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

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