When you’re looking for a unique shot, something with a bit of spark, wire-wool spinning makes a big impact.
In many ways, wire-wool spinning is not dissimilar to light-painting. Where it differs however, is in the exposure times you’re dealing with.
While light-painting requires to to set a really long exposure and then slowly move your light source around to ‘draw’ onto your scene, with wire-wool spinning you’re dealing with bright burning embers of light which are moving infinitely more quickly. In light-painting you might be working with exposure times of 30 seconds – or even a few minutes, but with wire-wool spinning you’re instead working with exposure times more like 5-15 seconds. I took the shot above in just 8.8 seconds.
How it was done... The shot requires at least two people, preferably three. I took this at midnight and got a round of applause from a few passers-by.
How do you do it
Start off by getting hold of a standard whisk from any kitchen shop. Attach it to a length of string then stuff the cavity full of wire wool. To get the sparks going, simply ignite wool then start spinning the whisk round your head. As it gets going, the burning embers of the wool fly out. The longer the string, the further the sparks fly. If you’ve ever played with fire pois, you’ll take to it in no time. Once the spin gets going, press the shutter.
There’s nothing special about the steel wool. It’s the same stuff you can buy in any DIY shop, where it’s usually sold for cleaning purposes. You’ll find it comes in different grades. The super-fine stuff is called Grade 0 and this is the easiest to ignite, however, when spinning its sparks don’t travel so far. With thicker grades of steel wool, the sparks go a lot further and can even keep burning as they bounce along the ground. A mix of both types works best but it depends what you’re trying to achieve.
To ignite the wool all you need is a 9v battery. Touch the battery to the wool and it should quickly ignite, with the burning embers spreading rapidly. For this reason, be careful about keeping the wire wool in its own bag prior to use. Do not risk the 9v battery coming into contact with it before you’re ready. A mate of mine was driving to a location when we realised his bag of steel wool on the passenger seat had ignited. Don’t be that person.
Taking it further
The effect works especially well if you perform it over a reflective surface such as a lake or puddles. It also looks great when the sparks bounce off something.
If you’re prepared to do a bit of DIY, another option is to use two wire whisks, attach them to either end of a pole and then add a fixing in the centre so that you can put it into the chuck of a handheld drill or electric screwdriver. Use the drill to spin the whisks and you can achieve higher speeds and make the sparks fly further. However, the further apart the whisks are (and the faster you go), the more unstable the spin becomes.
Taking the drill idea a stage further, you can create a fiery orb by holding the drill in front of you and then turning at least 180 degrees around the centre point, keeping the spinning whisks in the centre. That’s how I got this shot, taken in the Victorian bandstand on Clapham Common.
The orb in the centre fires sparks at least 180 degrees.
Another way to make your shot different is to find a background that adds extra impact. However, once you include a background, particularly if it’s lit up, exposure time becomes much more of an issue. While it’s okay with a dark background to put your camera on ‘Bulb’ mode and end the exposure when the light show is finished, when there’s a background to factor in you need to make sure you don’t overexpose the shot – it’s easily done..
Wire wool spinning on the banks of the Thames.
I shot this image on the banks of the Thames in front of Tower Bridge when I was on the hunt for interesting backdrops for some wire-wool spinning. I checked when the tide would be out before venturing down to the bankside (the tide comes in and out notoriously quickly along the Thames). I’d already taken a few test shots beforehand so I could work out how long I could keep the shutter open before the background would overexpose. I didn’t use an ND filter but relied on changing the f/stop and ISO values to adjust the exposure time.
Sometimes it feels like these wire-wool spinning shots lack a particular point of focus. A way around this and another way to make sure your shot is a bit different is to include a person. Bear in mind that the exposure time for this shot was about 10 seconds so your model will need to stand perfectly still throughout the duration of the exposure. To make sure your shot is in focus before you start, set your camera to manual focus then shine a torch on your subject. Adjust the focusing to make sure you’re pin sharp.
I’ve always wanted to try replacing the steel wool (or mixing it) with something that burns a different colour but have yet to find the right material. For more inspiration, take a look at some of the work by Dan Clarke on Instagram (@dan_clarke_photography).
Some fun with wire-wool spinning on Totting Common.