Photography at Burning Man (Part 1 of 2)
In this post I will give a little advice, relate some personal experience and more than anything try to provide some resources for you to have a better photo experience at Burning Man and of course show off a couple of shots. There are two levels of photography for me in Black Rock City. First, there is recording the event, friend shots, the unexpected pretty moment that catches your eye. For these, a pocket or small-sized point and shoot is perfectly acceptable and can take great shots. The second level is less for historical moments but are art you are trying to create from the art at the event. At this level I can’t imagine shooting anything than a digital SLR these days, although my first two years on the Playa I was still shooting film and love those shots.
Please pay special attention to the etiquette discussion in Part 2, it’s really important. When I show people my photos I often get asked, where are all of the naked people? I typically don’t shoot nudity on the Playa, with some specific exceptions. I have had friends who have had detailed body art done and they asked me to shoot them and at times in taking a shot of something going on I’ve had topless or naked people included in the background because they were part of the scene. I never post these shots on the web.
A few words on the Critical Tits bike ride, I never shoot this. My first year, as the ride was beginning I made this decision, I took one long distance shot of riders lined up and then put my camera away. There is no chance as a male photographer that someone isn’t going to think you’re being that guy even if you’re not, so why take the chance and more importantly, why take the chance of making women participating in an empowerment ride feel uncomfortable. Put the camera away and instead find a way to help set up or serve at the after ride, give of yourself for this event instead of taking photos.
Without a doubt, the best piece I can recommend for photography at Burning Man is the piece on the org website by Matt Freedman at the following link:
This piece is an essential first reading, in a short piece Matt does a great job of covering the basics of shooting on the Playa and even a bit more than that and I can absolutely say I disagree with nothing he says. My preferences for carrying equipment are a little different but that is essentially personal preference. He recommends a photo backpack sealed and kept in your tent or car and then carrying a much smaller set up on the Playa. I carry a Camelbak backpack that gives me good hydration options, plenty of room for gear, swag, etc… There is a downside to my method, that pack can get real heavy out there, but I don’t shoot every day and completely agree with him that a pocket-sized or small point and shoot can be a great compromise.
Dust protection is the biggest issue and I echo Matt’s advice, if the dust is blowing leave the SLR in the bag and use the point and shoot, or even a temporary camera which are incredibly light, shoot better than you think and are very well sealed. When you develop the temporary camera, always get the disk copy to go with it. I’ve gotten great shots in dust storms with both. For me, I carry all of my cameras in big ziplock bags and keep the lenses and cameras wrapped in bandanas. It gives two levels of dust protection. If you are fortunate to be carrying two bodies you can set one standard and one zoom lens and alternate between cameras, it will save lens changes and dust penetration, but it will get seriously heavy on your back carrying all of that, so pick your which handicap you want. For me, I typically carry the point and shoot and one body, lenses in the ziplocks. I try to make changes inside a dome or at Center Camp, when the wind is down, but reality is that occasionally you’re going to be in the middle of the Playa and wanting to change lenses. I just do it, quickly and efficiently the fact is I’m not going to miss an amazing shot because I fear the dust. However, that’s a decision everyone has to make.
When to shoot, or should the question be when not to shoot at Burning Man, and of course I’m talking about more artistic shots here. Matt is dead on sunrise is the absolute best time, less dust, fewer people, not hot and you actually get the sun coming across the horizon. All of my favorite shots from Burning Man are dawn shots, although I only ever get up or stay up for 1 or 2 dawns each year. Night shooting is wonderful and challenging and remember, there are always dust particles in the air so when you use that flash at night you get flying white orbs everywhere.