Steve's Fotografik Rephlux - Burning Man - Secrets, Hints, Insider Tips for Photographers

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1. Introduction

Welcome to Burning Man Photography Hints! If you've never been to Burning Man, and you enjoy photography, its likely you will come across something useful here. If you are a long-time burner photographer, have a look-see where we agree and have our different approaches. The information and viewpoints contained herein are not necessarily those of Burning Man LLC.

2. Preparation

If you have a very expensive camera, you might think twice about taking it to the Black Rock Desert. The heat and dust can be damaging to electronics and moving parts. Your camera is likely to acquire a special grime composed of playa dust and suntan lotion. If you do get a new camera, its best to make the purchase well before the event so you have plenty of time to learn how it functions and responds under different conditions.

In 2009, I used a digital SLR for the first time (Canon EOS 5d Mark II). I was aware of the potential for sensor dust and I limited myself as far as lens changes. Still, my images by the end of the event all had at least one dark speck that had to be cloned out...if it was a daytime image. When I got home, I tried the rocket blower (bulb) air technique but it really did not do much to clean up the sensor. Then, I got the "arctic butterfly". Just one swipe of this brush across the sensor picked up most of the dust. It was quite amazing, actually. I don't know if I would try to use it on the playa as I think it may be best to do that kind of cleaning in an environment with less dust.

Accessories you will want include extra batteries, extra film/cards, cleaning equipment, and a tripod. Before departing for the event, be sure to recharge all your batteries. Unless they are disposable, or unless you have a big supply, you will need a way to recharge them on the playa. I use portable power packs with built in AC convertors. You can find these in outdoors and automotive stores, they often come with jumper cables (also very useful). Although a I have 3 or 4 of these, they will run low during the course of the event, so I recharge them with a gas powered generator. One year I tried to keep the power packs recharged by using a 15 watt solar panel, but the sun could not keep up with the demand.

If you are really into photography, you could easily take over 1000 images at the event. You might want to consider the pros and cons of getting a large flash card versus several moderate sized cards. If all of your photos are on one card, and you lose the card or it is damaged, then you may wish that you had several medium sized cards. If you can back-up your cards on the playa, you will have an added measure of safety. There are high capacity portable disk drives which can accept memory cards. You could also use a notebook computer, but again, the environment is very harsh on delicate electronics.

Tripods are important for nighttime photography. I have used mini-tripods with some success. The big advantage is their portability. Problems include balance, heads that slip from the adjustment point, and more exposure to dust, being low to the ground. Additionally, unless your camera has a tiltable screen or viewfinder, you will have to be low to the ground to frame the picture.

Aside from all the other camping gear, food, and water, one other item for photographers would be a small source of light for working at night. A small flashlight you can clip to a vest can help you see your equipment. I've used the LED light/glasses, and these work rather well for hands free illumination. I've also tried a light on a headband, but this was too uncomfortable.

If your camera can take movies, be sure to fill out the required agreement on image use. You might want to do this even if your camera doesn't have a movie function, because the tag you receive will help alleviate concerns by people who don't know what your camera is capable of, or people who don't know the rules.

3. Subjects - Sunrise

The hour before dawn is cold, sometimes windy, and less noisey. If you were up until 3am, you are not going to want to leave the confines of your sleeping bag. However, you must come to terms with the fact that you love photography and Burning Man is the best place in the world for images, and the best time of all is around sunrise - you MUST get out of bed! On the other hand, if you can peek out a window - try to determine what the cloud cover is like. If there are zero clouds in the sky, you might want to punt for that morning because the sunrise will be less brilliant. However, the skies can trick you, and clouds will appear when there were none an hour before. You also need to strategize about how many sunrises are left in the event before you give up on all of them.

Aside from the sun rising over the horizon, there is nice light in the hour before, even when the horizon is only dimly lit up. Later in the event, you will be amazed at how many people are up and about doing things at this time. After the sun rises, there is an interesting effect where the sunlight bounces off the surface of the playa in the distance. Its possible to get some nice images of people and things silhoutted against the illuminated playa at this time. Although this effect also occurs before sunset, it is less pronounced because the sun sets at a higher angle, behind the mountains to the west. Assuming you have a digital camera, be sure to check your images on your LCD screen or viewfinder to be sure the brightness, contrast, and white balance are appropriate. Especially during the day, your camera may overcompensate for the brightness, yielding underexposed and dark images.

4. Subjects - Art

Although you will be attracted to the more grandly scaled art, including Burning Man himself, be sure to take some time with the other pieces scattered about the playa. If you can post some good images of the art, its not unlikely that you will hear from the artist, after the event, looking for a higher resoultion copy of your photo, which you will gladly supply to them, in appreciation for their efforts. Its interesting to get photos of the art early in the event, while its still being constructed. You might caputre the artist at work. Also, the lighting is different at night: during construction there may be very bright lights set up, which will have their own special effect on your photo. Try to get different perspectives. You can get a close-up of a portion of the art, an image that includes the entire piece, and a third image that puts the work in the much larger setting of the open playa. Its often good to get participants interacting with the art.

5. Subjects - People

Although you might try catching up on your sleep during the day, this is also a great time to wander around Black Rock City and catch interesting people doing interesting things. The area around center camp is always very active. However, a very big issue for photographers at Burning Man has to do with permission to photograph people. There are burners who will insist that you must always ask permission before taking a photo. Its hard to go wrong with such an approach, but it might also be extreme and unnecessary in some cases. For example, your photos might include a huge crowd of people, none of whom are likely to be identifiable,so there is no point asking each and every one for permission, nor could you possibly do so. Here are some things to think about:

Is you subject disrobed? Is it frontal nudity? Are they identifiable (face included)? If so, then ask

Is your subject the main subject of your photo or are they a part of a group of people, or even maybe in a parade? If the image content is on just one or 2 people, then ask.

Is the person doing something that their boss, mother, or partner back home could be upset about? Is something romantic going on? If so, then ask, especially if you think you might post the image.

Is the subject a child? If so, then ask the responsible adult.

Is your subject already playing to a crowd of photographers and onlookers? If so, less likely you need to ask.

Are you in a closed, private space? If so, then ask. Also, note that some camps have "no photography" signs posted at their perimeters.

Perhaps the most perplexing situation is the Critical Tits bicycle rally. In some sense, a major theme of this event is the conflict around seeing and being seen, innocence vs. shame, etc. Many people photograph this event, but several of the participants will complain if you do so. Even though they have placed themselves on display, I would not post any image from this event which includes topless or other nudity, at least not without the permission of the subject.

Much of the above is common sense. However, especially on the playa, there may be times when common sense is elusive. And, even if you have your common sense, your subject might not have theirs, still need to respect their privacy.

6. Subjects - Night

I love taking Burning Man photos at night! Set a route that takes you along the Esplanade and out to the Man, and other art on the playa. Set your camera for a long exposure and use a tripod. Either use the timer on your camera or use a cable to release the shutter - so you don't shake the camera by pressing the release button. A star filter will work well for many of these photos, although if there are too many bright objects, there will be too many distracting star points. Be careful to be well lit yourself! Many times you will be positioning yourself in a dark area where bicyclists and art cars won't be able to see you.

You can try using a flash, but for the most part, you will want to turn it off and do a long exposure shot. The problem with the flash is that the dust particles in the air reflect light back at the camera. It gives the effect of being in a snowstorm, but not exactly. It really only detracts from your photo and is difficult to remove via software. Supposedly, if you have the equipment to set up a flash away from your camera - flashing more from the side, then the dust won't bounce the light back at you.

As previously mentioned, it helps to have a small light source for working with your equipment at night.

7. Subjects - Fire

For the major burns, such as the burn of the man, plan to arrive at the burn site at least 2 hours before the burn if you want to be at the front or near the front. However, getting that front row seat is no guarantee of an unobstructed view. For the burn of th man, there are many personnel, especially fire performers inside the perimeter, who may position themselves in a way that obscures your line of site. An alternative approach is to be back in the crowd, elevated, up on an art car, for a unique view including the crowd.

If you are in the front row, be nice to the Black Rock Ranger assigned to your sector. They may appreciate your photography aspirations and help keep the area immediately in front of you clear of objects, including themselves.

Pay attention to wind direction. Most likely, you will not want to sit with the wind blowing directly at your face. If you choose such a location, the flames and smoke will obscure the structure that is being burned, and the smoke will come in your direction. Dust devils will also head your way. This can be very exciting, and good images of dust devils can be had from this perspective, however, the devils will appear dark againts the background of the burning object. If you sit with the wind at your back, you may not see the dust devils (if there are any), because they will be coming off the far side of the burning object. Sitting at right angles to the wind might be the best choice. The light from the burn will illuminate any dust devils and you will stay out of the smoke. Sometimes, the wind changes.

Initial photos of the burns, possibly including fireworks are best done with a tripod and cable release. As the fire burns brighter, you can go to handheld, and press the shutter yourself. Try to check a few photos on your LCD screen or viewfinder to be sure you are getting the image you want. In particular, watch out for the brightness of the fire causing a blow-out. The fire can end up looking just white, with no texture or variation in color. You want your fire photos to show varying shades of orange and yellow, given the choice, make sure the fire has a good array of color and texture, and let the remainder of the image be dark. Its more likely that you will be able to adjust a dark (underexposed) image, than an overexposed image. I've had good results by spot metering the camera on the bright portions of the image, such as the flame, and then recomposing the image to include the darker areas.

Be careful with your equipment, especially at the point of time in which participants are allowed to approach the burning structure. Its likely that you will be picking up and packing away your gear at the same time that the crowd behind you is rushing forward.

Fire performers are very challenging subjects.

Ideally, you would like to see the arcs of fire created by the poi (fire spinning) while also seeing the fire perfomer. You need a slower shutter speed to get the arc effect while you will want a faster speed so that the performer is not a blur. Furthermore, you want the fire to have some texture and not be blown out (all white), and still be able to see the performer, in relative darkness. Some things to try incude setting the shutter speed to 1 second or a little less. You can go for several revolutions of the poi if you really want to, but your performer will be a blur. Instead, lately, I've been trying to get maybe a quarter to a half, to maybe just one full revolution of the poi. Try to catch the performer when they are motionless, except for their arms. There are certain moves that reach an apex or endpoint, where they are likely to be still. For example, sometimes they spin while kneeling and arching over backwards. Try to catch them when they are at the extreme point of bending over backwards.

You can try using a flash if you are at an appropriate distance from the perfomer. The flash may detract from the beauty of the fire, but depending on the overall levels involved, it might capture the performer relatively sharply while preserving the flame effect. You might try a "rear-sync" on the flash, if you have one, this produces the flash at the end of the exposure, which makes sense as far as the arc of flame leading up to the flash. Remember, if there is much dust in the air, and there probably will be, the dust will reflect light back on your camera and possibly cause annoying artifacts.

Firebreathing results in a very bright flame, so set the shutter speed quite a bit fast to preserve the texture of the fire. Let the rest of the image be dark. The flame will illuminate the fire breather's face. Its difficult to get just the right moment, you might want to try a burst mode on your camera if you have one.

Since capturing these performances is so challenging, you might want to practice ahead of time. If you have a fire peformer community in your area, they may have practices you can attend. Their practices become your practices. In Portland, Oregon, fire performers gather the first and third Sundays of the month, under Interstate 5, and practice their art. Its a free show.

8. Decompression

Saying goodbye to the playa for a year can be difficult. As a photographer, you may have sacrificed some of the direct immediacy of the event, being behind the camera, but now you get to bask in a very long afterglow, that can last all the way to the next burn.

Be careful with those precious images! Copy (do not delete) them from your flash cards to your computer. Then copy (do not delete) them from your computer, to removable media, such as CDs. Now that you have 2 sets of copies, you can delete them off your flash cards. This all presumes you are working with digital images. If you are using film, a parallel set of safeguards may be appriopriate.

Many people seem to post their images withouth much, if any processing. I'd suggest you choose your images carefully. Select only the best ones. Rotate, crop, adjust light balance, sharpen, as necessary. Consider submitting your best images to the image gallery on the Burning Man site. It is quite possible that you will be getting emails from superstar Burning Man artists asking for a copy or permission to use your photo. I will CC if one of my images is going to be published in print media or if I have a concern about the use of the image. There are some situations where people might want to use your image for a purpose which could be construed as commercial or possibly antithetical to the spirit of the event. Fortunately, this is uncommon, but it is best to be wary. Remember the guidelines about people as subjects and screen out any images for posting that feel at all doubtful.

Burning Man is an astounding opportunity for photographers. Its tempting to say that there is nothing else like it anywhere in the world. Truthfully, there are probably some things which have similarities. Still, you will be hard pressed to find such a wide and deep river of photo opportunities, continually rushing at you 24 hours per day for a week, in the middle of nowhere.

- Steven Fritz

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