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How NOT to Photograph Burning Man

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How NOT to Photograph Burning Man

sean mcclelland

Burning Man had been at the top of my bucket list for years. After a year of grueling research, planning, bad luck, and in the end, good luck, it actually happened. In addition to the obvious reasons for wanting to go, I was hell-bent on making the most amazing images of my life while on the playa. I had a detailed list of shots that I wanted for various projects. As you can probably guess, based on the title of this article, all did not go as planned.

I'll start by explaining what I did to prepare, share what actually happened during the event, and then offer some words of advice. It should also be noted that this was my first "burn," and I normally shoot with a Canon 5DMKII (serious stuff), or a Fuji X-E2 (walk-around).

I scoured the web for advice on managing the dust problem. That playa dust IS as bad as they say. It's like a rust-inducing plague of powdered locusts that get into every nook and cranny that it damn well pleases. To make matters worse, 2015 turned out to be one of the windiest in recent years. White-outs happened every day that I was there, except one, and gusts exceeded 50mph at times. Weather-proof camera gear? Yeah…. riiiight. The advice I found on the web was varied and conflicting. Some photogs don’t protect their cameras at all, and claim to never have problems, while others said their gear was never the same again, and recommend heavy protection or taking a cheap camera instead. I decided to take the safest route by renting a camera/lens combo. I chose the 5DMKIII and Sigma 24-105 F4, and I also kept everything in a giant zip-lock bag. I didn't want to take a chance with my personal gear, which isn't properly insured anyhow.

I looked at everything from expensive underwater housing to inexpensive bags from companies like DiCAPac, but settled on this DIY method. I didn’t want a moveable plastic panel in front of my lens (flare anyone?), and hard cases seemed like overkill. I fit the camera and lens inside a 2-gallon baggy, sealing and gaffer-taping the bag tightly to the UV filter on the lens. I couldn’t use a lens hood, though I wanted to. I screwed the tripod plate right through the bag and into the bottom of the camera, then sealed with a little extra gaffer tape as well. I took a cheap tripod that I was OK with ruining, and headed to the playa!

The Temple of Promise: Panography of the temple, 50+ photos make up this huge image. The temple is a very emotional, powerful experience.

The Temple of Promise: Panography of the temple, 50+ photos make up this huge image. The temple is a very emotional, powerful experience.

Before going any further, I want to point out a few things for new burner photogs. First-time planning takes many months. I swear it would be easier to plan a trip to Mars. By the time you get to Black Rock City, you’ve already worked hard to make it all happen, traveled far, and then survived a 30-mile-long line of cars before getting inside the gate. After all that, you’ll still need to find and set up your camp! When you’re finally settled in, and start to explore the playa, you will be totally amazed at the scene around you. Prepare to say "wow," a LOT. For these reasons, the last thing on my mind during the first 24hrs of the burn was photography. In fact, it took me nearly 48hrs before I pressed the shutter for the first time (see tip # 1 below).

As the days carried on, I encountered a number of unexpected challenges, and it quickly became apparent that I would not meet my photography goals for the trip (which included cinemagraphs, multiple panographies, themed portraits, art car panning blurs, etc). At first this REALLY bothered me, and I struggled to maintain a positive attitude.

The first problem was the weather. The wind was relentless. The DIY baggy protected my camera, but after a short while, the plastic was so weathered that I could hardly see through it. I could see just enough to frame the shot, but I couldn’t judge focus or depth of field! I did open the baggy a few times to get a clear view, but only when the wind died down, and even then, dust got on the camera.

The next issue was my tripod. I didn’t take my good tripod, because I wasn’t sure if I could properly clean it after the event to prevent rusting. Taking a cheap/extra tripod was a great idea, because it broke on the first day of shooting! I don’t even know how it happened... I think the wind blew over my bike and the tripod head took a hit. My camp mate rigged it up with a drill and some screws, but that only bought me a few extra shots before it broke again. I ended up trying to balance the camera on top of my camera bag, on my bike. That was (not) fun. It's hard to light paint without a tripod! Ah well, you live and learn.

I did bring a Speedlight, but didn’t end up using it. I wish I had used it, looking back… but I hadn’t prepared any protective bag for it ahead of time, and didn’t have the desire or energy to mess with it once I was on the playa. At the very least, you would to tape that sucker up tight to keep the dust out.

You probably have read all about the magic of sunrise shoots on the playa, but it just didn’t happen for me. Do I regret not dragging my butt of bed at 4am at least once? Sure. But I am also proud of the fact that kept my energy levels up and remained healthy for the whole trip. Keeping your mind and body intact for 8 days in the desert, in the middle of the biggest party in the world, is no small feat. We met an EMT one night, and whoa, did he have some gnarly stories to tell about burners who didn’t survive the week!

At night the entire area rises up from the dust and into a glow of neon-colored lights.

At night the entire area rises up from the dust and into a glow of neon-colored lights.

In conclusion, I have to say that even though I didn’t meet most of my photography goals, and made some classic mistakes, I am free of regret. In the end, and after a little post-processing work, I did come away with a handful of shots that I'm proud of. Photography was my number one reason for going to Burning Man, but looking back, that was a bit naive. This event is, quite literally, unlike anything in the world. You have the opportunity, during every moment of every day, to experience something new and unique. I made new life-long friends while I was there. I laughed out loud like a child every day. I got put into a stockade and spanked by a random lady in front of a giant shark car. I battled my finance in the Thunderdome (and survived)! I teared-up in the Temple. I jogged 2 miles in the desert with a Navy veteran while singing cadence songs, at 4am. I wore a kilt for 5 days straight. I had never been so dirty in all my life. Burning Man taught me to let go. And let go, I did.

My top 10 tips for Burning Man photographers:

  1. Photography third: If you’re a first time burner, focus on taking care of your body first, enjoying the event second, and photography third. If you don’t feel good, and/or spend half the trip looking at the back of your camera, you will regret it big time.

  2. Protect, but not too much: Protect your camera from the dust, but not in a way that restricts your creativity. Maybe that means renting a camera, or bringing your back-up camera. If you bring your own, pay to have it professionally cleaned after the event. 

  3. DIY baggy tips: If you’re doing this route, pre-make one bag for each day of the trip, and change it out every day (in a calm, non-windy place, of course). Use prime lenses to avoid the bag-scrunching-when-zooming problem that I dealt with. This will let you shape the bag tightly to your camera, so there isn’t any excess plastic in your way. Minimize lens changes, or don’t do it at all.

  4. Shoot early, and late: Force yourself to get out and shoot early, like before-sun-rise early, and take as many pictures as you can before it gets hot and windy. Then you can tuck the camera away during the day, explore the playa camera-free, and bring it out again at night when the weather is better and the desert lights up with color.

  5. Tripod cleaning: You must bring a tripod. Your tripod will get really, really dirty. Buy one that can easily be disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled after the event. I have a ball head and I would worried about it getting mucked up permanently (suggestions? put them in the comments below!). Spiked tripod feet are useful, too.

  6. Memory cards: Bring a bunch of them, change them every day or so, and store them in a high-quality card case, like this one. If you have the cash, get an external hard drive with a memory card slot for backup redundancy. This goes without saying, but don’t clear your cards until you get home, even if you have a way to transfer the data while on the playa. I don’t recommend bringing a laptop, because dust would get inside for sure. The 5DMKIII had two card slots, so I had the camera writing each image to both cards.

  7. Do your homework ahead of time: Had I not, I would have missed out on Trey Ratcliff’s photo walk, and Android Jones’ art installation. They are two of my all-time favorite artists, and neither were listed in the guide book. Thank you, Trey and Android!

  8. Shoot with other photogs: This is something I didn’t do, but should have. Find some friends in the online forums before you go, or just connect up with others while you’re out there. I know we photogs are an introverted bunch, but friends push you to try new things, and you will get shots that you wouldn’t get on your own. Everything is possible out there!
  9. Selfies: Don’t forget to turn that camera around and get pictures of yourself. Also, remember to capture photos of the people you camp with and meet along the way. Those images, and the stories associated with them, will mean more to you than your pro shots once you’re back in the real world.

  10. Say yes: This one isn’t just about photography, it’s about the Burning Man experience. Short of drugs or doing something dangerous, I recommend saying “yes” to anything and everything that comes your way. Try something that you would never have dreamed of trying before. If you see something interesting, stop and check it out, right then and there. Don’t try to come back later… because it probably won't be there next time!

If you have any questions about Burning Man, or photographing the event, please, by all means, leave a comment below, or connect with me on any of my social media channels. Thank you!

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