Using Steel Wool & Fireworks For Light Painted Portrait Photography

Light painting is a well-loved technique in the photography community, but fashion photographer Clay Cook didn’t paint with LED lights in his recent fashion editorial photoshoot for NFocus Magazine, Louisville. He painted with fire.

Using burning sparklers and steel wool, Cook created stunning, fiery backgrounds and foregrounds around his subjects. In this video, Cook demonstrates his technique and shares a few tips for photographers who aren’t afraid to let the sparks fly:

Cook’s shoot spanned two locations. The first was a garage rigged with a large octobox in the front, a gridded strip box on the side, a white backdrop, and a fan to blow sparks from fireworks sparklers into the models’ faces during one section of the shoot.

Happily, Cook’s models were on board with that idea, but Cook is quick to remind photographers seeking to try this technique that securing permission from subjects is crucial to a successful shoot.

Light painting with LEDs is a no-risk gig, but painting with fire requires photographers to go to great lengths to ensure that subjects feel comfortable with the idea that they might get zapped by a stray spark now and then.

“You really want to ask your models and make sure that, before you try something or experiment with something, you explain to them what you want to do,” Cook said. “You ought to show them an example image so they might get some influence and it might pump them up a little bit.”


Cook’s 15-second exposures allowed his assistant time to paint around the models with sparklers.

The second location was a swampy forest where Cook shot with natural light at sunset and then returned to long exposures and light painting assisted with a single octobox as night fell.

Here, Cook used fine grade steel wool in addition to sparklers. He packed the wool into an egg whisk secured to a para cord, set it ablaze, and swung the rig in circles to create a wide shower of sparks behind the models during each 15-second exposure.

“The key was that the model[s] had to stand pretty still. Otherwise, we got some of that ghosting,” said Cook.


“To make a perfect circle is not easy,” said Cook. “Nevertheless, I think that the results were pretty cool.”

Despite being shut down early by a storm, Cook was largely pleased with “the emotional feel” that the sparks added to his photographs and the images were successfully published in “Summer Sparks,” NFocus Magazine’s July fashion editorial.

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2 responses to “Using Steel Wool & Fireworks For Light Painted Portrait Photography”

  1. NotDadsW41 says:

    Did it already:

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