Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fire Wool Vortex: "How did you get that shot?"

I submitted my 35" DIY Octo Softbox for the 2011 softbox contest, and thought I could try again for this years' "How I Took It" contest. I'm always looking for Do-It-Yourself ideas on the net, and coming up with my own unique DIY projects as well. Here are a few of my favorite projects: 

2012 How I Took It

I get a lot of comments on my Steel Wool Vortex image, and I have had many people ask me how I took it. Most people are surprised when I let them know that it is steel wool on the end of a cable, lit on fire, and then spun around very fast to create the sparks. Although the art of steel wool photography is not new or unique, I have constructed a re-usable rig that has helped me make some great fire wool images. This thread will explain how I created a custom cage for steel wool photography, and how I made the Fire Wool Vortex image.

Fire Wool Vortex


  • Lighting things on fire can be a huge crowd-pleaser. Every year millions of Americans flock to watch fireworks on the 4th of July. Folks love to set off bottle rockets, M80's, romans candles, even sparklers in their own backyards. However, each year there are tons of people with less fingers or severe burns due to not being safe. The following is the description of how I was able to use steel wool at the end of a steel cable and create the Fire Wool image
  • Replicating these steps is dangerous and can potentially cause fire, explosions, smoldering ruins, burns, itchy-festering wounds, the condition known as hot dog fingers, or death.  

m2 Photography cannot be held responsible for your actions. 

  • If you choose try this method of photography, the safety of the area is your responsibility. Just like fireworks, there is risk involved with setting steel wool on fire. It's not worth the risk of fire or the safety of others if you do not take the proper precautions. In other words, don't try this at home.

Here are some guidelines I use when setting anything on fire:

  • Never attempt this while operating a motor vehicle or heavy machinery. 
  • Always have a fire extinguisher with you and someone who is knowledgeable and ready to use it. 
  • Wait until it has recently rained heavily so your area is wet
What I like to do is ask myself before performing this shot, "Is there anything nearby that could catch on fire?" When I say nearby, I mean within 150 feet. Spinning steel wool as fast as you can will shoot chunks of flaming wool in multiple directions. Unsure whether it's safe? Then don't.

Should I Light Steel Wool on Fire and Spin it Recklessly?

  • Empty Parking Lot with nothing around?    Yes 
  • In the Middle of the woods during dry season?   Very Bad Idea 
  • On a sandy beach with nothing around for hundreds of feet?   Yes 
  • In your house or garage?   Very Bad Idea

What equipment do I need?

  • Camera with Manual Mode 
  • Wear a hoodie or hat, long sleeves, and pants. Dark clothing, and possibly goggles/glasses. 
  • Steel Wool (#0000) 
  • Lighter or 9V Battery 
  • Fire Extinguisher 
  • Gloves
  • Flashlight 
  • Spinning Wool Rig (Pending Better Name)
    • Maybe DIY Chicken Wire Wool Cage
    • Flaming Shards of Death Rig
    • Loopty-Loop Wool On Fire Cable Thingie...  Um, probably not.

DIY Chicken Wire Re-Usable Wool Cage

I've seen other tutorials where the user has had to tie the wool onto the end of a steel cable each time they want to attempt a shot.  This didn't seem to me a very efficient method for this type of shot.  I wanted to be able to reload the wool quickly after each sequence, and have something that would be easy to use.  The following example is a simple method for constructing a cage to put your wool in and attaching it to the end of a steel cable, saving you time and frustration between shots.


  1. Roughly 4 feet of 1/16" steel cable. 
  2. Chick wire or wire mesh 
  3. 1" x 4" Pipe 
  4. Dog Leash Buckle 
  5. Sleeve Stop wire crimps 
  6. Extra Wire 
  7. Wire Cutters and Needle Nose Pliers

1. Cut the wire mesh as shown below. This will be bent into the shape of a box. Cut the mesh so that the tabs on the sides are sticking out to be used to hold the structure together. This wire cage will be about 3" wide on each side, but only about 1.5" tall.

2. Bend the sides up

3.Use the protruding wire tabs to bend around the sides to hold together. The step requires a bit of patience and it can help to have your needle nose pliers to help twist the tabs around the support wire on the corners.

4. Repeat on all for corners. Hey, wire box.

5.Cut out a top piece with one row extra on one side and bend that down. This will be the lid, and the extra row bent down helps keep the lid in place when closed.

6. Use the extra wire to make a hinge by wrapping it around the opposite side from the bend, and secure the lid.

7. I created 3 hinges with the spare wire. As you can see the lid swivels up to open.

8. Take the steel cable and string through the front opening and the lid. Create a big enough loop so the you can open the lid far enough to put steel wool inside the cage.

9. Here is the wool inside the cage. I used some pliers to crimp down the cable stops.

10. As far as Steel Wool is concerned, I like to use #0000 as I think that it burns the best, but anything with a #0, #00, or #000 will also work just fine.

11. An example of the lid open to slide the wool inside in between each shot. The cable loop is just big enough to allow the lid to open a couple of inches.

12. Here is the cage while closed. If you string the cable in as shown, the cage will remain shut with the help of the bent lid row, and the cable will keep the top closed while it is spinning. The fast you spin the cage, the more pressure the cable puts into keeping it closed.

13. String the cable through the pipe, and crimp the dog leash buckle on the other end.

14. You hold the buckle in your left hand, and the pipe in your right. This allows you to change the radius of the fire wool by just letting cable in or out as you spin it. This is essential for the wool vortex. You start out with the cable all the way extended, and slowly pull the cable back as you spin it!

The best thing about this cage is that it is re-usable in a quick fashion to set up the next shot. Replacing the steel takes only a few seconds. Be aware that the wire cage can be hot, so it is a great idea to give it a few seconds, or dip it in water before reloading.

Shot Set-Up

Manual Focus Technique with Flashlight

  • This is where having a buddy can help, as I don't ever recommend doing this shot without a second person. Wherever you plan on standing to spin the wool, have your friend shine a flashlight on their face so you can set the focus manually. On Canon cameras, you turn on Live View and zoom in to set the focus with the help of the LCD screen. Remember, that most likely it will be dark out, so having a flashlight will help in more ways that just being able to set focus.

"Chunks of guys like you..."

  • You don't want the sparks to fly at the camera, or other people, so I suggest standing perpendicular to the camera when spinning the wool. Chunks of flaming steel wool will be flying out of the spinning cage. The faster you spin, the farther the flaming sparks are able to fly. 

Camera Settings (Manual Mode)

  • To reduce the amount of noise, set the ISO to around 200 
  • Your exposure should be set to 20 to 30 seconds. You can have wool last the entire 30 seconds if you don't spin too fast. 
  • I've experimented with different f-stops, but get less ghosting with settings around f/9. You should experiment too! 
  • Some cameras have long exposure noise reduction settings which can help 
  • Lock the shutter open to minimize camera shake. 
  • Set the camera to include a 10 second delay. 
  • This gives you time to get in position and light the wool. It sort just looks like it's smoldering when you light steel wool. You don't get the dramatic effect until you spin it, causing oxygen to fuel the fire. Sometimes it take sa second to light the wool, so having the extra time is nice. 
  • Instead of a lighter, you can also use a 9 volt battery to ignite the wool. Tip courtesy of the Boy Scouts!
  • I prefer to use a wide angle lens, but anything will work.  The wider the better, as then you don't have to be as far back from the action.  Fisheye lens also work great in this scenario.

Remember Safety!

  • Is your fire extinguisher ready? 
  • Did you check the area? 
  • How about gloves?  Maybe gloves would be good too.
  • Let's Rock!

How to get the vortex:

Wearing protective clothing is a good idea.  Wearing long sleeves, pants, and a hat or hood is smart.  Shoes are also a necessity.  Wearing shorts and flip-flops will almost guarantee that you'll get some sparks on your tootsies and burn you.  

Press the camera shutter to start the 10 second delay.  You can start trying to light the wool on fire with the 9V battery or a lighter.  Once the wool is lit on fire, and you start by spinning the wool in a small arc, I walk towards the camera slowly and let some cable through to lengthen the diameter of the loop.  It is normal for sparks to fly out of the cage while spinning.  In the picture below, I walked forward less than 10 feet.  In this shot, I chose to stop between the cement pillar and the door and finalize the shot. This gives the added benefit of bouncing additional sparks, and creates a framing effect. During this sequence, I had 2 cameras going for each piece of wool lit on fire. You can see that this is the same sequence, but very different results in the final images.  Please note that there might still be some wool chucks in the cage, and they will be hot.  You should probably know this already, but have a safe spot to set the cage down.  How about a bucket full of water???

Canon 7D: ISO: 200 f/9 Exposure: 30 seconds

Canon 5D Mark II: ISO: 200 f/5.6 Exposure: 30 seconds

Using a secondary camera, I was able to get 2 different angles of the same vortex sequence

If you stand in one place and don't move, and don't change the diameter of the loop, you'll get something like this:

Here are additional samples of the steel wool fire vortex. This one is on a pier walking directly at the camera.

This is an example in a very confined space. The walls of this building were cement, and any sparks going over the side went directly into water. You need to remember your surroundings and be safe. Don't be that guy.

For more examples, visit my night photography gallery:  m2 Night Photography Gallery

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Aluminum Tripod Strap Mount for Kite Aerial Photography

I sort of went crazy ordering some aluminum mounts after I got my new GoPro Hero 3.  This one arrived today, and looks to be one of the most versatile mounts for the GoPro available.  Not only can you use 1" straps to attach this to anything, but it has 4 holes to screw it into a board or ski's.  Not only that, it has a standard 1/4" threaded screw hole on the bottom to attach this thing to pretty much any standard tri-pod, mono-pod, Gorilla-pod, etc.

Grab a Brooxes picavet and camera keeper, along with the GoPro J-mount and Frame, and you have a Kite Aerial Photography rig that can point straight down or angled.

I plan on using this mount in many ways, but thought I would post the KAP version here.  So many fun ways to use these cameras!  I hope to use this specific mount for Wakeboarding, Kiteboarding, Snowboarding, Snowkiting, Dog Mount, Ice Windsurfing, Hiking, Wakesurfing, KAP, and Time Lapse!

DIY Camelback GoPro Scorpion Mount

I've seen a number of different scorpion mounts, and always wanted to make one for myself for Windsurfing, Kiteboarding, Snowboarding, or whatever. I decided to go with Aluminum pole with a pipe flushmount attached to a board in an old Camelbak pack. I think it turned out well, and hope to try it this winter. Walking around my house with it is not all that cool, nor exciting.

  1. Add Salt/Sand to Aluminum pipe and seal at both ends to prevent a kink in the pipe while bending.
  2. Bend 
  3. Add wood dowels to the first 6 inches of the aluminum pipe on each end.
  4. On the GoPro End, screw a used curved helmet mount into the wooden dowel. 
  5. Use dremel to widdle away plastic on GoPro Horizontal Surface Quick-Release Buckle to fit into the curved mount over top of new screw.
  6. Fit body end of the aluminum pipe into a 3" pipe attached to flush mount. 
  7. Cut pine board the shape of the inside of your camelback pack. (Obviously, the water pouch is out...)
  8. Insert board into pack, and drill flushmount to board.
  9. Voila! Scorpion mount. Lightweight, and stable enough if the pack is tight.

I plan on adding some set screws or similar to the aluminum/wooden dowel on the top, and the same for pipe/aluminum pipe/dowel on the bottom to prevent twisting. It doesn't twist now, but I would assume that during whatever sporting activity, it might. I will probably also come up with some type of tether, and wrap that around the pole as well. I also plan on getting some beefier screws to hold down the flushmount to the plywood, but it's fine for now.



Of course, Maximus wanted to test out the Scorpion mount too...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

GoPro HD Hero 3 Panoramics

The latest addition to the GoPro family brings some impressive specs to the table.  For any sports enthusiast who wants to capture all the action, this lighter, smaller camera is extremely powerful.  I won't bore you with these stats, as there are plenty of other reviews on the new to educate you.  I plan on using it for not only capturing sports, but for aerial photography as well.   The HD Hero 3 has the same 12 megapixel image size, but has better low-light performance.  Without any wind to capture aerial images from my kite, I went down to the train station in Round Lake Beach for a quick Pole Aerial Photography session to test out the new Hero 3.  Unfortunately, RLB doesn't have much as far as photogenic scenery, and the cloudy and dreary day didn't help for my test.  Using the new Frame mount for the GoPro, I was able to attach this to my carbon fiber rig and do some rotational shots to capture a good panoramic.

52 images stitched together with Autopano Giga

My biggest complaint with the Frame mount is that is doesn't fit all of the previous model backpacs.  Most notably the battery backpac.  GoPro made a huge mistake by not making all of their add-on backpacs the same depth.  This means that you have a ton of extra back doors lying around for different backpacs.  The Frame mount will set you back $39.99 for a piece of plastic.  For me it is worth the weight savings to have this mount, but think that GoPro should be rewarding its' customers and not trying to rip them off.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Android vs. iPhone: The Photographers Perspective

There are many articles on the net where people argue which platform is better, Android or iPhone.  Most of the time they are pointing out how one phone is bigger, or has more apps, or forgot to include NFC on their latest phone.  I thought I would try and point out some benefits of each platform from a Photographers perspective.  I am a long time Android phone user, and iPad tablet user, so I have experience and opinions on both.  I recently got the chance to play with an iPhone 5 alongside my Galaxy Nexus, which prompted this blog post.  Since my wife recently became a first time smartphone user (Galaxy SIII), I know that here are people out there who still haven't made the choice one way or the other.  Here are some of my thoughts on Android vs. iPhone, both great choices.  Since the Windows 8 phone is new, and I don't know a single person that owns one, I cannot speak of its' capabilities.  You'll notice that I'm somewhat biased towards Android, but you cannot go wrong with either option.

When I first got my Galaxy Nexus phone, I thought that the size was a little big.  Now, i wouldn't want it any smaller.  I was surprised when the iPhone 5 was released with such a small screen.  It is noticeably smaller.  When using certain photography apps, it is great to have just a bit more real estate.  I don't like having to pay for the same app twice on different platforms, but sometimes it is worth it.  For example, I always have my phone with me.  I don't always have my iPad with me.  Having some of the photography apps on whichever device I currently have is convenient, so I don't necessarily have a huge problem buy the same app twice.  Migrating to a Android tablet would resolve that issue for me.

The best camera is the one you have with you.  Sometimes this means that the camera on your smartphone is all you have, and you have to make due.  The edge to quality goes to the iPhone in this category depending on phone.  However, functionality goes to Android.  Android has been able to create panoramic images for years, while the iPhone 5 just got that.   I'm running the new Jelly Bean Cyanogen mod on my Galaxy Nexus, and the newest 4.2 Google Apps include an upgraded camera with Photo Sphere.  This is a multi-level panoramic camera built into the OS.

Widgets:  This feature alone will ensure that I never buy an iPhone.  Android is about flexibility.  Apple apparently likes its' icons.  Being able to customize the my Android home screen with Widgets to create a personalized interface sets the Android above the rival iPhone.


There are many great photography apps available for both the Android and iPhone platforms.  This is not a definitive list, just ones that I use.  Not all of these are available for both platforms.  Many times, the app is available on the Apple AppStore first before releasing an Android version, but not always.  There are a few of these that are only available on Android.  I'm sure that there are plenty of iOS apps that are not available on Android, but you will have to track those down yourself.  Total cost of ownership is also a topic of concern for Android vs. iPhone users.  There are tons of great free apps for both platforms, but I tend to find more on the Android market, as well as cheaper in some cases for the same app.  Not always, but many times apps are more expensive on the AppStore than in the market.

Other Recommended Apps:
The Photographer's Ephimeris
Google Play - $4.99
Apple AppStore - $8.99
TME is one of those apps you don't know you need, until you have it. It is designed to illustrate on a map where the Sun or Moon will be at any given moment. This helps plan for sunrise and sunset, and additionally moonrise and moonset for your photoshoot locations. TME also displays the phase of the moon, which is handy if you're doing star photography.
The Photographer's Ephimeris works great on both IOS and Android platforms, but shines when using it on larger tablets like the iPad. With the newest release of Apple IOS, TME utilizes the built in Apple maps. On the Android devices, it still uses Google maps. I have been using TME with my iPad since it was released, as it was not available for Android until recently. The availability of large screen Android devices like the Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy SIII, and the Samsung Note II, along side the consistency of Google Maps, and a lower price point, you can't go wrong with TME on the Android.
Google Play - $4.99
Apple AppStore - $4.99
LightTrac is very similar to The Photographer's Ephimeris in function, as it displays the location of the Sun or Moon on a map at a given time and location anywhere on Earth. This app was also available on Apple IOS for a long time before it came to Android. I like the slider and being able to see the elevation of the Sun or Moon as you dynamically change the time. You probably don't need both of these apps, but I tend to use them both. Being able to predict the perfect lighting conditions for any given outdoor location make this a must have app on your phone or tablet.
Photo Tools Pro
Google Play - $2.54
This app is only available on the Android platform. There might be an equivelent app for the iPhone, and you're welcome to ironically use Google to find that. Photo Tools is a plethora of photography tools and calculators to help professional photographers with managing their shots. Although you can find free tools that do some of these individually, having them in one interface is nice. There is a free version of this app, but contains ads. Supporting photography developers for just under $3 is worth it.
Sun Surveyor (Sun & Moon)
Google Play - $6.49
Apple AppStore - $5.99
With some of the same features as LightTrac and The Photographer's Ephimeris, Sun Surveyor sets itself apart by using a 3D Compass, Augmented Reality to show where the Sun or Moon will be at any given time. Having the ability to visualize the altitude of the Sun or Moon is another great tool in any photographer's toolkit.
This is one of the only apps that I've found where the cost of the app is higher in the Google Play store than the Apple AppStore. I believe that the reason behind this is the availability of widgets, which you will not get on an iOS device. Having the sun or moon information handy without having to launch the app is fantastic. There are 9 widgets total, which are really just a couple of different widgets at multiple size options.
Google Play - FREE
Until recently where camera manufacturers are including GPS as part of the built-in camera functionality, you had to rely on a GPS Logger to capture latitude/longitude information to GeoTag your images. Basically, as long as your camera and smartphone times are synchronized, using this app will tell you exactly where you were when the image was captured. This uses standard GPX/KML data files, and there is some work on the back end to get the GPS data loaded into the EXIF information on your image, but you can't beat free.
LapseIt Pro
Google Play - $0.99
Most photographers tell you the best camera is the one that you have with you. Sometimes that means that you just have your phone, and that will have to do. LapseIt Pro lets you capture time lapse sequences using your built-in Android camera. It has a simple interface and will render the sequece for you.
TL-Plus / Automate
I stumbled on the the Gadgetworks website a few years ago and could believe that I was able to buy a fully functional pan and tilt rig for around $300. Additionally, you controlled this rig using an Android phone. Most of the other computerized rigs I saw were significantly more expensive, so I picked one up. It is great for setting up motion time lapse sequences, HDR photography, gigapixel panoramics, and intervelometer. It is only available on Android, and old-school Windows Mobile.
dSLR Controller Pro
Google Play - $7.99
If you own a Canon dSLR camera, dSLR Controller Pro is a tethered remote using your Android phone. You get live view which allows yout o set focus on a bigger screen, as well as trigger the camera remotely. Full control of your EOS camera using only a USB cable.
*** Notice ***
This requires an Android phone that has USB Host mode available. My Galaxy Nexus works, but not all Android devices allow this. You need a USB Host Mode Cable as well.
Eye-fi App
Google Play - FREE
Apple AppStore - FREE
Have a camera that uses an SD card? The Eye-Fi X2 Memory cards allow you to upload your pictures to a computer, tablet, or smartphone. There is a few seconds delay, but the images are transfered via Wi-Fi to your device. I personally like this for applications like Pole Aerial Photography, where I cannot be exactly sure what the camera is taking. I can use my phone to see the images within a few seconds to unsure that I'm geting the shot I want. Obviously, this requires an Eye-Fi memory card to work. It's also nice if you lazy, and you want to upload your images to an online strorage site automagically.
GoPro App
Google Play - Free
Apple AppStore - FREE
Similar to how the Eye-Fi works, The GoPro app allows you to connect via Wi-Fi to not only control your GoPro camera's functions, you get a near-real time preview of what your GoPro is seeing. There is a few seconds delay. The app will work up to 600 feet away, and is compatible with the GoPro wi-fi bacpac, as well as the new GoPro 3 with built-in wi-fi. GoPro is terrible at meeting deadlines, and have failed to release any of their products on time when they've posted a date on their website. They also have demonstrated that the iOS platform is their priority, but released their Android version on November 12th.
Slate It! beta
Google Play - FREE
Do you use your camera to capture video? Need a movie style clapper? Want one for free??? There is one for the iPad called MovieSlate that costs around $25, and potentially some other cheaper or free alternatives for the iOS platform. This one is functional and the price is right.
Studio Buddy
Google Play - $4.99
Strobe / light / camera lighting diagram app to help plan or document your shoot. Drag and drop objects around the pallette to show how you lit a subject. There is a Lite version of this app.

Other Recommended Apps:
  • Easy Release (Apple and Android) - Model and Property Releases
  • iScout Location (Apple) - Location Data
  • Photo Buddy (Apple) - Depth of Field Calculator, Sun and Moon Phase
  • DOF Calculator (Android) - Depth of Field Calculator
  • Sundroid (Android Widget) - Sunrise, Sunset, Moon rise, Moon Set Info