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Playing with Fire: An Introduction to Light Painting

When I began submerging myself in photography on a regular basis, I joined numerous social media sites to gain inspiration and for an outlet to share my work. Through these social media sites, I noticed images incorporating various types of light painting.  At first glance, it didn’t quite strike me as something I would be interested in or want to attempt.  However, as I began to see it more and more I thought it could potentially add a different yet harmonious element to my photos.

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Steel wool test shot to see how long the flames would burn and to figure out the camera settings | 20 sec at f / 8.0, ISO 100 |

The most common element I would see were images incorporating some sort of rotating fire source hurling numerous sparks.  My curiosity was piqued so I began doing research online to find what the necessary tools were  before I was ready to started slinging fire.  The information was relatively effortless to gather to my surprise. The necessary elements were a few basic items.   The items needed were a metallic kitchen whisk, some steel wool (not the kind you would typically find in your mom’s kitchen) and some sort of cord to attach at the end of the whisk.   Since the items listed weren’t undoubtedly specific, I had to go through a few trial and error runs.  I found what worked best was a whisk with a metal hook on the end (which would allow me to attach the cord easily),  a thin dog or cat leash with a clasp attached and lastly fine gauge steel wool from a hardware store.  I immediately found that anything thicker than fine to super fine steel wool will not ignite.  The finer gauge steel wool will burn for about 30 seconds (depending on the amount used) once it catches fire releasing sparks.

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Metal whisk with loop on handle | Image courtesy of Amazon.com.
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Dog or cat leash with metal clamp on end to attach to whisk | Image courtesy of www.dancingdogblog.com |

I also highly recommend wearing a hat or a hoodie as well as something that is long sleeves because the flames often tend to fall upon you.  Another thing to consider is wearing dark clothing, if you don’t want to be a prominent element of your image or create high contrast between yourself and the sparks.  Unless of course that is the effect you desire to achieve.

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Image titled “Ball Lighting” by Zoltan Banfalvy | Link to artist’s Flickr page below |

Above photo courtesy of:  https://www.flickr.com/people/bzd/

It is vastly important to carefully take into consideration the location you wish to spin the steel wool because of the potential danger involved.   There have been a few occasions where I have thought I have found a setting that would eventually materialize into an alluring finished image but had to take into account the idea that the area was too dry and could possibly catch fire.  It’s always best to do it after it has rained, near water or on a concrete surface that way you don’t have be uneasy about starting a fire.

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There are a few techniques I have tried:  firstly, just spinning the wool in a circle directly in front of myself, which can create a nice effect when the sparks hit the ground (likely the person spinning the steel wool will appear somewhat ghostlike in the centre of the image).  Second option I tried is to spin the wool overhead like a lasso. This creates a marvellous effect because you can make the leash as long or short as you desire depending on the openness of the space you are in.

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Steel wool overhead at Polson Pier | Toronto | 20 sec at f /10, ISO 400 |

In my experience I have found that leaving the shutter open for 20 seconds is ideal. The steel wool generally stops burning a little before the 20 seconds are up.  The sparks usual generate enough light directly around you to light up whatever is in your area without blowing out too much of your image.

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Image by Lee Harland | Combination of an orb and circular movements | Flickr link found below |

Above photo courtesy of:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/leeharlandphotography/with/14367299654/

After trying to blend light painting along with night photography,  I realized that the few attempts for me were enough to add to my gallery.   Light painting is not something I will likely be merging with my images on a regular basis.  For those who wish to try their creativity with other light painting techniques, there are other options to consider as well.   I found plenty of images of orb’s created mostly by using LED lights.

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Image by Tom Keller Photography |

http://tomkellerphotography.smugmug.com

http://instagram.com/tomkellerphotography

There are options available as well to create other effects with steel wool such as standing under a door way or a tunnel. This will highlight the space in which you are under and the sparks will reflect off the sides highlighting the shape of the structure magnificently.

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Steel wool in a confined space | By Lukas Furlan |

https://www.behance.net/lukasfurlan

Using glow sticks is also another option. However, it has to be rather dark in order to achieve a dramatic effect that will result in having  high contrast in your photo.  I attempted using several glow sticks with the Toronto skyline in the distance but the background city lights prohibited me from obtaining a fetching image.

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Attempted light painting with glow sticks | Pitch black sky only lit by light in shed | 15 sec at f / 4.0, ISO 100.

Although this is not something that will be appearing in future images of mine anytime soon.  It was definitely a fun experience trying something new.

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Light painting orb using LED lights at Polson Pier | Toronto | 20 sec at f / 10, ISO 100 |

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Stay safe and happy light painting!

Until next time,

Alyssa