At heart, I'm a bit of a pyromaniac. Through a misspent youth, I managed to get myself into circus skills long before I became an avid photographer. Whilst my fire spinning days are largely behind me, it seemed like a fantastic idea to get out with some wire wool and try my hand at a few shots. Judge for yourself, but I was pretty happy with what I managed. Having received a few requests from friends for tips on how to take their own, it seemed like a good idea to write a rough guide on at least how I did things. I know a lot of these have been done, but some specific tips were asked on my photos and this was more complete than repeating myself or missing things I'm aware of out. This is not exhaustive advice, nor does it constitute a safe way to spin wire wool, which is obviously done at your own risk. Please do add your own experiences in comments below, I'm sure you've thought of things I won't have done. This is the first part of a two part guide, if you've already got your equipment in order and are more interested in camera settings, head over to part 2.
One of the first spins of the night. I started far and wide to assuage any fears of a melted camera.
Ever the scout, preparation is key to your success. There are only a few things you really need to get some great shots of wire wool, I'll try to group them together to make things as simple as possible.
There are many things that make a great location. It could be that you want a beautiful backdrop to your spinning, it could be that you want some shelter from the elements in a hostile climate, but the absolute paramount factor in my opinion is safety. You must ensure that you are spinning somewhere that you, and anyone/thing else, will not be harmed by your spinning. Wire wool is not the same as a sparkler, you are going to be sending small pieces of molten metal flying in all directions around you. I'll discuss your safety below, but please ensure that you're spinning somewhere that's clear of people, and you won't set fire to. All my shots in this post were taken on Dungeness Beach, in Kent. This is a beach covered in large stones and wrecked boats. It's great for gloomy shots, but more importantly, it's eerily deserted and everything's damp. Please also make sure when you get to your site that you check around you for trip hazards. You will be able to see little else when spinning the wire wool, so if you move around at all, you want to be confident you want dive off a cliff or over a tree stump.
Never spin alone! Whilst there's nothing technically stopping this from working, it's just bad sense to take yourself off and try to manage a camera whilst potentially setting fire to yourself. It should start to become clear to you that my main priority is safety and comfort, I'd rather you came back with rubbish photos but intact, than you get a great shot of you setting fire to a small wood. In order to make yourself as comfortable as possible on the night (if you're trying daylight spinning, do let me see the results) you're going to want to take a few things with you. The most important of these is a torch. You're going to be adjusting camera settings, stuffing and lighting wool, as well as checking what's around you and possibly even light painting (perhaps another post). You're also going to need some light safety equipment for whoever you've got spinning the wool. Remember that wire wool fragments can burn, you want to cover your spinners face and skin as much as possible, and have them out of synthetic clothing. Heavier fabrics like denim should repel the wool easily, but don't wrap up in an 80's style shell suit and then start setting fire to things. Having been sensible and enlisted a friend, one of you will be over with the cameras while the wool's being spun, and if you're shooting anywhere like the UK, the nights will be cold, thus one of you will get pretty chilly whilst gazing at a fire encircled friend. To this end, wrap up warm (I'd recommend fingerless gloves for ease of camera operation) and if you're being incredibly sensible, a flask of your favourite hot drink wouldn't go amiss. (The hipflask should wait, you're kind of in charge of someone's safety). You may wish to take a bottle of water as well, just in case there are any small fires.
There aren't too many things you actually need to spin wire wool. You'll need some wire wool/steel wool, at the finest grade you can get. I loved the naming of superfine, but you want ultrafine (also a great name) or grade 0000. This will tear apart easily, without cutting you to shreds (pull carefully, it's still slivers of metal) and should burn well as long as you don't pack it too hard. You'll also need a balloon whisk, this will serve as the caddy or holder for your wire wool. You are going to end up destroying this whisk (it will contain molten metal, in case you'd forgotten), so I'd pick up a cheap one from the shops, rather than raiding the kitchen. You'll also need something to attach to the whisk in order to spin it. This can be cable, a chain, or you could just use string as I do. This will need to be checked between spins, but should hold out fine. (If it does burn through, though very unlikely, at least you're in a nicely remote location - see tip 1) The final thing you'll need is something to light the wool with. You could use matches or a lighter, but the more reliable method is a 9V battery. Briefly touching both terminals to your wool should start a smoldering which will quickly catch.
This is actually a very simple section to write. You'll need a camera that you can control the shutter speed of. I assume you're using a CSC or DSLR or you probably wouldn't be trying to take these kind of shots, but you could use a phone with appropriate app if you're keen (please let me know how this goes). You're going to want a very long exposure without blowing out your image, so manual or bulb modes are ideal. You may not want an exposure over 30 seconds, so you may not need bulb mode. All the images on this post were taken in manual. You'll also need a tripod. Long exposures with crisp images are simply not possible at this kind of time scale without a tripod. That's it for the bare essentials, though I'd highly recommend some sort of protector/UV filter just in case an errant piece of wire wool hits your lens, and potentially a cable release. The cable release isn't at all necessary from a technical point of view, but is a nice luxury to save you from introducing camera shake, or constantly bending down to your camera. I'd also recommend you take at least one spare battery. Long exposures drain batteries much quicker than you might expect, and the cold can really cut down on batteries' performance. Keep the spare in a pocket to keep it warm and hopefully they should see you through.
Ok, so you've got your tripod on order, you're starting to hunt down abondoned warehouses, and you're thinking about where your closest B&Q is; when you've got your stuff together, head over to part 2 for tips on how to catch the photos on the night!
Suggested Kit List
Camera you can use in manual
Shutter release cable
Wire Wool - Ultrafine/0000
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.