Steel Wool Photography 101
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Steel Wool Photography 101: What You Need & How To Set Up Your Camera

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You have probably seen pictures on the internet very much like the one above: a person being surrounded by spirals of light with streams flying off in all directions. That is steel wool photography!  

Well, we tried steel wool photography for the first time a few weeks ago and want to share our experience and photography tips! Below, you will find simple instructions on how to create your own steel wool picture art!!

What you will need 

Steel Wool

As the name implies, steel wool is the key component to make the magic happen. Steel wool comes in many different grades, we found that grade 0000 worked the best as it was the easiest to light. We use one piece of steel wool per photograph, so make sure you purchase enough. 


No, we aren’t going to be doing any cooking. The whisk will be used to hold and contain the steel wool while it is burning. Make sure to get a metal whisk (a plastic one will melt from the high temperatures) with a loop on the bottom to attach a rope to. 

Note that the whisk will char after being used for steel wool photography. It will not be suitable for cooking afterwards, so use one that you don’t care about!  


A rope is required to swing the whisk around - it will need to be securely  attached to the bottom of the whisk.  I have seen people using rope or a dog leash, really either could work.

Main apparatus required: whisk, rope & steel wool


Gloves are a good idea as steel wool is super abrasive and used for cleaning pots and pans.  While it isn’t going to cut your hands and leave massive lacerations, it isn’t the most fun thing to handle.


Fire has to come from somewhere, right? Either bring a lighter with you, OR we have also been told that a 9 volt battery works as well!

You are probably thinking, “how can a battery start a fire?”.

Well...  what happens is that when the battery comes in contact with the steel wool, the wool completes the circuit between its two terminals. This allows electrons to flow freely from the negative to the positive terminal. Since the wool is so fine, the amount of heat generated from the flow of electrons ignites the steel itself!  (yes, we are nerdy and enjoy this stuff). 


Tripod is a must. Low light photography requires long shutter speeds, so any motion during the shot will translate to a blurry image.


Obviously you will need a camera for photography. You will require a camera with adjustable settings - as advanced as cellphone cameras are these days, a real camera will work much better.

As a precautionary suggestion, we recommend pairing a UV filter over your lens to prevent sparks from hitting it.   

Long Clothing

While this isn’t a MUST, it is a good idea to wear protective clothing. If you happen to hit yourself with the flaming whisk, it might leave a bit of a mark on you - so cover up and protect that body of yours. 

Where to do it

Steel wool photography involves the spinning of HOT burning metal, with many flying pieces that will eject from the whisk. Do not try this near flammable materials, structures and places with lots of people. Avoid forests, dry fields, historical structures,  your apartment or anywhere indoors for that matter.

We live near the ocean, so we typically do our shots over a thin tidal pool where the ground is wet and nothing will catch on fire!

There is also an added benefit of being over the water: it reflects the light from your fire, making things look double cool. 

The camera settings

Getting your camera setting right will be the key to capturing the magic that happens. Below are a few simple steps to get set up. If you are not familiar with adjusting settings on your camera, you may need to reference the owner’s manual, or YouTube.

1. Set the camera to manual mode

this as simple as turning your camera dial to “M”. This mode will allow you to toggle different functions to control the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor.

2. Mount the camera to a tripod

Set the camera on a stable tripod or a support of sorts that will ensure the camera does not move during or between shooting

3. Switch the camera to manual focus

Most cameras are set to auto focus as a default, however, most autofocus functions struggle in the dark. To ensure non blurry photos are taken, make sure to switch to manual focus.

4. Set focus

Depending on what camera/lens you use, there are many different techniques to focus manually in the dark. This is what I do on my Nikon d3400: 

  • Determine the location of interest (the location that fire spinning will happen). 
  • Have a friend stand in location with a flashlight shining on his/her body. 
  • With your camera, turn it on live-view so you are able to see the image on the digital display. 
  • Using digital zoom, zoom into the location of interest with your friend in frame. TIP - If it is too dark and you are unable to see your friend, try to decrease the camera’s aperture setting (you want lower f-number). This allows more light into the camera.
  • Now rotate the focus ring on the lens to set the focus. Use the live-view display to determine focus quality. TIP: Often lenses come with focus distance dial that tells you the approximate focus distance - use this as a reference!
  • Once you have found the sweet spot, do not alter it, unless your location of interest changes, then you will have to repeat step 4.

5. Set ISO

Depending on how bright the scene is, you may need to try different ISO. Because we are doing a long exposure shot in low light setting, I usually default to ISO 100 or ISO 200. I would recommend not to go above ISO 800.

6. Set aperture (f-number):

I usually set my f-number between f-8 to f-12. This ensures the depth of field is not too shallow so more objects are in focus. 

7. Set shutter speed

Depending on how bright the scene is, you may have to adjust this. My default is anywhere between 4 to 8 seconds (4” or 8” on the camera) depending how much wool is used. Usually half a 0000 steel wool pad burns for a good 8 seconds. 

After these 7 steps, your camera should be good to go. Try out a few shots and adjust ISO and shutter speed as needed. Higher ISO setting means the camera will be more sensitive to light, so the image will turn out brighter. Longer shutter speed will let more light in, and will also make the image brighter as a result.

Getting your spin on

When you pull the steel wool out of the package, it is a tight bundle. Unfold it, and stretch it out before putting it in the whisk. This will allow it the oxygen it requires to burn properly. 

Once you have all your equipment, the assembled product should look something like this:

Grade 0000 steel wool
Unfold and stretch wool
Insert wool in whisk and attach to rope

We suggest practicing your swing patterns before lighting up the wool.  They say, practice makes perfect - right? I’m not sure about you, but we had never spun a ball of fire before doing this. We would recommend doing a simple circle in front of yourself for the first spin. Get use to the weight of the equipment and how big your spinning radius is.

For everyone's safety, make sure to check the following before lighting your wool and spinning away:

  • Is the wool nicely in the whisk?
  • Is there anyone around who might get hit?
  • Is there anything nearby that might catch fire? 

 Once you are clear, and comfortable with everything, it is time to get creative!!  

Have fun and be safe!

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