Well I found someone who is as passionate about light painting with sparks as I am. We chatted awhile about what tools we use and how our ideas are different. His name is Paul Pavlinovich and he has a great site dedicated to photography called “Photographers Study” with a post on steel wool here.
This got me thinking I could explain what I use and why. Consider this also an update to my previous post on the topic. So here is my gear:
I’ll break it down for you. First there are lots of different forms the steel wool comes in. There are things you can look for like 00 or 000, etc. So far I can say there seems to be little to no difference in the resulting photos, so there really is no sense in getting extravagant with your purchase. We found a DIY shop selling a single albeit larger bundle of steel wool for $32, whereas the package I’ve been using is just $2 and I can get 3 or 4 photos from it depending how much I use at once.
Now Paul likes the whisk he uses to make the sparks. To keep the wool from flying out, he winds it around the wire bits. When I tried this, it seemed to help keep large bits from flying loose but didn't stop it entirely. This can be fixed by attaching a bit of rat wire (Yup, it’s really called that; you can ask for it at your hardware store or DIY shop. It’s the wire mesh that has 1-cm holes.) around the whisk. I did this and can say it works. The only trouble is you're working in the dark and even with flashlights you have added something that has pointy edges and can scrape your fingers, plus in general makes it a bit harder to load. Now some may say that the small bit really isn’t a big deal or deny that it happens at all. Well, the proof of it will be in your photo. If you look closely (once you know what it looks like, you will see it in so many people’s work), you can see one streak that’s thicker or brighter than the rest. That would be the larger burning bit flying out. Now if you're spinning overhead in what we like to call a “rodeo style” (like a lasso) as this picture shows:
...then you should have little worries of burning yourself. In fact you're probably the safest as all sparks are moving away from yourself. It’s anything around you that you have to be concerned with. That would include your camera. I said it before but it’s worth repeating. A inexpensive UV filter to go over your camera lens may save you any costly errors. Hot metal can and will scar a lens if it makes contact, so consider what you would rather replace. But back to the hot chunk flying out... If you're spinning a ring of fire, particularly in an enclosed space (because it looks awesome!) like this:
...you will find that sparks will bounce back at you. If you watched the video from a previous post and listen, you can hear me complaining about the sparks getting the back of my neck. Yes, I’ve heard recommendations of wearing hoodies, but I’m living in a tropical climate with humidity that averages 70%. Besides, despite the shower of sparks I took, I didn’t even have a red mark to show for all the complaining I had done. But recently a guy we know was doing the same exact thing but with a whisk and the chunk bounced off the ceiling and down the back of his shirt causing a nice burn. Now you know why I looked for a new way of doing this. So what is my solution?
The basket here is a sponge holder one might have in a kitchen. It cost me $2.50 at some provision shop and after dozens of uses, it still has the shiny chrome look it had when I bought it. Its grid is tight enough to keep anything big from flying out with a top that’s open enough to load the wool in seconds without having to give it much thought. Oh and by the way, I’ve tried stretching out the wool as well as just stuffing it in and truthfully can't see a difference in the images that come out. So that brings us to the last bit.
What do sparklers have to do with steel wool photography? Well, when we started out we tried all sorts of lighting methods. Some were rather dangerous like adding flammable liquids to the wool (don’t do it; seriously not worth it) or using paper to get a flame going or just holding a lighter to the wool till we got a glow started. Paul uses a torch but even with this, once you get it started you have to get it swinging really soon to get more oxygen in there or it will go out. We had many a false start due to this approach. Then by chance our friend Penny said to try adding a sparkler in with the wool for effect. It didn’t add any effects she had been hoping for, but what resulted changed the way we do things. Attach the flexible wire end of the sparkler to the handle of the whisk or top of the basket. Leave a small length of the sparkler sticking out of the basket (or whisk, if you still prefer) at the end that is furthest from the handle, so that when it burns through a bit it comes in contact with your steel wool, it will set it on fire. This even gives the people behind the camera a few seconds to get a good focus before you even start swinging. With the wool packed around it, the sparkler will keep it burning even if you're not spinning like a juggernaut (the way I spin, LOL). The other advantage is that there isn’t a metal tank of compressed flammable gas in the area you're making glow with hot bits of burning metal. So much safer to my mind.
So play safe and if you have any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments area.