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Steel Wool Beneath the Stars – Post Processing Tutorial

Transparency in photography is something I’m big on. Some photographers like to keep their techniques and tricks to themselves while others are a little more open and happy to discuss.  I fall into the later group and am big on sharing with others. For me, sharing technique makes a good way of starting the conversation about how I personally do something which then allows for others to chime in with their opinion on how they approach it or do it slightly differently. Plus I can’t help but feel that being secretive wins you no friends in a digital world where it’s important to make connections with others.

Recently I was out shooting at Phillip Island with some fellow photographers (Ricardo Da CunhaTony Middleton and Michael Bates) playing around with some steel wool. It was only a few weeks back that I first experimented with steel wool photography when I put together this small guide on how to get started with steel wool photography. Eager to experiment I got in touch with Ric with the idea for a shoot and with Tony living in the area, both himself and Michael decided to join us.

On the particular night it was a beautiful clear evening providing a great view of the stars. I was hoping to combine the two with the stars filling the top half of the frame and a steel wool long exposure at the bottom. Unfortunately after much effort it just wasn’t happening. One would over or under expose the other. It was a nightmare. Instead I opted to bracket two frames. Something I don’t normally do as my Photoshop skills could be best described as awful. So I took a frame of the stars and then another of the steel wool. Ric stood underneath an umbrella while Michael waved steel wool from above. It worked out great even if it did burn a few holes in his jumper… Oops.

So to get started let’s look at the two before images which are captured straight out of camera and then the final image which shows both images combined. It may not be to everyone’s tastes but at the time of shooting was how I envisaged the final image to look.

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Editing Process

I’ve re-created the processing used for the image in a video below. Feel free to watch as it shows the edits I made in Lightroom and then the edits made to combine the two images in Photoshop. But for those unable to watch the video I’ll do my best to explain the steps taken to get the final image below.

Lightroom

Where possible I try to make 99% of my edits within Lightroom leaving only minor edits that I’m unable to make in Lightroom for Photoshop. The editing process within Lightroom included the following edits:

  • Both images had the tint heavily increased towards the pink end of the spectrum
  • Purple split toning was applied to the highlights of the steel wool image
  • Tighter crop of the steel wool was used due to there being too much wasted space which wasn’t needed for the blend
  • Hue adjustments made to the colours of the stars to bring out some feint blue
  • Curves adjustments made to both images (increase in lights & highlights with a decrease in shadows)
  • Hue saturation adjustments to the steel wool to tinker with the colour of the pink slightly
  • Adjustment brush used to under expose the land area of the star photo. This was mostly due to this part of the image being quite grainy and I thought by making it darker would allow for it to blend easier
  • Another adjustment brush was used for the steel wool photo to slightly bring down the highlights on the steel wool
  • Both images were exported

Photoshop

Both images were loaded into Photoshop with the steel wool exposure being overlaid to the star photograph. At this stage I positioned the photo in an ideal place and began to use the free transform tool to play around with the size and positioning of the photo. I aimed to have the person situated a little below the horizon.

Once the image was placed at a good level I created a layer mask on the steel wool image to subtly combine the image with the star image.  After this there wasn’t much adjustments needed other than dodge/burning around certain areas, pro contrast from Nik Soft applied and USM sharpening used to sharpen the final image.

For more information and to watch the process live see the video below for more information –

I hope this little Photoshop and Lightroom tutorial was of use for you. Apologies that the video is a little rushed but feel free to drop a line if you have any feedback or have any questions about the techniques used in the clip.

Thanks,

– Alex

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Playing around with steel wool at South Arm, Tasmania

steel wool photography

Last weekend I got home and spent a few days with the family, this little fella and possibly an over indulgence on nice scotch.

But one of the reasons I was itching to get home was to channel my inner pyrotechnic and play around with lighting some steel wool. I first came across this method a few years ago now on Udi Tosh’s blog, DIY Photography who wrote up a great guide to get you started. I’m always keen to try new things when it comes to photography especially when it involves long exposures. So the weekend I was home I decided to hit up my local Bunnings (a hardware store in Australia) and stock up on the necessary kit for some steel wool photos. Sure the first few attempts were a disaster but it was lots of fun and I’d recommend everyone give it a try at least once. I’m very eager to give it another go as although my first attempts aren’t bad, they’re nothing compared to some of the brilliant work by others as a quick search on Flickr will show you.

I couldn’t get over how easy it is to put together a small kit for light painting with steel wool. Basically everything is available at your local hardware store and can be obtained for under $10. You will need:

  • Steel wool (0000 variety)
  • Whisk
  • Chain or dog leash (to clip to the whisk) and;
  • Protective wear (glasses, gloves and long clothes).
Equipment needed for steel wool long exposures
Equipment needed for steel wool long exposures

Generally steel wool will run in different variants from 0000 (superfine) to grade 3 (coarse). We’re after the superfine variety as this aerates best when you’re spinning it around in the whisk. One thing I learnt from my experience that a general lighter doesn’t work the best especially in windy conditions. Instead if you can get your hands on one, try pick up a windproof butane lighter and use this as your lighting device. Alternatively some people recommend using 9V battery which may or may not work.  However all of this you should be able to pick up at your local hardware store with ease.

I’d recommend getting a few packets of the steel wool as if you’re like me it will take a few attempts before you promptly get the hang of things. But if you’re still feeling slightly unsure about things scroll down to a video I put together which explains steel wool photography and the equipment I used but please excuse my mug 😉

One thing to note when shooting long exposure of steel wool is to pick your locations carefully. I opted for seascape scenes where the sparks distinguished themselves in the water. You may want to avoid dry areas especially during summer for obvious reasons.

I decided to take my steel wool long exposure photographs at a favourite location of mine, South Arm Tasmania. It’s a stunning beach that is often empty so what better place to run around like an idiot with a sparks flying everywhere?  Because I wanted the scene to be dark I tried to arrive around blue hour (just towards the end of sunset) but as I was making my way down I noticed a great sunset starting to take shape so made a quick bolt down and managed to capture the end of the sunset. It was beautiful.

 

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Two image stitch of a sunset at South Arm, Tasmania captured at f.13 and a 1.3 second exposure
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Steel wool long exposure – 30 seconds at f.8
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Spinning steel wool over 30 seconds at f.14
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Steel wool sparks getting a little too close to my camera over a 20 sec exposure at f.8

 

Thanks for reading and viewing,

– Alex