Night Photography, Part 3: Fire & Specialized Lighting Equipment

Good evening! On Friday, we took a look at how the world around you can pull double duty, offering completely different photographic opportunities at night. Yesterday, we went a little deeper, adding light with easy-to-pack sources like flashlights and lasers. Today, we wrap up this series on night photography with some tips on using fire as a tool for light painting and a brief look at other, specialized lighting equipment.

Part 1: Available Light
Part 2: Adding Your Own Light
Class: Sign up for our in-depth workshop, May 23rd at Park Meadows!


Photo by Macey Sigaty

Sparklers are a great way to add some grit to your light painting, especially if you’re looking for a first experiment with fire. They’re cheap, generally legal, and safer than other options, but still provide trails of light as the flaming material flakes off. Sparklers are also extremely easy to control with little to no practice, which will have you painting wild canvases in the air in no time.

Photo by Macey Sigaty

This photo is a great example of a combination of techniques. The scene was interesting to start with—remember the commentary in Part 1 about seeking out the interesting light hiding in the dark—with ambient blue lights combined with nearby red and green traffic lights reflecting in the fog. Then, the photographer created both mystery and action by adding the sparkler. She didn’t have to sacrifice clarity, either, as she let the light provide the action for her without moving (read: blurring) the subject.

Fire Poi

At the other end of the difficulty spectrum are fire poi. Meditative for the user and quite exciting for an onlooker, this performance equipment really shines in long-exposure photography. Essentially, poi are weighted objects on the ends of tethers which are spun rhythmically in geometric patterns. Adding fire for night performance is a natural progression.

Photo by Macey Sigaty

There are also versions augmented with LEDs and other non-fire lighting, which still require a great degree of skill but are safer. If you don’t know any hobbyists, watch for meetups at parks downtown and performance art festivals.

Steel Wool

My take on the same shoot as Macey Sigaty’s, at the top of the page.

Did you know that very fine steel wool is flammable? I was surprised, too! Spinning poi may be beyond the skill set available to you or more of an investment than you’d like to make, but steel wool is cheap and anyone can give spinning the whisk a shot. Here’s what you need to use it in your photography:

  • Very fine steel wool—shoot for grade 000 or 0000.
  • A standard whisk. As long as it has a hole in the base of the handle and is big enough to insert a glob of steel wool but not so big that it will fall back out again, you should be fine.
  • A rope, chain, wire, or other similar material to give your whisk a spinning handle.
  • A lighter, preferably a long-handled fireplace lighter.
  • (Optional) Black clothing to mask your spinner.
  • (Not optional) A safe location, away from dry materials and near fire containment equipment
Double your sparks and stay safe by shooting near a calm body of water! Photo by Macey Sigaty

Once you’ve assembled your materials, here’s how to use them:

  1. Feed your rope (chain, wire, etc.) through the hole at the base of the whisk and make sure that it is securely fastened. Whoever is going to spin the flaming wool should practice spinning the whisk around as-is, to get a feel for how the whisk will respond.
  2. Fluff a little chunk of the wool until it resembles a cumulus cloud.
  3. Stuff the fluff inside the steel wool. Make sure you don’t pack it in too tightly, or your sparks will be less impressive.
  4. Light and spin! The wool will catch quickly, and it will burn out quickly as well. You’ll want a big pack of steel wool, as it will take a few tries to dial in the exposure you want. (It will be even trickier if you’re trying to shoot and spin, as you’ll have to dial in your timing on both ends.)

There’s no need to overdo the time that the shutter’s open—remember that if you have any mobile subjects being illuminated by the fire, they could easily end up blurry. Macey and I got really good results around 5″, but your mileage may vary. Get a photo group together and give it a try—it’s hard to not get at least one awesome photo out of a session like this!

Note: If you do have a human subject being illuminated by the fire, they will almost certainly get sprayed with the sparks. Speaking from experience, they don’t especially hurt and they are unlikely to ignite a larger fire, but be smart. Protect sensitive areas and wear clothing that you don’t mind damaging.

Fire is certainly one of the most striking ways to paint with light, but there are many breathtaking techniques enabled by modern technology that are increasingly affordable to the average consumer. Here are a couple examples of specialized light-painting equipment, available today.

Hula Hoops

Photo by Macey Sigaty

Several companies now make hula hoops outfitted with LEDs that can “play” a predefined pattern of colors. As with poi, they are primarily equipment for performance art but really come into their own when their whole paths are recorded in a long-exposure photo.

The Pixelstick

The Pixelstick is a lot like the LED hula hoop, but arranged in a 73″ long straight line. This light was designed exclusively for light painting, and produces really remarkable results. Load any .BMP image, 200 pixels high, and the ‘stick will reproduce the image line by line. You can adjust whether it moves left or right, and at what speed. The end result? A degree of customizability in light painting heretofore unfathomable.

You can create unique backgrounds, as above and below (assuming your subject is shorter than 73″)…

…and, with a little practice, you can add a floating image of anything you can imagine to your environment!

Yes, anything!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief series. If you’re hungering for more, be sure to sign up for our class at Mike’s Camera (Park Meadows) on May 23rd!

I’d love to see your photos. Please share your coolest results; or, if you’d rather keep them to yourself, do make sure you print them for your own maximum enjoyment. Light painting looks spectacular on aluminum.

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