Playing with Fire – Experiment #1

Playing with Fire - Where's the spinner?
Playing with Fire – Where’s the spinner?

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] P [/dropcap] laying with Fire is going to be a new series of photography experiments that I just got the idea for.  I was cruising the internets just kind of following links and suggestions on sites like YouTube when I stumbled across the concept of steel wool photography.  It isn’t really a new concept, more like a fresh take on long-exposure light painting.  Most people do long-exposure light painting with flashlights and laser pointers, some people even use flashes or speedlights on manual and control them by hand.  Steel wool photography on the other hand, appeals to some of the baser human instincts like playing with fire.

Have you ever watched a dancer at a Hawaiian luau twirling flaming torches? This is kinda similar to that except substitute the flaming torch for a wire whisk filled with steel wool.  Anyone who has taken a basic outdoors course probably knows that steel wool burns really well.  It can be used in a pinch to start a fire when you are camping. It also has this cool tendency to throw around lots of sparks when you pack it into a wire whisk tied to a string and swing it around.  Light painting with fire! Who could ask for anything more?

Steel wool Photography attempt #1
Steel wool Photography attempt #1

So, I ran out to the hardware store to pick up the tools required for the project.  It is a simple list: wire whisk, rope, steel wool. I would have liked to find a different location, but I couldn’t think of one where I wouldn’t call a lot of attention to myself right away, therefore, the fornt yard it was. I set up the camera, choosing to shoot this with my full frame fisheye, I thought it would give a good effect.  There is a lot of light pollution in Salt Lake City, so I ended up at ISO100 with an exposure of 30-seconds at f22.  I played around a little, but this seemed to be the best.  Since it was just me, I set the camera to self timer which game me time to trip the release, light the steel wool and get in frame.

The rest was just pure fun, set the camera and swing around some fire!  The hard icy crust on the snow gave nice reflections and a great surface for bouncing sparks.  The first few attempts I made standing still and swinging, then I got the idea to walk through the frame.  The last two shots with me walking through the frame are cool because you can’t see me!

Playing with Fire - attempt #2
Playing with Fire – attempt #2

On my second or third attempt I learned a really important lesson: either wear gloves or change your grip!  Why? Well, I managed to give my self a good blister after swinging the rope in my hand for 30 seconds.  I also rubbed part of one of my fingers raw. Lesson learned, gloves worn for the rest of the shots.  Nothing a little Neosporin and Band-aids can’t fix up! Other things to keep in mind: wear long sleeves and a hat or hoodie!

I also got some very interesting ideas for ways to continue this experiment and create some fun shots.  I am thinking of locations to visit and possibly some flash techniques that could add some interest.

Listen, this is a fun technique and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes painting with light, but it is not for the faint of heart.  This i real fire that we are playing with here and it can be dangerous.  Make sure you take appropriate precautions if you attempt this, don’t do it in a dry field during a drought! Pay attention to where you a flinging sparks and make sure they get put out and don’t start any fires, it doesn’t take much.  Think about your location and timing, after a rain storm things are less likely to catch fire, in a concrete tunnel or the middle of a parking lot is better than a dry field or yard.  Be smart about it, get permission and supervision if you are younger, and don’t hurt yourself!  Most importantly, have fun!

Note: Clicking on any of the photos will take you to my gallery at  If you just want to look at the photos follow the link below:

Playing with Fire – by: Alex Weisman

Playing with Fire - Attempt #6
Playing with Fire – Attempt #6






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