Now, I may be lousy when it comes to Burning Man costumes, but I am pretty good at drinking to excess and taking photos that hopefully don't suck. I've been a professional photographer for years now - shooting everywhere from the jungles of Cambodia and Panama to the cobblestone streets of Italy and beyond. For the past three years, I've shot not only photojournalistic images at Burning Man but also a series of lit portraits of people that I find interesting. My series entitled Black Rock Portraits can be found here: http://www.johnmireles.com/#mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=0&p=3&a=0&at=0
One of the great Burning Man pastimes is going out to photograph the madness. Though anyone can come back with images of fantastic people doing odd, crazy, and surreal things, the challenge is to create images that can stand on their own as great photos. A mundane image of a great moment, is still a mundane image. Here's my tips for elevating your work to awesomeness:
- Condom for sex - yes. Condom for your camera - no. Don't worry, my cameras are more expensive than yours - but I don't wrap them up or put them in any protective case or bag while shooting. That just gets in the way of getting the shot. Instead, I'm conscious of dust being kicked up. When a dust cloud comes along, I tuck my camera away in a bag until it blows over. By being conscious of the dust and quickly covering up my camera when a breeze or truck kicks up dust, I've managed to keep my camera gear in good working order.
- Don't use your camera in a whiteout dust storm unless you don't mind it looking like this. (I sent my camera into Canon CPS to clean this mess up - cost me $400.
To say I've been considerably more conscious of the dust ever since is a bit of an understatement.)
- When you head out onto the Playa for photos, stick with one lens to keep dust off the sensor. If you never change lenses, your sensor will stay much cleaner.
- Every night, clean your camera with compressed air and baby wipes. Don't let the dust settle in. Bring special sensor cleaning pads to clean your sensor - nailing it with compressed air can actually damage it if you're not extremely careful. A little squeezable air bulb is better for that.
- Engage your subjects before taking a photo. Especially if I'm in a themed camp or party, I like to become a part of the scene before I start snapping away. I'll drink and talk and dance before I pull my camera out of the bag. Once your subject is comfortable with you, they'll open up and let you get the shots that others are too shy to get.
- Look beyond the loud attention seekers. Often my subjects are surprised that I want to photograph them because they're not the one with the big costume or personality. That's okay though because they often have a more subtle though equally interesting story to tell.
- If your shots aren't good enough, you aren't close enough. I like to get right into the action so that the viewer can feel the energy of the moment.
- Lose the telephoto lens. Telephotos are great for photographing wildlife, but lousy for documenting humanity. I do 95% of my BM work with a 28mm or wider lens. It forces me to get in close if I want the shot.
- Consider your background. As you're planning out your shots or even while you're shooting, always look at what's going on behind your subject. The number one thing that distinguishes a pro's images from those of an amateur is what's happening in the background. Avoid distracting backgrounds or objects that confuse the scene. The cleaner you can your keep the background, the better.
- Play off the background. If you can find elements in either the foreground or background that you can play off of, your photos will be much more dynamic as a result.
- Consider the whole frame. All too often we get excited about expressions or the costume but fail to think about the overall composition of the image. Proper cropping of the subject and the placement of the subject in the image is hugely important to creating strong imagery. Anybody can take a snapshot. Moving beyond that means looking at everything even as you're caught up in the moment.
- Follow the light. Great moments are accentuated by great light. Yes sunset and sunrise are the golden hour - and a great time to be photographing out on the Playa, but there's also open shade and soft light from shade structures all day long. Use good light wherever you find it.
- Shoot wide open. When you use fast aperture lenses - f 2.8 and greater, it's easier to throw the background out of focus. That kit lens that came with your camera is most likely f 3.5 to f 5.6. If you're all the way zoomed in, everything is going to be in focus unless your subject is really close. My suggestion is to toss the kit lens and get a fixed focal length lens. They're cheaper and usually sharper than zooms - most importantly, they're faster too. Life at f2.8 is good indeed!
- Use Aperture Priority mode. If you know little about shooting your camera, select this mode and then select the widest aperture you have on your camera. The smaller the number (f3.5 verses f22), the larger the aperture. Using a larger aperture means your backgrounds will be a little softer and your subject more isolated.
- Tell the whole story. Get in tight, but also pull away and get the wide shot. Yes, the characters are interesting but what about their position in the overall scene? Photograph the view, then turn around and photograph the people photographing the view. Great photographers excel at telling the complete story of their journey.
- Lose the flash. Unless you really know what you're doing, fill-flash photography isn't that interesting. Instead learn to work with ambient light. It can be trickier, but the results are worth it.
- Shoot more than one photo. I like to keep working the scene from a variety of angles until I know I've got what I want. Most people snap one or two and then call it a day. Often great shots are born of milking the moment til it unfolds itself right into your lap. However, I don't shoot randomly and hope for the best. I'm often working the scene until I get that perfect expression or moment that's going to make my shot.
- "The negative is the score, the print is the performance." - Ansel Adams. You may have captured some great moments, but to make your images truly sing, you'll need some good post-processing to go along with. I personally love Lightroom but other programs will work too. The key is to take the raw look of your image and enhance it so that it communicates the feeling you have in your head. Beware over processing! It's too easy to go too far. Avoid the cheesy stuff or the popular Photoshop enhancement filter of the moment.
Great shooting on the Playa! If you have your own tips, suggestions or hard-earned lessons, please share them.
I do what I want, but I don't do what I should.