You are currently viewing Light Painting with Light Tubes and Burning Steel Wool
Burning Steel Wool sparks flying around Adrian, our field trip tutor for the night

Light Painting with Light Tubes and Burning Steel Wool

Our local pho­to club had a field trip to the beach last week. We are lucky to live close by; it is only 1km from the club rooms we nor­mal­ly use for our meet­ings. The images we were about to cre­ate were not the typ­i­cal beach images. No waves or beau­ti­ful land­scapes. No marine wildlife. It was pitch dark. We weren’t doing Astro-Pho­tog­ra­phy either. We were search­ing for a safe spot to burn things and cre­ate images like this:

One good rea­son to join a pho­to club is to learn from oth­er club mem­bers who know more about some parts of pho­tog­ra­phy than you. I knew only a lit­tle about light paint­ing with light tubes or burn­ing steel wool, but we have some­one in the club who did it many times before and knows what he is doing. So he orga­nized a field trip for us all to try it out and to teach us how it works. Thanks, Adri­an Jef­fer­son-Brown , it was great fun!


First things first: safe­ty! There was a rea­son we went to the beach: there is not much that can burn. Quite the oppo­site. In the dark, you are not so much aware of the tide com­ing in and get your stuff wet.

So, safe­ty: Be absolute­ly sure that every­one involved knows what is going on: when you burn steel wool, the sparks (burn­ing matter/ember) fly around and can hit things and peo­ple. The sparks can burn some­times longer than you expect, they can dam­age your lens (put a UV fil­ter in front of your lens as a pro­tec­tion) or put holes into your cloth­ing. Wear old stuff and keep your dis­tance from the fly­ing fiery sparks. The per­son whirling around the steel wool should cov­er up as much as pos­si­ble to pre­vent OUCH! Wear a hat, gloves and eye pro­tec­tion. I hope you get the idea. Be safe.

Dis­claimer: Act at your own risk, I take no respon­si­bil­i­ty for any harm done while you prac­tice light paint­ing with burn­ing steel wool. You are respon­si­ble for the safe­ty of the area you are affect­ing. There should be noth­ing flam­ma­ble any­where near. If you are unsure if it is safe, don’t do it. Take pre­cau­tions for the event of fire, have a fire extin­guish­er ready to use and know how to use it. And don’t try this at home!
This arti­cle is for entertainment/illustration only.

OK, that out of the way, how does it work? We tried two dif­fer­ent ways of light paint­ing, one was using burn­ing steel wool as the light source, the oth­er one was mov­ing light tubes as the light source. Images you can expect look like this:

Two per­sons wav­ing light wands at the same time

Light Painting with Light Tubes and Blades

Light paint­ing with light tubes/blades is a lot eas­i­er and a lot less OUCH! But that does not mean you get excel­lent results instant­ly. There are still sev­er­al things to pay atten­tion to, and it is cer­tain­ly not a begin­ner top­ic in pho­tog­ra­phy. You achieve the best results when you know how to oper­ate your cam­era in the dark and have a tri­pod. A wire­less or cable release is also prefer­able to avoid cam­era shake, as you will prob­a­bly have expo­sure times of 5–15 sec­onds. You should also know how to man­u­al­ly focus and turn off auto-focus.

  • Put your cam­era on a tri­pod and focus on the space where you expect the mag­ic to hap­pen. That works best if you have an illu­mi­nat­ed mark­er (remem­ber, it is pitch black, your cam­era can’t help you with the focus­ing) to focus on. Turn the mark­er off for the exposure.
  • Expo­sure set­tings vary accord­ing to your lens and cam­era. Best lens choice is a wide-angle lens. I shot the image above with 12mm — f/2.8 (24mm — f5.6 full frame equiv­a­lent set­tings) focal length. If you use a zoom lens, remem­ber to con­firm the focus if you change the focal length between shots. You are in man­u­al focus mode.
    You prob­a­bly have to do sev­er­al test shots to get the expo­sure right, but that’s part of the fun!
  • If you want to DIY your light wands, there are instruc­tion­al videos avail­able by Eric Paré, who does amaz­ing images with his cus­tom made tubes. But you can use light sabers or cov­er trans­par­ent tubes with trans­par­ent col­ored mate­r­i­al and stick a flash­light in to get a light tube. You are only lim­it­ed by your imag­i­na­tion. And the amount of mon­ey and time you want to spend on it.
  • The per­son wav­ing the light tube(s) dur­ing the expo­sure should try not to cov­er the same area twice while mov­ing, that could cause blown out high­lights in your expo­sure. A bet­ter way is walk­ing side­ways with a slow repeat­ing pat­tern of tube move­ment. The per­son han­dling the wand should also wear dark/black non-reflec­tive clothes, or oth­er­wise you would see the per­son in the image. You can also use more than one per­son wield­ing light wands as in the above image. Exper­i­ment and have fun!
Over­laps in motion get quite bright, be careful!
  • Play with your images in your favorite image proces­sor. The below images are from the same source image, but mod­i­fied to give you dif­fer­ent results. Play with split-ton­ing, white bal­ance, hues and cal­i­bra­tion settings.

Spinning Burning Steel Wool

The steel wool images have more chal­lenges for the per­son who is doing the spin­ning. For the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the per­son wield­ing the steel wool kit, notable changes are:

  • You can do images in-place, which means the per­son spin­ning is not mov­ing side­ways, but spin­ning the burn­ing wool over the head or in front of the per­son. But if you think you can use a less wide-angle lens, think about where all the sparks are fly­ing. They can fly fur­ther than you think, so take that into account when fram­ing your shot and keep­ing your distance.
Image by Frithjof Moritzen (Adri­an is spin­ning and in the cen­tre of the heat!)

You can also move sideways:

  • With steel wool you have not that many attempts than with light wands, the wool burns faster than your bat­tery of the light wands goes flat. Be extra pre­pared for the steel wool images. You might not have many attempts.
  • The per­son spin­ning the steel wool has a dif­fi­cult task: burn­ing the steel wool is dif­fi­cult, as you have to start spin­ning the same moment it emits sparks, to keep it burn­ing. But if you start too fast, it stops burn­ing. If you are too slow, guess what? It stops burn­ing. Start imme­di­ate­ly after light­ing and increase the spin­ning to get it going and keep spin­ning. At the same time, be care­ful to not hurt your­self with the spin­ning tool hold­ing the wool. And be deci­sive with your move­ment, you have about ten sec­onds burn­ing time for one attempt.
  • The burn­ing steel wool spin­ning in one place can get quite bright, the expo­sure is maybe 5–10 sec­onds, and can eas­i­ly burn out the high­lights, so go with native ISO and maybe f/8 or high­er f/number to under­ex­pose a bit. There is a bit of try-and-error need­ed to get it right. I had my White Bal­ance set­ting at a fixed set­ting ( I think it was ‘tung­sten’, but you bet­ter use ‘day­light’ for warmer col­ors) and shot raw images, so I can change the white bal­ance after­wards in Lightroom/Photoshop in one go.
  • You need a met­al hold­ing device for the burn­ing steel wool. Spin­ning met­al can pose a risk on its own (think of a flail weapon). Adri­an used a whisk on a met­al chain to spin. But what­ev­er you use, make sure the burn­ing wool is not escap­ing the ‘cage’ in one piece, only the sparks should fly. Place the wool loose­ly inside the whisk/cage, the oxy­gen needs to pen­e­trate the wool for bet­ter burn­ing per­for­mance. Use gloves to han­dle the wool and to pro­tect your hands from sparks.
  • Leave enough space. It is bet­ter to be safe from the dis­tance and crop your images, than to be too close and burn and have OUCH! or worse.
Enough dis­tance, you can crop the image
Cropped in. No OUCH! Well, not for me, but Adri­an had his beard go OUCH! with a spark.
  • Be cre­ative with your post pro­cess­ing. Use your images as a source for more, if the tra­di­tion­al fire steel images are too con­ven­tion­al for you. No limits.

Have fun tak­ing images, and above all: stay safe!

Global Photo Club

Frithjof Moritzen

Photography Club Enthusiast

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