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Photo Essay: An Evening of Burning Steel Wool

In the early part of this year, I took hardly any photos at all because it was very difficult to hold a camera and a set of crutches at the same time. Since I’ve been off the crutches, I’ve taken quite a few photos, but last Tuesday was only the second time (the first being the Body Art Carnivale) where I’ve gotten together with other photographers for a shoot. This shoot was a Brisbane @ Dusk workshop run by Bluedog Photography, the photography group that originally taught me how to use my new dSLR back in 2008.

The workshop started at 4.30 when five of us rocked up to meet the tutor, Anita, with whom I have done quite a few workshops. We found a good spot to shoot the sunset on a pier near the Story Bridge, but we didn’t expect much because there was not a cloud in the sky. Sure enough, the sky turned a bit pink but was nothing spectacular, so I made my way down to the “beach” below to try to find some interesting subjects.

Sunset from the pier
The Rocks
On the beach

The city soon began lighting up for us, which I think made the scene a lot more interesting (but then again, I’m a sucker for night photos). The orange lights glowed bright on the Story Bridge, outlining its distinct shape against the sparkle of office lights behind.

The Story Bridge

Soon we moved under the Story Bridge and towards the city, where we could get unobscured photos of the now very lit up city, occasionally with the wisp of a CityCat passing by in front, only obvious in photos by the faint dotted line of its flashing light.

Brisbane City
The Story Bridge
Brisbane City

After about an hour and a half, we got to the section of the workshop that I was most excited about — the steel wool burning. I’d seen photos of this amazing effect from other Bluedog workshops and I was really keen to try it myself…especially when there was someone there that knew what she was doing and (hopefully) wouldn’t light herself on fire! We all lined up in a line, finding what we thought would be a good composition and focusing our lenses on the faint dot of light that was Anita’s iPhone being held high in the air. This was the result of the steel wool being spun around in front of Anita for about ten seconds:

Steel wool burning

I quickly decided that I wanted more of the bridge in the shot, so I moved my tripod around, squinting through my viewfinder, until I found a shot I liked. This is how it came out:

Steel wool burning

I was really happy with that and, in hindsight, probably should have stuck with that viewpoint and just changed other factors (zoom level, angle, etc). But I kept moving around, trying to see if there was something better that I was missing.

Steel wool burning

I love taking photos at a different angle (as you might have guessed from my Brisbane City at Night post), so I tried this:

Steel wool burning

And the next one is the same except that Anita was spinning the steel wool around her head instead of in front of her.

Steel wool burning

Anita suggested trying things that you wouldn’t normally try, like zooming in the middle of a shot. I’d done this before with fire twirling and the effect was pretty interesting, so I thought I’d try it with the steel wool too. It’s pretty cool that I ended up with two Story Bridges!


Zooming in on the steel wool

Overall, I had a great night. I’d never actually been to Captain Burke Park before so it was fun to explore and see the views that are quite a bit different from those in other parts of Kangaroo Point. I got to chat with other photographers and exchange tips, and I got to photograph something completely new and learned a few things in the process.

If you’d like to try this sort of photography, here are a few tips:

  • You must have a tripod. You won’t be able to get this effect with fast shutter speeds and you’ll introduce camera shake with lower shutter speeds if the camera is handheld.
  • It’s highly recommended that you have a cable release if you have a dSLR with “bulb” mode. This allows you to control the exact speed of the shutter so you don’t have excess time at the end of the shot after the wool has burned out. It also means you won’t be touching the camera so it’s less likely that you’ll introduce camera shake.
  • Take a flashlight or some other item that can be held up where the wool will be spinning, focus on that point, and then change to manual focus. This will keep the burning wool in focus.
  • Watch your aperture. If I were to go back and take these photos again, I would stop it down from f/8 to f/11 to try to stop the background lights from burning out. However, if you make the aperture too narrow, you’ll start to get a starry effect in the background lights, which I didn’t want.

Have you ever taken photos of moving lights at night (car lights, fire twirling, steel wool burning, or the like)? How did it go?

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