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In response to an e-mail I received, I put together this little document on Keeping Your Camera Gear Clean at Burning Man, Black Rock City, NV.  The question was in reference to the Canon 5D Mark II but these tips apply to any camera or photographer wishing to capture excellent images with as little stress about gear as possible.  Questions?  Ask below.  Thanks for reading.

The 5D Mark II is awesome in my opinion.  Fantastic gear, worth taking to the playa and worth taking care of.  In 2009, I took my 5D Mark II to Burning Man while my wife took her 5D.  Both performed spectacularly.

Black Rock City, NV

dust dust everywhere ...

Firstly, I tell everyone, do not take anything to the playa that you can not afford to lose or have trashed.  This goes for technical gear as well as camping gear and your vehicle.  Burning Man ruins everything.  That said, I have been 10 out of the last 11 years and haven’t had any horrible issues.  The playa will get into everything, assume that, and take precautions to minimize any damage that may occur.  If you have one camera body and, say, a wedding booked for when you come home from Burning Man, maybe taking a different camera to the playa would be a good idea.  Buy a cheap one instead of risking a couple thousand dollars and jeopardizing your future client shoots.

My Burning Man Photography Style goes something like this..

#1 Pelican Case.  We have one for our laptop and another for our camera gear.  They are the best way to keep the playa out, as long as you keep them closed.  The playa is in the air no matter what, even when you can’t see it.  Whenever we open our cases, we do what we need and close them up fast.  We do this in our RV (or do it in your car if you can).  Tents are more playafied than closed vehicles.  These cases aren’t opened very often because of #2 and #3.

#2 Large Freezer Zip Lock Bags.  Bring a bunch.  Sized to fit your camera with your lens of choice or biggest lens.  You also want to be able to put your hand inside to pull your camera out or work your camera (#4).  Make sure they have a heavy duty zipper (not the cheap ones) and replace throughout the week as they get dirty or ripped.  I keep my camera zipped in a bag all week that is inside of a soft bag.  I do not store my camera in my Pelican Case once on the playa.  Keep it at the ready at all times.

Embracing The Storm

Embracing The Storm

#3 Choose your Lens.  The biggest problem with digital SLRs out there is when you change your lens out.  So I didn’t last year.  I stuck with my 24-105 and didn’t even put on my 70-200 even though I wanted to.  Dust can get into the lens mechanism or into the body if you switch out your lens.  If you do want to switch your lens, do it in the best, closed shelter you can and do it quickly.  I think it is best to use the lens you like the most, and adjust your shooting accordingly.  Long shots to close ups work on everything out there so change your position instead of your lens.  If you want to use different lenses, minimize your swapping.  It is also important to keep your lens clean.  Take a bottle of photographic lens cleaner and an appropriate cleaning cloth or 4.  Clean your lens regularly or you will be sorry in post production.

#4 Shoot Through the Bag.  This can be helpful.  For a couple of days last year I cut a corner out of my ziplock bag and used gaff tape to hold the lens through the hole.  My gallon bags weren’t big enough to work the way I wanted this to but it is worth a try.  Gaff tape is essential for this.  You do end up with a bit of a mess once the bag is compromised (playafied inside) and you need to make a new one.  Worth a try at home to see if you can work your controls.  Again, zip up the back when you aren’t shooting.

#5 Watch Out / Anticipate.  Watch the weather and anticipate your shots.  Dust storm images are amazing.  Find your spot, back to the wind when not shooting, gear in and out of your ziplock and your soft bag quickly.  Dust storms can also hit you unexpectedly so always carry protection and have it close at hand.

Playa Pack

Playa Pack

#6 Have Fun.  Worrying about your gear isn’t going to get you the great shots of Burning Man.  Once you decide to take your gear, assume dust storms all day for a week and go out and shoot no matter what.  The weather changes quickly and waiting at camp for the weather to change won’t have you out there when it does.  Shoot shoot shoot and enjoy.

#7 Backups and Storage.  Back up your cards to an external drive daily.  Keep your backup drive in a pelican case when not in use.  We used our laptop and downloaded cards 3 times over the course of our 10 days on the playa.

#8 Batteries, Cards and Power.  We take an RV so we have onsite electrical for recharging batteries.  Take either enough batteries and cards for the week or have a way to charge batteries and clear cards.  Charging takes time so be sure to charge whenever you are running your generator.  The 5D Mark II takes massive RAW image files.  I had a light shooting year in 2009 and still managed to shoot 40 gigs worth of images.  Don’t plan on doing any editing onsite, it only opens up your gear to the elements.

#9 Clean Your Gear.  I have to admit that I didn’t do this when I got home this year as the 5D Mark II is well sealed against dust and moisture.  The outside of the body may never get clean but the insides are still pristine due to my care and choice of shooting a single lens.  I was able to go right back into my commercial shooting on return.  I do recommend getting your camera cleaned regularly.  It makes good sense.

East Black Rock

East Black Rock

#10 Ask permission.  OK.  So this isn’t exactly about keeping your camera gear clean, but it is the most important rule for photographers at Burning Man.  Respect your subjects.  Over the years I have developed a short hand where I can quickly get acknowledgment to photograph a subject without speaking.  It is in your eyes and body language.  Do not interfere with anyone’s experience when shooting.  Stopping somebody in the middle of what they are doing to ask to photograph them should be avoided at all costs.  Learn to ask quickly with your eyes and respect the response.  If you are at all unsure, don’t take the shot.  There are many more shots out there waiting for you.  If they don’t want you to shoot them, sit and watch for a bit without shooting.  Enjoy what you are seeing and take your mental pictures before you move on.  Again, respect your subjects.

I hope this helps you take beautiful photographs in Black Rock City with as little stress about your gear as possible.

I plan to expand upon this document so please feel free to ask any additional questions below.

Happy Shooting and Best wishes.  -Hovering.

My Burning Man Images can be found by starting here: http://www.hovering.com/burning-man.html

  5 Responses to “Keeping Your Camera Gear Clean at Burning Man”

  1. Another tip: Be careful near large fires. After shooting the Temple burn, I put my DSLR in my bag and joined the crowd circling around the super-hot embers. When I got home, I discovered that the rapid change from cold playa night to hot fire dancing caused condensation to form inside my lens. I can now use the lens for great soft focus shots, but taking a crisp picture with it would require factory repairs.

  2. Excellent tip Stonebeard. The crowd circling the fires is one of the most intense places on the playa in my opinion. I haven’t jumped in there in years. Great silhouette shots can be made by hanging just outside the crowd circle. If you happen to enter the crowd you will get sucked into the center so be very careful.

  3. In regards to #4, shooting through the bag, there are several manufacturers of inclement weather bags. The best one I saw had a clear filter, with the bag sealed to the filter. These usually have an open flap where you can reach through, but the biggest ones I’ve seen let you seal that hole and still use controls. Storm Jacket Camera covers makes a good one that’s cheap, but I’ve seen great disposable ones in my local camera store.

  4. Great tips. Although it makes me a little nervous to take my Canon 500D which is not environment sealed.

  5. Great tips! Thanks. I also have some BM photo tips in my tutorial “How to Take Better Photos at Burning Man (and Beyond!)” on my site here:

    Oh, and of course you can see my Burning Man photos at
    http://www.burnmonkey.com/

    Hope to see you on the playa!

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