How to Photograph Wire Wool Spinning - Part two of two: On the night

November 22, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

This is the second part of my look at wire wool spinning photography. If you're not sure what you need to get in preparation of your first spin, head over to part 1 now. Otherwise, I'll assume you've already got a location in mind and got all your equipment sorted. This post focusses instead on what you could be thinking about on the night of your photography, including camera settings. Again, it is by no means exhaustive and only constitutes my experience and opinions. Please do not take any unnecessary risks, and think sensibly about your own safety.

Wire wool spinning photography at Dungeness BeachSafety first, keep face and eyes covered! 30sec f2.8 ISO100 17mm

Setting up on the night

Ok, so you've spent ages checking your equipment's in order, you've tied some string to a whisk and you've got yourself to a clean, remote area. The first thing you want to do is have a test spin. Stuff your whisk full of wire wool, cover up your spinner and with all photographic equipment at a great distance, light up and have a spin. If you've followed my advice from part 1, then you'll have a trust 9V battery, simply touch this gently to the wool and it will start to smoulder, let the flames catch, then back away whilst your spinner starts to twirl that whisk. Spinning wire wool really is that simple. As long as your spinner is covered up and you're at a safe distance, there shouldn't be anything to worry about. Start spinning slowly and build up, the burn won't last that long (depending on the size of your whisk) but you can always do a second test if needed. Keep moving away from your spinner once you've lit the wool, and tell them if they need to stop or slow down if things get too close to you. You want to build up to spinning at full pelt and see where the sparks land. You do not want to set up cameras within this area. Once you're happy that you won't melt your equipment, it's simply a case of setting up your tripod and taking some shots. I'd recommend taking some test shots of the background to ensure this is correctly exposed. Once you know where you're setting up your tripod and you're happy with your exposures, then go again with the spinning.


Sunset nightscape photography at Dungeness BeachTake test shots - the sky was pitch to the human eye, but a long exposure test revealed all this detail! 30sec f2.8 ISO100 17mm

Camera Settings

As mentioned in part 1, it's best if you're in manual mode. This allows you to completely control your photo, especially the extent to which you're exposing the background. I took shots mainly at 30 seconds, as it allowed for enough movement to come from the wire wool. You will need to remind your spinner to keep spinning until the shutter has closed, even if the wire wool has burnt out, as the glowing whisk will become part of the image at this stage. This does mean that you could easily go slightly shorter, perhaps trying 20 or 25 seconds, but make sure you adjust your aperture accordingly to ensure a good exposure of the background (take test shots!). I kept ISO at 100 to reduce any unwanted noise from the background, and as the burning wool could overexpose the shot otherwise. Your aperture will then determine how exposed you want the shot/background to be. I've included all settings on the spinning images in the article, so have a look through to get an idea of what I used. When you come to set up your first shot, focusing will be an issue in the dark. This is where your trusty torch comes into play. Shine your torch at something in shot, and focus on that. If you have live view on your camera, I would recommend switching to this and zooming in on the point you're focusing on. I'd also switch to manual focusing to get the best lock onto your lit up target. In the shots on this post, I shone the torch at the boat and then manually focused on the prow in zoomed live view, this allowed me to easily adjust without worrying about losing the focus after the shot. Once you've set your focus, definitely switch to manual focusing, as you won't want to refocus now until you recompose the shot. If you're lucky enough to own a camera with back-button focusing, you won't need to worry about that. Having focused well, make sure to turn off your torch or you'll end up with some of your shot horribly overexposed.

Try different things

The amount of different things you can try only depend on the amount of wire wool you brought with you (a couple of packs will almost certainly give you plenty of experimentation). Do seek out different settings in the location you've chosen. Try different camera angles. Go wide on a test shot and see how the night sky's looking on a 30 second exposure. Get your spinner to move along a proscribed path. Spin at a different angle. The possibilities are vast, if not endless, and I look forward to seeing what you can come up with!  

Wire wool spinning photography at Dungeness BeachComing in close can capture some great bounced sparks too! 30sec f6.3 ISO100 24mm Wire wool spinning photography at Dungeness BeachIf you're conifdent with the fireproof proerties of your surroundings, try bouncing off walls, or boats... 30secs f6.3 ISO100 24mm











Wire wool spinning photography at Dungeness BeachExperiement, we tried this flat spin to see how far sparks would fly before going for the close up. We realised we could still get pretty close, and that the sky was losing detail at the shorter exposure. 20secs f4.0 ISO100 17mm


Wire wool spinning photography at Dungeness BeachRemember to tell your spinner to turn off their torch! 48secs (bulb mode) f2.8 ISO100 17mm









Kit List

    Camera you can use in manual
    Protective Filter
    Shutter release cable
    Protective Clothing
    Warm Clothing
    Hot drink
    Wire Wool - Superfine

Steps on the night

    Check area free from public and hazards
    Tie string to whisk and stuff with wire wool
    Light with battery
    Test spin to find safe distance
    Set up camera
        Manual mode approx. 20-30s exposure, ISO 100, aperture to fit background exposure
    Test shots of background
    Spin and shoot
    Adjust settings and tripod as necessary and repeat

Happy spinning, I'd love to see some shots if you manage to take any, and please do add your own hints and tips below.


Disclaimer: Spinning wire wool and taking photographic images of spinning wire wool are both dangerous activities and enacted at your own risk. Chris Potter Photography takes no responsibility for any injury sustained whilst following the advice of this article.



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