Spinning Wool - Night Photography

When i first saw this type of picture i was sure it was done with some type of firework or sparkler. Then i read the caption and it described it as "spinning wool." So i looked it up online and videos on Youtube and it turns out that it's made by spinning a lit piece of steel wool around in a circle. Here was my first attempts.

I had experimented with taking pictures at night before. About a year ago i did this Snowy Night photography, where i was using a flashlight to write my name.

So the idea is basically the same but the process is a lot more dangerous.

  • 0000 fine steel wool
  • Metal harness
  • Wire string
  • Lighter
  • Hooded sweatshirt
  • Bucket of water!!!
Here's what i made as the wire and harness. I just used a coat hanger and some thin gauge wire. As it spins, the steel wool gets pushed to the end of the cage.

I remember reading from a survival book that you can start a fire with a 9 volt battery and steel wool. The charge shorts out on the metal and catches on fire. I remember being amazed that steel wool would burn. So you could use a battery to light it, but a lighter or matches works faster. Here's what the steel wool looks like after it's lit.

Now if i just left this there it would gradually turn orange and burn through in about 20 seconds. But by spinning it in a circle, you are adding more air, allowing it to burn faster and the whole process takes just 3 or 4 seconds. The reason these pictures look so cool is that the steel wool actually falls apart as it burns and it looks like a shower of sparks.

Now i didn't have the "bucket of water" when i did this but i definitely will in the future. Luckily it had rained the day before and everything was wet. All of those sparks hitting the ground is a super hot piece of metal and it stays hot for several seconds. It could very easily light something on fire if it were dry. And the hooded sweatshirt is so that if one of the hot sparks lands on your head, which is very likely.

Anyway here are the settings that i had on the camera.

Camera Settings:
  • Canon with CHDK
  • +-25 seconds exposure
  • f/6 aperture
  • ISO 250

I would say that you could do this with any digital point and shoot camera but the exposure time is tricky. My camera maxes out at 15 seconds normally. It would probably work, but you would have to crank up the aperture and ISO and it would most likely turn out grainy. So i turned on the CHDK software on my Canon S95 and set the exposure time to 25 seconds. I think that with the settings listed above it gave me a good balance between not overexposing the sparks but not underexposing the dark background. Also i probably should have turned on the RAW setting but i didn't since this was just a test. If i do this again though i would set it to RAW, which would allow for better Photoshop post editing.

As you can see the sparks fly about 30 feet depending on how fast you spin the steel. I tried different things from spinning vertical, horizontal and all different directions. The key is to get close to the camera, without letting one of the sparks damage it. I stayed on the safe side and stood +-40 feet away.

But i am definitely going to try this again sometime. It was fun and the pictures turned out better than i expected.

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