Camera Fail

Do we have time for a personal anecdote before the gates open and Burning Man gets started? You might need a distraction as you’re waiting in line to get in. (Speaking of which, we heard that the wait was three hours long at midnight LAST night, so maybe you might have some time on your hands.) So with your indulgence we shall proceed.

We had an incident last night. It wasn’t a good one. We were out and about, getting a look at the progress of the art pieces on one of the last nights before the crowds arrive.  We were way out at Burn Wall Street when, it pains us to report, our camera died. It’s dead. Kaput. Finito. Done.

The end came suddenly, if not completely unexpectedly. For the photo nerds, we’ll tell you that we still use the Canon 5D Mark I. It has been a trusty, faithful beast, and it is a veteran of five, count them, five, campaigns here in the desert. And they have been  LONG campaigns, when we arrive before there is anything out here and as we watch the city rise from the dust.

In short, the camera doesn’t owe us anything. We got probably more than we could have expected from it. We spent a moderate amount of time protecting it, but that damn alkaline dust, as fine as talcum powder, gets EVERYwhere, even inside the best weather-sealed DSLRs. On top of that, it has been strangely humid here this year. We suspect that the moisture-attracting dust, combined with the ambient wetness (there were raindrops last night) were a deadly combination for our beloved 5D.

So as we wait for a backup to arrive, we move on without it.

(By the way, if you are bringing your expensive gear to Burning Man, and you most definitely should – you did not buy a great camera to leave it home during the one of the most fabulous photo ops you’ll ever experience – you can take many precautions to protect your equipment. You can read some tips and tricks on the Burning Man site here.  You can also read Curious Josh’s excellent and exhaustive advice here.

As we make our way around Burning Man without our ubiquitous photo bag, we’ll be using our camera phone. We love our camera phone. It takes beautiful pictures, and there are hundreds of apps that let you apply an amazing variety of treatments – everything from enhancing a “straight” photo in traditional photographic ways, to the ever-so-popular Instagram retro vintage-y look. True, a treatment is not going to make a mediocre photograph great, but it can turn a boring photo into something more interesting because of the aesthetic choices made along the way.

Of course you’ve noticed how many more people are taking really interesting photos.  We think there has been an incredible and encouraging democratization of photography in recent years, something that got started when digital cameras became affordable and has continued with the mobile photography movement. Instagram and all the other very cool and powerful photo-editing apps have changed the game.

We’re not saying that we necessarily LIKE all the tricked-out photos that can sometimes result. An overcooked photo is an overcooked photo, whether your kitchen is digital or analog. But we do think that more people have the tools necessary to make aesthetic decisions, and that’s not a bad thing.

Still, with more and more people walking around with really good cameras in their pockets, plus the ability to transmit them instantly from the desert (at least until the big crowds arrive and the pipes get choked), some folks have been spooked by it all. It’s unsettling somehow to see  so many photos from Burning Man showing up from the playa in real time on your computer.  One Instagram friend said the other day that she “might not have been ready to see” the picture we had posted of the boat at the end of the Pier.

This has become a familiar complaint: Come on, you’re at Burning Man! You’re supposed to be out of touch, off-com, not reachable for the length of time you are here. But for a lot of the people who have to be here for an extended period (say, four weeks or three months), that’s just not realistic.

Still, seeing instant photos from the playa is a hard thing to get your head around. And because we CAN send instant pictures doesn’t necessarily mean that we SHOULD. The other day Will Chase sent out a blog piece about the Man, and he didn’t include a photo. He did that intentionally, even though he got a little heat from readers for not including one. He wanted people to come and experience the Man for themselves, see it with their own eyes and in their own way.

And that’s fine too. There’s a value to immediacy, of course, of being the first to post pictures of something great and/or important, but we hope that it doesn’t become a contest about who can get the photo first just for the sake of being first. That’ll result in a lot of wasted effort, and some crappy photography, too.

Anyway, we’ll be without our fancy-pants camera for a bit, but we’ll still walk around and have a good time and every now and then we’ll use our iPhone, and we’ll do our best to make it do the things it is capable of doing. We’ve been taking mobile photos all along, and all of the photos that accompany this story were shot with a phone.

We won’t shoot much at night, because that is not the cameraphone’s strength, at least not yet. And flash is pretty much always a disaster on the playa. (Expert tip: override the flash on whatever camera you are using and tell it not to fire; most of the time the flash will just light up the dust particles in the air, and the photo will look like it was taken in a snowstorm. The results won’t be pretty.) (Of course if the dust is NOT blowing and you want to add a little fill light to the ambient exposure, use your  flash, or even your headlamp, to light up your subject. You can put the light where you want it and create some really beautiful and flattering effects. Try it out!)

As for our fallen soldier, the tried and true 5D, we’re considering adding it to the items and tokens left behind to burn at the Temple on Sunday night.

About the author: John Curley

John Curley has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 he spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. John is a longtime newspaper person and spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since leaving the Chronicle in 2007, he was a contributing editor on Blue Planet Run, a book about the world's water crisis, and for the past two years has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He has also started an event and editorial photography business, and is also working on a book about the "Ten Dollar Doc" from Arco, Idaho, which will make a lovely film someday.

6 thoughts on “Camera Fail

  • I agree with Mai Tai on this one.

    Toxicity aside, why immolate something that – along with your impeccable eye – has captured so much beauty and splendor over the course of five burns?

    I recommend building a beautiful shadow box showcasing the camera in addition to the many images taken with it. I’m confident there is room at BMHQ for such a display and would feel inclined to say the camera that has beared witness to so much art is worthy of becoming a piece of art.

    As always, I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts and taking in your spectacular photography!

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  • How did all this start? I am more than fascinated. My grandson is with you, I only wish I were younger so I could share in such a magnificent experience.
    God Bless

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