Spark your creativity! Spin wire wool for captivating long-exposure low-light photography

Low-light long exposure by Chris Aldred
(Image credit: Chris Aldred)

Inspired by the works of local photographers, street artists and architects in my home city of Bristol, photography has been a growing passion of mine ever since leaving school. Before setting up a shot I have in mind, I try to plan ahead as much as I can, often finding a few surprises along the way. For me, Bristol will always be a hub of creativity – I love the way the city offers a wide range of perspectives that many people walk past every day without thinking twice about. 

Capturing something unique in what can be considered poorly lit areas has always been an interest of mine and steel wool spinning gave me the challenge I was looking for. You can’t capture the same image twice and sometimes it can take several attempts to create an image that I’ll eventually be satisfied with, tweaking a few settings and positioning different angles to suit the environment. 

If you follow some basic safety principles and use your common sense, the process is both fun and safe. Using your imagination will also allow a range of new ideas to flow – such as changing the direction in which you spin the steel wool, which can yield some pretty interesting results.

Step by step: Shoot a low-light spectacle

(Image credit: Chris Aldred)

Stabilize the camera 

I always shoot this technique with a Manfrotto Pixi mini tripod. It’s small and extremely strong, and it allows me to achieve the low angle that makes these shots stand out. Due to the required shutter speeds, it’s also impossible to shoot long exposures without some sort of camera support.

(Image credit: Chris Aldred)

Prepare the wire wool 

Steel wool is readily available from most hardware shops and is cheap to buy. To house the wool, I place it inside an ordinary kitchen whisk – I’ve found that it’s best to pull the wool apart before doing this, as this allows more air to get to the wool and create better sparks.

(Image credit: Chris Aldred)

Dial in the shutter speed 

The shutter speed is the most crucial setting to get right. Here, I used 1.3 sec. The next setting is to make sure you’re shooting in Auto ISO, as you can never guess how bright the sparks might be. Finally, to get the best optical performance from the lens, use an aperture of f/5 to f/8.

Low-light long exposure by Chris Aldred

(Image credit: Chris Aldred)

Set the camera’s self-timer 

Placing your camera on a support and using the self-timer function will allow you to create these images on your own without having to rely on a friend to help. I set a 10-second timer, which is just enough time to get into position, light the wool and start spinning.

(Image credit: Chris Aldred)

Frame up wide 

Due to the experimental style of spinning steel wool, allow yourself a little breathing room by shooting with a wider composition than you think you’ll need. I use an AF-P DX Nikkor 10-20mm and, typically, will zoom out to 10mm to capture the spark trails as they fly off.

(Image credit: Chris Aldred)

Start the exposure

For spinning it around me, the whisk is tethered to my wrist with a flexi cable. To start shooting, I’ll frame up, start the shutter’s self-timer, get into position and light the wool. Wearing a hat and a hoodie to keep any small sparks away from my face, I’ll start spinning the whisk.

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