An Introduction to Steel Wool Long Exposure Photography

The Making of Interdimensional Portals: Steel Wool Photography

You may have seen images like this on social media at some point and either dismissed them as blatant photoshop fakes, or been wowed by their inherent complexity and uniqueness. In reality, these pictures are almost stupidly simple to create and don't require any drastic editing afterward. This method is known to photography enthusiasts as "Steel Wool Photography," and can easily be done with items you may already have on hand, or items that you can easily have on hand after a quick trip to the store. All you need to do this on your own is couple feet of rope, some fine steel wool (found here on Amazon), a metal kitchen whisk, a lighter, a flashlight, a camera, and a tripod. This is a potential fire hazard, so make sure that you also choose a good location, parking lots, wet places after it rains, sand, rocks, etc.

This method relies on the photographic element of long exposure. If you aren't familiar with the exposure triangle yet, I would recommend doing a bit of research before trying this, but in short, when you take a picture with your camera, a shutter opens, exposing your image sensor to light. Most of the time you want a relatively fast shutter speed, to capture the action as it happens, but in cases like these, you actually want a much slower shutter speed. These pictures were taken with a shutter speed of 20 seconds. This means that the image sensor was recording information for 20 seconds.

Back to the actual steel wool part, because these pictures are taken at long exposures, and the subject is light itself, you will need to take these pictures at night, as soon as the sun starts to go down and it starts to get dark. Once you have set up your camera and tripod, and framed the picture you want, including where you will be standing as the main subject of the picture (This will take some experimentation to figure out, but wider angle lenses work best, you will want to have a large area framed in your composition), tie one end of the rope to the handle of the kitchen whisk. Next, take a piece of steel wool, and start pulling it apart to fluff it out. Then, stuff it inside your metal kitchen whisk. The more you pull the steel wool apart beforehand, the easier it will be to light, and the more sparks there will be once you light it (but it will also burn more quickly). Light the steel wool on fire with the lighter, and as soon as it catches, you will either need a wireless camera remote or a friend to start the exposure for you. As soon as the exposure starts, begin spinning the rope with the whisk on it out in front of you (it is a good idea to practice spinning it beforehand, so you don't mess up during the picture, and risk burning yourself). Sparks will begin to fly out of the steel wool, and those will form the long streaks seen in the final image.

I tried this on the beach and found a pool of water that I used to make a reflection.

The more you try it the better you will get, and the more creative you can be. Most of these pictures were just my second or third time trying this technique. Bring a lot of steel wool with you so you can experiment.

You can spin the wool in whatever way you want, not just circles. In this picture, I tried to make an orb shape.