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:
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!
- 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.
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.
- 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!