DIY: Steel Wool Lightpainting for Under $10

February 7th, 2013

Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2, 3

Johnny Cash famously once sung, “Love is a burning thing.”

Whether you’re in a committed relationship, a fledgling romance or recently unattached this Valentine’s Day, one thing is certain: love is like a flame.

To honor the fires of love, Mike Benson of Wed Over Heels is showing us how to light paint with steel wool to visually ignite the frame!

This stunning effect costs less than $10 in supplies and requires no Photoshop or post-processing.

With the right precautions, you and few friends can certainly pull it off and keep your eyebrows. (Be sure to read the Safety Notice in the tutorial!)

How to Lightpaint with Steel Wool

p.s. Heads up! creativeLIVE has a free live online course to brush up on your digital photog skillz. Everything from the nitty-gritty to pro tips!

Why it’s cool:

ingred-smMan (and woman) loves fire; from cavemen to Tom Hanks.

There is nothing quite like harnessing nature to light your path or melt your s’mores. And who among us can resist a good fireworks display?

We’ve all seen long-exposure photos using sparklers. This effect is sparklers on rocket fuel. It’s like you’re inside the firework!

*SAFETY NOTICE*

As we mentioned above, there is risk involved in creating this effect. Wear protective clothing, long sleeves and pants and cover your hair (no hair spray!).

Since the sparks do not burn out immediately on contact, there is a chance of singeing your clothes or exposed skin.

Eye goggles are also recommended, especially for the person spinning the whisk. We did our shoot after a day of rain and used a wet umbrella as an extra layer of protection.

As a result of these precautions, our umbrella was unscathed and we didn’t have a single burn hole amongst our entire crew.

Also, remember to keep your camera gear away from the epicenter of the sparks. It is possible to damage your camera and any other gear you might have with you. In short, be safe.

Ingredients:

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  • Steel wool (fine to superfine grade)
  • Whisk
  • Flexible wire
  • Wire cutter or scissors
  • Lighter
  • Umbrella
  • Protective clothing & goggles (see Safety above)

STEP 1: Pick Your Wool & Whisk:

paint-smWhen selecting your steel wool, make sure you purchase the real deal and not a metallic kitchen loofah often referred to by the same name.

Real steel wool usually comes in sheets or rolls inside a bag or box with a grade of fineness clearly displayed.

The grade of steel wool you are looking for is fine to superfine, or anything with a grade “0″ or below (some are labelled “00″ or “000″, more zeros means finer wool). Finer wool will give you a shorter burn time with less intense fire trails and more of them.

For your whisk, choose one with a loop on the handle which will easily allow you to secure the wire. The cheapest metal whisks with the coiled spring handle at the dollar store work great. You don’t want a fancy plastic or rubber grip because this baby is gonna get hot!

Step 2: A Wool in the Whisk

paint-smUnroll the steel wool and if necessary, cut into about a 4″ x 8″ rectangle.

Grabbing both sides, pull the steel wool apart until the size of square is closer to 8″ x 8″. Opening up the steel wool will allow air to flow through better and ensure a more even, complete burn.

Loosely bunch the steel wool into a ball and insert into the whisk so that it completely fills the cage.

Step 3: Tie ‘Em Up

paint-smNext, cut the wire to about 6′ in length.

The wire we chose was the made of flexible metal fibers originally intended to hang photos on the wall.

You could probably get away with nylon string instead of wire, but since one end will be attached to flaming whisk, the less flammable the better.

Tie the wire to the loop at the end of the whisk. For your knot, you can use a variety of fishing knots.

We used a Duncan (Uni) Knot, but use whatever knot floats your boat. The point here is to make it secure. You are going to be spinning the whisk very fast and do not want it to come loose and fly away.

Step 4: Pick the Perfect Spot

paint-smKeep clear of anything flammable like buildings, dry grass or trees! Rocks, sand, pavement or water are all better choices.

You also want to choose somewhere relatively remote. Any unexpected background activity can ruin an exposure, so avoid places with passing cars or wandering people.

For our shoot, it had just rained and we opted for an oceanside location. This allowed us to dip the umbrella in the water before each shot to add an extra layer of protection from the sparks. It also meant we had zero concern of catching any of our surroundings on fire.

The rocks in our location added visual interest. The steel wool produces sparks that will break into smaller pieces on contact and then bounce or roll. The fire trickling down the rocks is one of the best parts of this effect.

Step 5: Set Up Your Camera

Our photographer for this shoot was Michael from LucidCaptures. He tried a couple of different shutter speeds with an aperture of f8 and a very high ISO.

The steel wool can burn for over 20 seconds, but a 20 second shutter speed may result in too many fire trails. We had the most success with shutter speeds of about 10-13 seconds.

Ensure your camera is a safe distance from the epicenter! Any rogue sparks could ruin your equipment.

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Step 6: Ignite and Spin!

paint-smOnce everyone is in place, ignite the steel wool using a lighter. The wool will not burst into flames, but will slowly smolder at the surface.

Holding the wire, hang the whisk about a foot from the ground. Start spinning the whisk in a large circle and have a friend trigger the camera.

The rush of air will accelerate the burn and sparks will start flying. Keep spinning until the exposure ends and the wool burns out.

There you have it! An exposure with about as much fiery love as your favorite couple has.

Take it further

  • For a less fiery alternative to painting your photos, try some colored gels. We hear red’s the color of loooove.
  • Instead of steel wool, try sparklers. They’re like steel wool’s baby cousin. Awww.
  • Try lightpainting on your phone! Here are some sweet long exposures for inspiration.

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