How to Survive, Thrive and Photograph at Burning Man

Now that I’ve weathered through my first Burning Man experience, I can provide some meaningful advice for photographers seeking to capture images at Burning Man. Of course, every “Burner,” old or new, needs to read the official survival guide—pay close attention to the tips there and you’ll mostly be fine—I can give some advice, based on my own experience and bias, that I think photographers will find especially useful.

The primary photographic hazard is dust…

 

Sculpture at Burning Man

Art installations are exposed to a very harsh environment at Burning Man

It is impossible to avoid exposure to “Playa Dust” at Burning Man and, if you want to do any photography at all, you will have to protect your gear! Dust storms can arise at any moment, sometimes getting so bad that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Playa dust is about the consistency of talcum powder and it is virtually impossible to keep it from coating everything. Dust is part of the experience however and thankfully there are some things you can do to protect your camera.

I used an OP/TECH rainsleeve – this is an inexpensive plastic bag with a drawstring that cinches around the lens. There is a small hole in the side positioned so that you can place it where the viewfinder is—take the finder frame off, position the hole and then slide the frame back on to secure the bag to the camera—you want to keep the lens and the viewfinder exposed so you can photograph without obstructions.

Camera Rainsleeve

The rainsleeve showing the viewfinder frame in place.

Rainsleeve side view

Another angle shows how the drawstring cinches around the camera lens.

While the rainsleeve is not completely airtight it does cut down on the amount of dust that would otherwise bombard the camera and invade every crack. I kept the camera in the sleeve the whole time I was at Burning Man and managed to avoid any serious problems. The other essential strategy for keeping the camera safe is to NEVER TAKE THE LENS OFF – I can’t emphasize this enough! Every time you take the lens off, dust will be attracted to the sensor and pretty soon the sensor will be covered in fine dust. This will render the camera useless for picture taking until you clean the sensor. I imagine that the dust is fairly abrasive as well so you must avoid exposing the sensor to dust at all costs. Fortunately, if you keep a lens on the camera, you can avoid dust on the sensor. I kept my 24-70 zoom on the Canon 5D mk2 and did not have a problem. Do not be tempted to change lenses for any reason. If you must have another lens take another camera body and keep that lens on the camera!

Dust obscured Sculpture

Some very beautiful images can be captured in the dust clouds.

If you do not protect the camera, you will not be able to capture the non-dusty scenes either so be prepared. Dust is a fact of life at Burning Man, and while you are not actively taking pictures, keep your camera in a bag as much as possible.

Captured Umbrellas Sculpture

Umbrellas are captured inside this artistic shade structure sculpture.

Besides your camera, it is a good idea to protect yourself. The Black Rock Desert is a very harsh environment and you need to take measures to mitigate the effects of the extremely dry, hot conditions. My approach to the problem was to imitate the Bedouin garb of the Sahara desert. You can see my attire in the image below:

Lee Varis at Burning Man

My garb takes its inspiration from the Sahara desert nomads.

You will notice the cloth head covering, goggles, water bottle, pouch and cup (never go anywhere without a cup – there are numerous opportunities to receive “gifts” of drink, if you have your own cup). Not quite as visible is a leather satchel where I kept the camera when I wasn’t using it. I did lather up with sunscreen at the beginning of the day but I tried to stay covered as much as possible and I did not get sunburned. Most of my compatriots suffered with sunburn at some point during their stay and I think that is another reason its called “Burning Man.”

Finally, a few more recommendations: bring plenty of water and make sure you drink more water than you drink alcohol. Don’t bring too much food, you will not be as hungry as you think. DO NOT bring anything fresh (like salad) it will spoil rapidly. Plan on easy pre-made meals, cooking is a hassle in the extremely dusty environment. Anything that can be heated up in a pouch is a plus. Cut down on the extra packaging of food items; remove bagged items from cardboard packages because everything you bring in you must pack out. You can survive in a tent but have a shade structure to get out of the sun. Life is much easier in an RV! BRING HAND LOTION – your hands will dry out so much that they will crack and hurt to touch anything! Keep an open mind and a relaxed attitude, don’t worry, be happy and be ready to receive gifts.

You might want to check out the previous post where I talk about the experience in a more general way and be sure to check out my photo set on Flickr as well as my 46 minute multimedia movie with narration on YouTube.

Until next year — I’ll see you at Burning Man.

 

7 thoughts on “How to Survive, Thrive and Photograph at Burning Man

  1. Pingback: The Technopod Adventure at Burning Man |

  2. Kengi

    Thank you for posting this. It has really given me awesome advice for my first burn. I have friends who’ve gone for many years and in some ways I feel like I’ve been with them, but this year I’m making my very first trip to the Playa.

    Photography is such a huge part of my life and my community work, so I really want to take my camera with me. However what I’ve read has made me think twice. After reading your post I feel a bit more comfortable to take my camera.

    I would like to ask more questions if that is possible. my email is kengikat@gmail.com

    Reply
    1. LeeVaris Post author

      Its hard to say – there are numerous opportunities to get into the action with a wide lens, but also plenty of expansive long distance vistas that would look great with a telephoto – if you are into doing portraits (and there are plenty of interesting people to shoot), bring the long zoom, because it works well to isolate the subject from massively chaotic backgrounds. If you are more of a street shooter, then the wide zoom will get you more into the scene as it unfolds in from of you – plenty of those to shoot as well.

      Reply
  3. Dixon

    Great article. Can you give more details on your garb (especially the head thing)? I want to wear the exact same thing!

    Reply
    1. LeeVaris Post author

      Basically, its white cotton loose clothing and a white cotton scarf– some of this type of thing is Arabic, purchased in my travels in Dubai, and Bahrain, but I’m pretty sure you could make any kind of Indian (hindustani) garb work as well – look into a local yoga establishment!

      Reply

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