ocean. Anyway, you should cool the whisk in water before filling it with steel wool again. Watch the Night-Time Photography Techniques photography course by Gabriel Biderman to create better images once the sun goes down.

Sparkler Photoshop Overlays

photoshop overlays for spinning wool photographyphotoshop overlays for spinning wool photography

You can add steel wool to your photographs with these Sparkler Photoshop Overlays. Get incredible steel wool photos in several clicks for your clients’ safety.

Tip 4. Adjust Your Camera

steel wool photo

To take a captivating steel wool photo with a long exposure, you need to set your camera to manual mode. As was stated earlier, , the best time to shoot is in the evening after the sunset. You can do it in the daytime with the help of the ND filter, but the sparks will not be so perky and you will not achieve the desired effect.

  • Check out my neon photography guide if you are fond of shooting with lights and reflections. Find out how to use these visual elements to give your photographs that stand-out quality.

Shutter speed: This is most likely the most essential parameter for getting an awesome image. My recommendation is to choose the exposure between 5-20 seconds to capture the motion of light rays.

Aperture: It is better to choose an aperture between f5.6 and f11to keep the whole composition in focus.

ISO: To capture the steel wool glare, you’d better keep the ISO low. In this case, it is possible to keep the color detail and fine-tune the color temperature and saturation during the photo post-production. I recommend taking pictures at ISO 100 or 200.

Tip 5. Expose for the Foreground, Hot Wool or Both

steel wool pictures

Remember there is no single right way to get amazing steel wool photos. This depends on your picture vision and image editing skills. The only thing that should be taken into consideration is light. It may be the moon, twilight or any other source that a shooter can use for a long exposure.

Photo Magic

If you want to become a real photo wizard and learn a chic effect to use not only when taking a picture of steel wool, but also other types of photography, read this book.

Don't worry if you have a dark location as there are also some options to choose from. You can take a photo of the environment using a higher ISO, a wider aperture or a longer exposure after or before shooting the steel wool and mix 2 photos while image editing.

Tip 6. Choose the Proper Focal Length

steel photography

Most shooters would like to keep their camera away from sparks. Personally, I choose a wide angle with a range of 15-35 mm to take a photo of the whole area where these sparks fly and land. There is also one important rule you should remember: the longer the focal length, the further you need to move after hitting the shutter. I'd like to share my first experience to explain better. I used a wider lens in order to avoid constantly running forth and back from the spot. Otherwise, I would have to go quickly to the necessary place, get set up and light the wool before the shutter activated because I used a self-timer function on the device.

Tip 7. Mind Focusing

steel wool photography settings

Are you planning to use a tripod and shoot in low lighting conditions? Then remember to set the focus on the spot. As for me, I use a flashlight to mark the place and then use manual focus in live view. Finally, don’t forget to turn off a vibration reduction or image stabilization while taking the steel wool photo on a tripod.

Tip 8. Ideal Time

burning steel wool photography

The perfect time to do burning steel wool photography is at twilight, about 30 minutes after the sun sets. At dusk, the surrounding atmosphere is dim, but the sky is still dark blue. This gives you an opportunity to use a long exposure and get a spectacular result.

Tip 9. Keep It Safe

steel wool photography ideas

A shooter must be very attentive and careful with steel wool photography. There are so many situations when a photographer has caused building or some other object to burn. I am sure you don't want to be such a shooter. So, the first rule: keep away from trees and buildings and choose places near water. Of course, sparks are very nice and look great but they are still unpredictable. So, follow all precautions, prepare a fire extinguisher and then start taking unique photos.

Tip 10. Steel Wool Can Be Harmful to Your Lens

steel wool photography dangerous for lens

Usually, shooters place some steel wool on the rope end and set it on fire by stroking a 9V battery against it. Finally, they swing it around to cast sparks everywhere. Of course, photographers are eager to get a real masterpiece. However, they may do it at the expense of own health or lens work. That's why it is necessary to wear eye protection as well as use a filter.

Photo Accessory Kit

Use this fantastic photo accessory kit to maximize the you lens’ damage while taking steel wool photos near water and sand.

Tip 11. Make Sure a Location Is Safe

steel wool alternative

It is important to select a location with nothing flammable nearby. Everybody knows that trees, grass, wooden buildings and vehicles can catch fire from the hot sparks in just a second. So, no indoor location will suit steel wool photography. You'd better give preference to sandy or rocky deserts, beaches or large parking lots. Such places will be ideal as there are no nearby buildings. Remember, sparks may go for a long distance from the place where you are standing. So, make sure there is enough space between you and any burnable material.

Tip 12. Give Preference to a Wet Location

spinning steel wool on fire

Do you want to get unique steel wool pictures? Then think about shooting after a rainfall. Early morning with dew will also be great. Finally, taking photos in the snow may bring you a lot of inspiration and an astonishing result.

Tip 13. Prepare a Fire Extinguisher

steel wool photography dangerous

Surprises can happen even if the environment is wet and there are no flammable objects near you. So, don't forget to take a fire extinguisher. There was a situation when I left it at home. However, I returned to get it. Of course, I missed the most perfect time for shooting. Nevertheless, I wasn’t upset as caution should be observed above all else.

Tip 14. Check the Location after Shooting

steel wool wedding photography

Keep in mind that spinning wool photography needs not only a good preparation, but also carefully checking the location after the photoshoot. Devote some time to walk around to see whether there are any burning embers or hot spots. It is very important to ensure nothing will happen when you leave. Even a single hot ember may become the cause of an awful fire. you come across any suspicious objects, use sand, water or your own fire extinguisher to get rid of them.

Tip 15. Use Well-known Techniques

steel wool photography ideas

It’s better to choose safe options for taking steel wool photos and follow safety rules instead of doing experiments with a flammable substance. Some shooters use alcohol, pepperbox or other self-made things. But personally, I do not recommend doing this.

Tip 16. Spinning Methods

Start spinning wool after setting up the camera. Keep in mind that you will get the image depending on the kind of spinning you do. I want to share a few techniques on how to come up with fantastic steel wool photography ideas. I hope you will like them.

Vertical Spinning

how to burn steel wool vertically

Start with vertical spinning. It can produce a great fire circle with sparks flying out nicely.

Horizontal Spinning

how to light steel wool horizontal

Do you want to get the sparks closer? Then choose horizontal spinning. The sparks flying towards the device will attract everybody’s attention.

Spinning while you Walk

steel wool photography tutorial while walking

Spinning and walking will help take vortex-like pictures. Use the following technique in the dark background as it looks amazing.

Tip 17. Use These Ideas

There are lots of ideas on how to do steel wool photography which depend on both location and expected result. Here are some of them.

Steel Wool Photography Umbrella

steel wool photography umbrella

Ask someone to take an umbrella and stand in the path of sparks. It will create a fantastic result with steel wool long exposure shots.

Steel Wool Photography Tunnel

steel wool photography tunnel

Pay attention to tunnels or underground structures. It is possible to spin the wool with the sparks hitting the walls and going across the building.


steel wool pictures

This is one of the best options for steel wool for photography as the beach has both a beautiful location and wet sand that protects against starting a fire.

Additional Light Painting Tricks

steel wool photos

Your steel wool pictures will be even better if you use additional light painting aspects. Tape glow sticks on the handle of the rope or whisk, turn off the flash or use gels. Try to think of other options to create different effects.

Introduce Props or People

steel wool photo

What about involving a person in steel wool photography? The model can hold an umbrella in order to block the sparks or stand in front of them. Finally, light sparks with off-camera flash. These steps can turn out to be really great ways to compose the shots. But remember the tips above and avoid shooting near flammable materials.

Tip 18. Remember about Image Editing

steel wool photography editing

Work with highlights/shadows and color balance if the ISO is low and you didn’t blow out the exposure of the highlights. Changing these sliders will greatly affect the result. Try to see which variant you like more. As for me, I usually drop my highlights about 50-75 percent for the majority of photos.

Tip 19. Ask for Help

steel wool photo editingsteel wool photo editing

Today, most photographers don’t waste time learning all secrets of perfect image editing. They entrust this process to experienced professionals and check outsourcing companies like FixThePhoto. Suchlike photo editing services always guarantee top-quality picture retouching in a short period of time. Moreover, there is an opportunity to order steel wool photography editing in your personal style.

Tip 20. FREEBIES for Quick Photo Editing

There is nothing easier than using Lightroom presets or Photoshop filters that have been already prepared by experienced shooters. It will definitely speed up your image editing as you don’t need to experiment with camera settings.

Urban Cityscape Lr Presets "HDR"

Choose this Lightroom preset if want to increase the dynamic range of your images. Don’t worry about the final result as steel wool wedding photography remains quite natural and realistic.

Adobe Lr Preset for Cityscape "Matte"

The following plug-in will be an ideal choice if you want to get a dramatic effect and warm the photo. Actually, it adds sunlight looking bright but natural at the same time.

Dark Lightroom Preset "Warm"

Apply this preset if you are eager to add a little dark and purple split to the photos. This free tool will improve steel wool pictures by drawing attention to the central part of the shot. Feel free to experiment with sliders in order to get the necessary level of saturation and vibrancy.

Dark Preset Lightroom "Vibrance"

Another great Lightroom preset helps improve image contrast when working on steel wool photography ideas. All in all, you will get highly saturated tones of the shot as well as deep noticeable contrast. Moreover, skin tones remain really natural. Finally, the most noticeable effect is black and white colors. They become brighter than usual if applying such Lightroom presets.

Lightroom HDR Preset Free "Hard"

Do you want to create a dark border around the images’ edges? Then use this free preset. It will make the viewers pay special attention to the central shot part due to light reduction. Choose it if there are some details that can distract people while looking at steel wool photos.

Tata Rossi

Hi there, I'm Tata Rossi - a professional blogger, read more