These two tools are probably the most famous among photographers who have ever worked with long exposures and tried to create an unusual photograph. Both tools have a very nice effect, but they also have a few pitfalls that need to be taken into account.

Steel wave in motion

Before we get into the explanation, it is essential to point out that both tools burn and at quite a high temperature, so extra care must be taken to avoid damage to both health and property.

TIP: Carry a bottle of water with you so that you can always douse any leftover sparklers or steel wool when you have finished shooting.

Steel wool

Who doesn’t know the classic photo with a fire wheel and fire rays all around. Until the iconic photo of this tool and the idea of drawing with light. How is such a photograph made, what is steel wool and where to find it? Let’s take a look at it.

Spinning steel wool

Steel wool is a product made of steel that is very strong and very elastic. It has 7 grades of coarseness and is used to machine different types of surfaces. For our shooting purposes, we will need the finest variety, which is marked 000. The coarsest is marked 4. Steel wool can be found in any good hobby market and is sold in packs of several rolls. We need a few more things to make a complete tool, so we’ll stay in the hobby market for a while. We need to get an egg beater, a 9v battery or lighter, string and a work glove.

Stuff the steel wool into the whisk, attach the string to the whisk, about a metre will do, put the work glove on our hand as protection so that the string doesn’t get too tangled in our hand or pull off a piece of skin. It hurts like hell. We are able to ignite the steel wool with either a 9V battery or a lighter. A lighter in the case of the soft variants. The coarse ones are also possible, but it takes forever.

Steel wave in the tunnel + a few lights

In order not to create only a „light mess“ in the photos, i.e. frantic waving of the lit steel wave in front of the lens, let’s first think about what we would like to create. Since we already know quite a lot of techniques of what can be created with lights, we can use those.

The basic idea is to spin the steel wool properly and the centrifugal force will make the hot particles fly away. That’s what creates that beautiful fire effect. So all you have to do here is stand still, ignite the steel wave and spin the whole instrument. Ideally, so that the hand stays in the same place. This creates a relatively regular circle. We can spin the tool in front of us or over our heads.

Orb formed by steel wool

We can also add movement while keeping the circles forming, giving us a whole wall of fire.

A wall of fire

TIP: As the hot pieces of the wave fly off into space in different directions, occasionally a hot piece will fly where it shouldn’t. For example, behind the neck, which is not pleasant at all. So I recommend a hoodie during the spin.

Fire wheel with LED strip in the middle – cheap and bland

If we are no longer satisfied with just a simple tool, it is best to construct a proper one at home. But first we need to buy a few things. We need some kind of hoe that has a nice handle – it cuts in half, so the hoe is useless 😊 a steel cable and then some fasteners. By also having steel cable instead of string, we can attach an LED strip to it. Here’s a plain Christmas one, not as distinctive. You can get a more powerful one on Aliexpress with several lighting and flashing modes as well. I’ll switch it over in time and then look forward to the results 😊

On the left a more sophisticated tool including the LED strip, on the right a simple one with a string

Sparklers are especially popular at Christmas time and New Year’s Eve. They are popular because of their amazing effect of flammable particles falling off and looking like pretty sparks. There are different lengths of sparklers on the market and especially with different burning times. For our needs, the ones that can burn for about 30 seconds are usually enough.

As with steel wool, it’s a good idea to think about what we want to create and not just fill the photo with doodles.

My very first ORB made from sparklers with a path

I could see the very basis of this in an ORB, a ball of light. You can find instructions on how to do it here. Instead of a handheld flashlight, we’ll use a sparkler. We could also use a sparkler on the end of a plastic tube or programmable rod if we have one. It’s worth mentioning here the fact that if we don’t need the sparkler to burn all the time, but just for a few seconds, the sparkler can be adjusted. We calculate the approximate burning time to the photo we want to take and break the sparkler at that point by peeling off a piece of material. That is, if we are using a 30 second sparkler and we need a photo for about 5 seconds, we divide the sparkler into thirds and break it off in one third. This will ensure that it burns to the exact spot and goes out. This way we can relight the sparkler when we need it.

The sparkler placed at the end of the plastic tube

Both tools have their undeniable advantages, especially in the visual aspect, but unfortunately they also have their downsides, and quite substantial ones. The main drawback is the fact that neither the steel wave nor the sparkler can be turned off and on again after lighting. So we have to take this into account when creating a photograph, when we want to have a different effect than just „ordinary“ wheels or balls of light.

Another negative is their working temperature, when a piece of hot steel wool behind the neck or on the clothes is not pleasant at all.

Fire mushroom

The big challenge is the actual lighting/ignition. With steel wool, it’s fairly simple with a 9V battery. Touch the contacts to the wave a few times and it will ignite when you slowly spin it. It’s worse with a sparkler, where many times it won’t and doesn’t ignite. Then there are the weather conditions, you just can’t light a sparkler in the wind or with a lot of patience.

Have you tried these tools yourself? Show off in the comments or on Instagram, don’t forget to use the hashtag #wayofphoto.

Translated with (free version)

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