Steel Wool Wedding Tutorial

Steel Wool|Seattle Wedding Pictures|Tutorial

I think my favorite reaction from clients are the gasps that I receive when looking at any long exposure steel wool photograph. I am immediately asked, "Oh my! What is that?", "How did you do that?", or my favorite, "Is that photoshop?".

Short answer: no it is not photoshop, its real fire produced by steel wool! 

Before I go further, here is an overview of some camera basics. A camera has three main things that you can change before taking a picture: Aperture (f-stop), shutter, and ISO. For the purpose of steel wool photography, we just focus on the shutter. Heres a link if you want to go more in-depth on these subjects. The shutter is, "a device that allows light to pass for a determined period, exposing photographic film or a photosensitive digital sensor to light in order to capture a permanent image of a scene." More simply put, its how long your sensor, the camera part that absorbs the actual image, is exposed to the light. The longer it is open, the more light it absorbs, and you get a brighter picture. But along with this, any movement (since the object reflecting light moves) becomes blurry. There are a lot of fun things that you can do with a slow shutter, steel wool is just one of my favorites. 

Now onto how I actually get the picture!

For those who don't know, steel wool is a bundle of very fine strands of steel-filaments most commonly used to polish metals, and boy is it highly flammable. In essence, what I am doing is lighting it and spinning it very fast to produce flying sparks. So if I want a streak of a spark, all I have to do is make my shutter stay open longer! But you might wonder, how do I get it spinning? You need six things:

  • A metal whisk
  • A string, about 2 feet long
  • Steel wool, make sure it is fine steel wool, grade 0 or 00
  • A flash, or something that can produce a quick amount of bright light quickly
  • Tripod
  • A lighter

With these six things, you are almost ready to take your picture. Before you go out for pictures, tie your string to the handle of your whisk and make sure it is easy to spin. Once on location, you want to get a good background for a steel wool picture, so pick something that is bright and visible at night. It should be dark outside, but you want to be able to see the background, or else you'll just have black emptiness. If you look above at my pictures, I make sure to include the sunset, the city, waterfall, or a ferry. Once you have your background, set up your camera on a tripod with a shutter of about 3 seconds. I usually don't go higher than this because it is almost impossible for the couple to stand absolutely still longer than this. Set up the flash on your camera pointed directly at the couple. Once these things are done, mess around with the settings on your flash and in your camera until you get a picture that is exposed properly. Take test shots without the steel wool, it will give time for the couple to practice standing still and can let you see the exposure. Next, stuff some steel wool into your whisk and get behind the couple. Make sure to stand 3 feet back so that sparks don't hit the actual couple. Stress to them how important it is to stand still and light up your steel wool. Once it is slightly lit, have someone either click the shutter for you (a friend, assistant, or self-timer) and start to spin. The sparks will start flying in a massive circle around your couple. Make sure to safely extinguish the remaining steel wool in the whisk and go enjoy the picture you just took!

You should be getting exclamations from the couple and all their friends as you show them the awesome picture you just took. To them, its magic, while for you it was just some handy camera work!


Steel wool burning is still fire, treat it as such. Do not burn steel wool in dry areas that are prone to fires. I am not responsible for any burns or destruction caused by the misuse of steel wool.  

Comments are closed.