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Burning Man 2007
Near the end of August, we embarked on a 3,000 km road trip that took us to the week-long Burning Man event, located in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada.
What is Burning Man?
Burning man is an annual 8-day event held in the desert with 35,000+ people in an environment that is described by the organizers as "experiment in community, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance". Unlike most of our travels, this one required a fair degree of preparation and supplies, as there is no water or electricity provided and no way to purchase anything once you've arrived.
Burning Man 2007 Photos
When I first arrived at Burning Man, I had high expectations, but I wasn't prepared to be so overwhelmed -- everywhere you looked, there was an abundance of creativity and unique oddity. At night, the world lit up, beneath home-made flamethrowers and colored glowing lights. The desert shook to the beat of music different in every direction.
I found myself in a difficult position as an excited photographer arriving at such a visual feast. Clearly, this place would be a dream for photography. On the other hand, being my first time at the event, I made a conscious decision to put the camera away so that I could experience more of it, rather than simply capture it. So, although I brought along much of my camera gear, I ventured out with my camera in hand for a only fraction of the time at the event.
As a photographer, it was really tough to pass by such incredible scenes and not be able to capture it. If I were to return, I would certainly devote a couple days to shooting and the rest to experiencing the interactive nature of everything else.
Preparations for Photographers at Burning Man
Bringing camera gear to Burning Man requires some planning. In particular, one really has to think carefully about the dust situation. Dust storms (with 100 kph winds) often suddenly appeared, with only seconds to take cover. Having a digital SLR on hand meant that extra precautions had to be taken:
- Lens Selection.
You need to consider the difficulty in changing lenses at any point during the entire week, due to the fine dust that is airborne everywhere (even in your RV). Ideally, you would never change your lens, but it is clear that there are opportunities for both ultra-wide zoom range and telephoto in such an event. If one didn't want to deal with this issue, bringing a Super Zoom (wide-to-telephoto) might be an idea, but this is generally a compromise in quality. The best option (if possible) would be to bring two bodies, a different lens attached to each. I brought my 17-40/4L and 70-200/4L and found that I used both ranges equally.
- Lens Changing
Expect to have fine white dust everywhere, including inside your RV. This makes changing lenses in the field really difficult -- particularly a problem for digital SLRs (film cameras don't have to worry so much because the dust is not persistent across frames). Outside of the RV, the only other place that I found suitable for changing lenses was (don't laugh) in the porta-potties! When you've found a suitable location, take the usual precautions: swab down camera body (especially near the lens mount) to remove dust, point camera down, make lens change fast, etc.
- Camera Preparations
Again, in consideration of the dust, consider wrapping your camera in some soft plastic bag or wrap. This will help reduce the amount of dust that gets on the body and near the lens mount area. I decided to attach large plastic bags to the front filter ring of each lens. The bag was large enough to cover the entire camera as well. I cut a hole in the bag for the filter size and then wrapped electrical tape around the front ring to affix it to the lens. This works really well for lenses that don't have a front rotating element. It was still possible to do for my wife's cheaper 70-300 lens, but I had to be careful that the tape did not interfere with the focus operation.
- Camera Bag
In events like this, it would be great to have a camera nearby at all times, but for much of the time you'll want it put away (so that you can get involved in activities, take shelter from the frequent dust storms, ride your bike, etc.) In this regard, choose a bag (perhaps a sling-style) that can accommodate your camera and lens(es) nicely. I wasn't happy with the bag that I brought, so I would have to give it more thought next time.
- Point & Shoot Digicam
All of the previous points come out of the inherent issues with a dusty environment and a larger digital SLR. One should seriously consider having a point and shoot digital camera that is small enough to take with you at all times. Free from the need to change lenses and finding a suitable bag, these cameras are much more convenient.
Bring a lightweight tripod. I brought my fullsize Manfrotto tripod, and soon regretted it. The main problem was that I hadn't considered how much I'd be biking and how often I'd be jumping off to quickly take a shot. Having an ultra-compact tripod may have been more practical.
- External Flash
A flash will generally be quite useless for most night shots. There is just too much airborne dust floating around. The dust particles near the camera will be illuminated brightly and overpower your subject. There is so much in the way of "unnatural" light sources at night that it is much nicer to capture the light as-is, if possible.
A week in such an incredible shooting environment can quickly leave you with a handful of full memory cards. It's important to either bring enough flash memory or else take along a portable storage device (PSD). I bought a handful of 2GB CF cards in addition to my Epson P2000 Photo Viewer. Since I am a strong believer in redundancy, I copied the memory cards to the storage device every day and then left the important cards full as a backup.