Playing with fire

There are groups of people, including a friend of mine, who occasionally hide out and spin steel wool all night. (You know who you are, Jim!) This has made me extremely jealous for a long time because it looks so incredibly cool.

What is steel wool spinning?

At its most basic, steel wool spinning involves stuffing steel wool into a whisk attached to a wire or wand, setting the steel wool on fire, and then swinging the burning steel wool wand in arcs to create circles of fire and sparks while others take long exposure photographs. (It’s definitely best as a group activity.) The results can be spectacular. And, while it may sound dangerous, it can be done pretty safely with some basic precautions. Unfortunately, it’s mostly an underground activity because too many stupid idiots have burned down historic shipwrecks and buildings.

Hence the lack of invitations to join groups who do this.

(You can also do cool things with various other lights, including Christmas lights. It’s a lot less dangerous, so you don’t need to be as careful or secretive, but you still need other people to play with. And it doesn’t have the same drama.)

Finally a chance to photograph fire!

I never get invited to the secret meetings of the spinning cabal, so I was thrilled when  one of the photo groups I’m involved in held a class on this.

We met at an old industrial site (nothing there would burn without a lot of effort) on one of the first dry nights after all the rain earlier this summer. (The experienced crew leading the shoot also had fire extinguishers on hand.)

Of course, it was a ½ hour drive from my house and I arrived only to realize that my tripod was sitting by the door back at home.

Luckily, friends of mine from camera club were also attending (it turns out I know a few more people who like to do this than I realized), and they offered to share their tripods with me – as long as I didn’t enter any of my photos in camera club competition!

Luckier still, the guy leading the shoot suggested foregoing a tripod all together and just putting my camera on the ground. While it seemed a little muddy for that, I decided the fat camera manual I had lugged along could handle sitting on the ground.

It turned out to an ideal perch!

A dancer with fire

We started just after sunset with a dancer who had an elaborate set-up that included multiple fuel-filled balls that she twirled around.

I had a terrible time getting my settings right, but I got a couple shots that were ok.

Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

Spinning steel wool

It didn’t seem like a good start, but things got better when they switched to steel wool.

Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

Then we moved over to the old (concrete and steel) industrial building on the other side of the parking lot.

The guys that do this all the time immediately plopped down in the best spot. And, without a tripod, I wanted to find a spot where I wouldn’t be blocking other people as I squatted by my camera.

So I ended up a bit off to the side, which worked ok sometimes.

Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

After a while I moved to a spot with a little more direct line of sight.

Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

I liked that a lot better!

As the night went on I finally got a spot close enough to dead center to let me adjust the image in Photoshop to make it looks straight.

Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

And LED lights too

Now, lest you think this is a fast process, I can assure you it is not.

It takes time to pack the steel wool and each wick only lasted 10-40 seconds. Basically it’s clean the wick, repack, get it burning, take one long exposure shot, then repeat. If your exposure was wrong or you moved your camera, then you usually missed that round completely.

Sometimes they’d switch things up to give us something to shoot while getting the next batch of steel wool ready to go.

light tubes Playing with Fire - www.playingwithphotography.com

They tried several different LED lights, but this was the only shot I got that I really liked. (LED lights are the totally safe way to do this and can yield great results too.) Some of the effects were cool, but I didn’t get the exposure right or I moved my camera (which was either perched next to me while I was simultaneously hitting the cable release and the mosquitos), or someone over-lit the background or the effect just didn’t work or something.

A great night out

All-in-all it was an absolutely fabulous experience. I love night photography of all sorts, and this was just a blast. I hope there will be other opportunities to do this.

And I didn’t have to borrow a tripod from my camera club friends. That means I’ll probably submit a few of these for competition some day!

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