A tale of Burning Man dust and light

I pulled my bike up to the rack at Center Camp, poking its front wheel into the wooden slats that would hold it there. On the other side of the rack was a man taking his bike out of the rack.

He said, “I can’t believe you let your camera get dirty like that.”

He was referring to my Canon EOS R camera with its 16-35 mm lens, hanging from my neck.

This is my Canon EOS R mirrorless camera after 11 days in the Nevada desert. It is very dusty on the outside. It worked perfectly during the event, and I am unaware of any dust getting into the camera. I certainly can’t see it in my photos.

“I have a mirrorless, and I have it in a water-tight bag,” he said, gesturing to the bag on the back of his bike.

“This is a mirrorless.” I said, as I removed the camera from my neck and held it in my hands, “I find it’s important to have the camera available so that I can take photos when I see them.”

He responded to my foolishness by tisking. I wished him a good evening. I went out to shoot a huge animated steel sculpture of Pegasus, the legendary winged horse.

A lovely Fire-Dancer performs on Saturday night at Burning Man. Later, the Man was burned in a huge fire-and-fireworks extravaganza. It was very photogenic.

This was my fourth Burning Man, the first for my EOS R. In the past I have taken two 5D Mark III cameras and a variety of lenses. I tend to carry only three when I go out onto the Playa, the huge dry lake bed that is the site of all of art projects, and the place where hundreds of “mutant vehicles” slowly meander around. This year I used the R, and had the 5D in my camper as a back-up in case the R failed in some way. I never got the 5D out.

In addition to the camera and lenses, which I carry in drawstring bags in the panier bag on my bike, I carry a Really Right Stuff carbon-fiber tripod. That’s an important accessory for me because I go out every day at daybreak, and I also go out at night to photograph the various pyrotastic events that mark the evenings at Burning Man. I was shooting a lot of high-ISO photos this year, and getting great results.

The Man is surrounded by fireworks just before the fire was ignited. Fireworks photography is fun because the extremes are present: too much light and too little light at the same time. Longer shutter speeds allow the trails of the fireworks to be recorded, making more interesting images.

My belief is that the camera can get dusty on the outside without affecting its performance on the inside. The better (more expensive) Canons all have rubber seals on their buttons and mounts, and they are designed to be “water-tight” in the field. Water-tight is tantamount to dust-tight in my mind. So I just carry the camera and shoot like crazy. I worry about cleaning the camera when I get back to civilization. Sometimes I give it a wash-down in the middle of the week, taking a wet washcloth and wiping the dust off the camera’s exterior. This works fine.

While I am out shooting, I check to be sure my lenses are clean, and I carry a lens cleaning cloth in case they are not. Playa dust is so fine it’s like talcum powder. It comes off of lenses easily, but it sticks to everything else. My shoes gradually turned from black to light gray during the week. It took three washes to get them back to black.

At sunrise, a young man takes in the morning light on top of a metal sculpture.

I shot several thousand photos during the week, concentrating on sunrise and sunset shots. There were times I gave myself an assignment: bicycles, or silhouettes, or light over the mountains to the west. Morning and evening shots are always best since those are the times when there is the least wind and dust. One evening, about 45 minutes after sunset I was out on the “Deep Playa” – a couple of miles by bicycle out on the lakebed – and I stopped to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the light in the western sky. “This is divine!” I said out loud. It was, and I stood there amazed for a few minutes while I shot a 20-shot panorama of the yellow-gold sky silhouetted by the mountains.

This is my nighttime panorama of the mountains to the west of the Burning Man event.
It was a marvelous evening – still, quiet and gorgeous.

I often read with amusement about Burning Man in national publications, and I think: “obviously this person has never been there.” The New York Times featured a story this week about a Nobel prize-winning economist who visited the Playa during the layout and surveying of the streets. It was a good article that covered the ideas of how cities can grow, and how people interact within them. The article was marred, though, by two references to “orgies” in the desert.

I know that there is an “orgy-dome” at Burning Man. I have never seen it. I don’t care.

I also know that there is a camp where coffee drinks are made all day, and another where Yoga is taught. There are two orchestras and a choir at Burning Man. There is a half-marathon held each year on the Playa. There are easily a dozen bike repair camps there. These are but a few of the hundreds of camps in the Black Rock City during the week of Burning Man. It’s a shame that the author resorted to the tawdry orgy reference when there is so much more going on at Burning Man than that. How about this? Burning Man is very likely the city (75,000 people) where the greatest percentage of the population ride bikes in the entire world (nearly 100%). Even Amsterdam can’t make that claim.

Looking down six o’clock toward the Man with a 400mm lens in a dust storm made for interesting photography one evening. The main avenues are illuminated by kerosene lanterns that are hung each evening by a team of marching Lamp-lighters.

For a photographer, there is nothing quite like Burning Man. It is the palette coming to the brush for me. One has to just be there to see the wonderful sights and sites of the annual event. It’s truly extraordinary. And truly dusty. But one must be there to get the shot. That’s why I go.

One of the many Mutant Vehicles on the Playa at sunrise.

And, when I come home, I clean my cameras and go back to shooting photos of classical music concerts – of violas and bassoons making wonderful music. And, I often say (to myself, of course) “This is divine!”

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is a Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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