Photography at Burning Man

by Philip Greenspun, September 2014; updated October 2015

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"Cities are the most interesting things that humans build," said Julie Melton. Permanent cities are heavily constrained, however, by practical considerations. Buildings need to be inexpensive and durable. Property is expensive and only the rich can have a lot of it in central areas. At Burning Man, on the other hand, about 70,000 people come together and build a temporary city in the desert. People and groups without money can occupy a large amount of prime real estate. Because it is all temporary, the aesthetics of whatever is built can be decoupled from the traditional goal of durability. Freed from traditional constraints, therefore, "Black Rock City" becomes an explosion of creativity. (See the Wikipedia page and the official site for more background.)

My Photos


In the Nevada desert, roughly three hours northeast of Reno by road (a 7-hour drive without traffic from Palo Alto, California). See Google Maps. The field elevation of the temporary airport (88NV) set up next to the city is 3904' above sea level. Confusingly, the rest of the Black Rock Playa is characterized on the Burning Man site as being 3848' above sea level.

See "Burning Man for Turboprop Pilots" for my tips on flying yourself into the event.


Burning Man happens at the end of August and into the beginning of September, lasting a little over a week though some people arrive an additional week in advance to set up more elaborate art cars and camps. Due to the location and season, daytime high temperatures can be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit cooling down rapidly to 50 or 60 degrees at night.


A lot of the things that you might find in a regular city, plus (1) a lot of vehicles designed for form rather than function, and (2) a lot more dance clubs per square mile and longer hours for each club. For this article, I specifically went to look for how people ("burners") were using photography in their art and in their lives at Black Rock City. This quest divides into looking at two parts: (1) photographs at Burning Man, (2) photography at Burning Man.


Given that the only way to get maximum value out of a trip to Burning Man is to stay up and dance past dawn one would think that it would be mostly folks in their 20s, but in fact the demographic is mostly 30-50. (See "Burning Man Demographics" for more details.)

The logistical challenges of getting to Burning Man and setting up camp mean that it is disproportionately people from the San Francisco Bay area, the nearest megalopolis.

Photographs at Burning Man

Art at Burning Man is primarily sculpture. People sculpt the outside of bicycles, golf carts, cars, buses, and trucks. People sculpt the outside of the buildings that serve as shelter in their camps. People build sculpture for sculpture's sake (and then often burn it at the end).

The most critical use of photography at Burning Man 2014 was for the Temple of Grace: "The Temple of Grace is intended to be a spiritual and sacred space for memorials, reflection, celebration, and to commemorate life transitions. It is the latest in a long line of temples going back to 2000, which started the tradition of the temple built as a spiritual center for this art festival. It is a special work of art given to the community, and is a spiritual refuge where thousands gather, each to engage with it in his or her own way. The community comes to write their memorials and place tokens of their transitions, and it is burned at the end of the festival in a tradition of releasing them by the immolation of the temple."

The temple was approximately 80x80' in footprint and 70' high, featuring intricately cut wooden panels. People primarily used the temple to remember loved ones who had died and photography was absolutely critical to these personal memorials.

See my 2014 photographs of the temple and the photography-rich memorials within.

Burners also sometimes used photography in their camps, e.g., at a fake Black Rock City Museum of Transportation History.

Given the importance of after-sunset displays of art, a backlit display of transparencies would have worked well, but I didn't see anyone using those.

Photography at Burning Man: Legalities and Etiquette

Taking pictures at Burning Man is discouraged to some extent on the organization's web site and via restrictions on the back of each ticket. From the web site:
Q. What is the policy on taking pictures?
A. All individuals wishing to shoot still or motion pictures at Burning Man and distribute that imagery publicly, regardless of commercial intent, are required to have their projects reviewed and approved prior to coming to Black Rock City, sign a professional use contract in accordance with Burning Man.s media policies, and have their cameras tagged at Media Mecca, Burning Man.s on site press room. These steps are designed to protect the privacy of participants and artists alike. If you are considering filming or videotaping for professional purposes, or if you wish to share your images beyond friends and family, regardless of your intent to make money from your images, you MUST have a commercial agreement on file with the Media Team prior to your arrival onsite. Commercial use of images taken at Burning Man without permission is subject to cunning legal action. This includes amateurs and professionals who capture images

I ended up getting a media badge for my cameras but there really isn't anyone to check these and I saw a lot of people using heavy-duty digital single-lens reflex camera systems with no badges. Perhaps if they had published a web site devoted to drug use and nudity at Burning Man they would have found themselves asked to take down the images but generally speaking the organization does not seem to have the energy to pursue everyone with a mobile phone who pushes a video up to YouTube or a photograph to Flickr. Certainly the use of smartphone cameras was universal at Burning Man, though the lack of mobile data or other Internet coverage means that people are not Facebooking in real time.

As far as on-the-ground etiquette is concerned, all that you really have to do is remember that Black Rock City is a city like any other. There are some public spaces and events where people generally expect photos to be taken and there are private spaces, such as camps, and events, such as meals, where people don't expect photos to be taken. Before taking an individual portrait, if you would ask permission first in New York or Los Angeles then you would also ask permission in Black Rock City.

Have you reached the age that this doesn't sound like much fun? If so, this article is for you.

Photography at Burning Man: Specific Facilities

People do build photo booths and portrait studios. In 2014 there was a semi-official photo studio set up for yearbook-style photos, for example. On the playa an artist had created a "Black Rock City Barbie" photo booth.

Photography at Burning Man: Practicalities

For daytime photography at Burning Man the main challenge is the high contrast from bright sunlight and shadows created by burner-built structures. As of 2014, Sony sensors are best at handling this challenge due to the increased dynamic range compared to sensors, e.g., from Canon. You can find Sony sensors inside cameras such as the Sony mirrorless products, Sony RX100, and Nikon Digital SLRs. The daytime images linked from this article were taken primarily with a Sony a6000 mirrorless camera (APS-C-sized sensor) and the kit zoom lens.

For nighttime photography at Burning, as elsewhere, the challenge is that it is dark, except those portions of the frame that include a flame or a light bulb, which are very bright. Generally the larger the sensor the better the low-light performance, which means that a full-frame digital SLR is a good starting point. To avoid being forced to use a tripod or a very high ISO, which results in a lot of noise (like grain in the bad old film days), mount a large-aperture prime lens to the digital SLR. Examples of such a lens include a 50/1.8, a 50/1.4, a 35/1.4, or an 85/1.8 (for portraits). I used a Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM lens, which objective tests show to be one of the best lenses of this type ever designed and a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (an expensive camera that is sadly, for those of us with big Canon lens collections, hopelessly outclassed by the current crop of Nikon and Sony bodies).

Make sure to bring a sensor cleaning kit in case the playa dust gets on your sensor. What about charging? Bring a couple of spare batteries and make friends with the nearest generator-equipped RV-dweller.

You can try to protect your camera and lens against the blowing dust by using various capes and hoods. I think it is more practical to (1) limit lens changes to indoor locations, such as the interior of an RV, and (2) expect that you may have to send the gear off for a professional cleaning afterwards. Cameras are tools and photojournalism means that the tools will suffer some wear. A newspaper photographer's Nikon or Canon system will generally have a beat-up appearance. Note that conventional professional DSLRs, such as Nikon and Canon bodies costing $2000+, are very well sealed against dust and rain. High-end lenses, such as the Canon L series, also typically have rubber dust-and-water seals.

I didn't have any problems at all with my Canon/Sigma system. The Sony periodically suffered from dust on the sensor that I was able to clean off with a blower while inside an RV.

Burning Man for Kids

Unlike the Glastonbury Festival, there is not an officially-sponsored set of kid-oriented activities. There is a "Kidville" where people who are interested in doing stuff for children camp and gather. However, it turns out that relying strictly on volunteerism is not sufficient. Adults will provide all-night raves for themselves but not nearly enough for children to do for a week.

I think a reasonable way for a rich person to show a child Burning Man would be to fly into the airport just after sunrise on one day, pick up pre-arranged rental bikes, poke around the camps and the playa, show the child the performances and art cars that roam the playa at night, try to sleep for a few hours, then get up at sunrise to see a little more sightseeing before departing from the airport at noon so as to avoid the heat of the afternoon. A child would get a good feel for the spectacle without being bored out of his or her wits by driving three hours from Reno, waiting in line for hours to get in, waiting in line for hours to get out, etc.

See: the 2014 photos and some of the 2015 photos.

The Philosophy of Burning Man

I attended a press conference given by the founder of Burning Man, Larry Harvey, and the current manager of the organization, Harley Dubois. Harvey gave remarkably thoughtful questions to some remarkably thoughtless questions. For example, when a journalist asked what Burning Man would be like in 20 or 30 years Harvey responded that "Executives in corporations crave plans because having a plan gives them a feeling that things are under control. We are more open to discovery. Great art is full of the unknown. We intend to leave space for the unknown."

Asked to explain the "ten principles," Harvey said that the "spirit of gifting is the most significant part of Burning Man." Certainly the character of the gathering is completely different from Glastonbury, in which everything is for sale. Harvey said that his inspiration as a family picnic: "If a family is reasonably functional the members don't sell things to one another. That's certainly true for a parent, who is always giving things to a child." (My trip to Burning Man came right in the middle of a project in which I was part of a team interviewing divorce litigators in 50 U.S. states. Harvey's comments dovetailed with what the litigators had said about how making a profit from child support. According to their lawyers, successful child support plaintiffs over time behaved less and less like ordinary parents.)

What are the Ten Principles?

  1. radical inclusion
  2. gifting
  3. decommodification
  4. radical self-reliance
  5. radical self-expression
  6. communal effort
  7. civic responsibility
  8. leaving no trace
  9. participation
  10. immediacy
The principles that seem to be the most tested right now are radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, and participation. The "true burners" who spend their evenings and weekends for an entire year preparing for the event are wondering why they have to include the "rich douchebags" who drop in via chartered turboprop to the airport, bike to a pre-prepared camp, and consume rather than participate.

Youth versus Age at Burning Man

A camp of young Bay Area folks invited me to a dinner party and genie-theme show, which by itself shows that there isn't too much age stratification at Burning Man. The costumed genie asked us to write down our dreams and all of us scribbled simultaneously. The 25-year-old Australian woman next to me wrote "each person finds his or her divine truth." A 32-year-old from Santa Cruz wanted "eternal happiness [for herself]", prompting me to ask if that wouldn't also require that the genie grant her immortality. She did not understand the question. How about the dream of the 51-year-old? I wrote "My kids to be happy and for them to be happy to spend time with me."

More: some of the special lingo that Burners use.

Are Rich Douchebags Ruining Burning Man?

An article in the Black Rock City newspaper for 2014 was titled "Are Rich Douchebags Ruining Burning Man?" My answer is "No; they're diluting it, but no worse than a lot of non-rich burners." The burners who make Burning Man great are those who invest time and energy for weekends and evenings over 6-12 months leading up to the event. They design art cars, plan a theme camp, sew creative costumes, arrange music. Thanks to their energy, a lot of folks show up to Black Rock City essentially as tourists. Some of those tourists drive a boring car, pitch a boring tent, and walk around in boring clothing. They dilute the event in the sense that you won't be delighted or inspired looking at their car, tent, or appearance. Somewhat richer tourists, or those more insistent on creature comforts, drive a boring RV to Burning Man. The rich douchebags that inspire so much envy have others bring in RVs and travel trailers, set them up with infinite water and electricity, and cater to their every personal whim while there.

Around the corner from our camp was Caravansicle, a camp in which each bedroom was a cube made of sturdy 4x4 posts. The camper was cocooned in a canvas room within the cube, resting on hotel-grade mattress and linens while cooled by a portable air conditioner. They had a dining room with an organic menu, a geodesic bar with a snacks menu, and standard sectional sofas strewn about for conversation. (Due to the prevailing dust it was hard to imagine that these sofas could be used for any other purpose.) Caravansicle also built a public stage and dance area. My companion casually referred to Caravansicle as "Camp Super-Douche". Were we envious of their lifestyle? Yes. Were they excluding the rabble? No. Anyone could walk into their camp, sit down in the bar, get a drink, and stay as long as he or she liked. They didn't seem likely to invite us to stay for dinner but we wouldn't call a neighbor who invited us onto his porch but not into the dining room unfriendly. And the Caravansicle folks ran the public stage for all to enjoy.

We did see a few camps where big trailers were circled to the point that one couldn't see in. They provided nothing to burners who weren't staying in their camp. They did degrade Burning Man by diluting it. For whatever time you spent walking or biking next to their camp your visual system would be bored.

Can Burning Man Make Us Feeling Better About the World?

Burning Man proves that the world is in reasonable shape. There are at least 70,000 people who can afford to take more than a week off from work and travel to the middle of the desert. About a third of those 70,000 can afford to spend substantial time and energy preparing for the event.

Making Money at Burning Man

The person who made the most money by attending Burning Man is plainly Eric Schmidt. Sergei Brin, the co-founder of Google, said that Schmidt was hired because "He was the only candidate who had been to Burning Man." ("In Searching the Web, Google Finds Riches," New York Times, April 13, 2003) Schmidt made close to $10 billion during his time at Google.

There are a variety of people who somehow get "vendor passes" and make money either by supplying the festival itself with outhouses, ice, or fresh water, or by being there to cater to folks who rent RVs or are staying in luxury camps.

How about the cash value of a pregnancy that was established at Burning Man? The divorce litigators that I interviewed (for a different project) before and after the event Burning Man agreed that the home states of the father and mother were critical. "The mom needs to get out from under Nevada jurisdiction," one lawyer noted, "because child support there is capped at about $13,000 per year." (i.e., only $4,000 per year more than the USDA-estimated actual cost of a child) Small differences in geography would lead to large differences in profits. A high-income father from Superior, Wisconsin would yield 17 percent of his gross income, e.g., a tax-free $85,000 per year if he were a $500,000-per-year medical specialist. Had that father chosen to reside 1.5 miles across the bridge into Duluth, Minnesota, child support would be capped at $24,000 per year. Over 18 years, this is the difference between collecting $1.53 million and $432,000.

Was there no way to earn a profit from a Burning Man pregnancy if the father lived most of the year in a state with capped child support? "Where there is a will there is a way," said a lawyer. "The mother would have to move to a state with unlimited child support, such as California or Massachusetts, give birth in that state, and then use the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act's factors for obtaining jurisdiction over the father." Here are the factors:

  1. the responding party was personally served within this State;
  2. the responding party knowingly and voluntarily submitted to the jurisdiction of this State;
  3. the responding party has previously resided with the child in this State, during the period ...;
  4. the responding party previously resided in this State and provided prenatal expenses or support for the child;
  5. the child at issue resides in this State as a result of the responding party's actions: ...;
  6. the responding party engaged in sexual intercourse in this State during the period ... and the child may have been conceived by that act of intercourse;
  7. the responding party asserted paternity in the putative father registry filed with the appropriate agency in this State; or
  8. any other reason for the State's exercise of personal jurisdiction.
According to the litigators, factors 1 and 8 would be most relevant for a post-Burning Man child support lawsuit. For factor 1, the mother would wait in California or Massachusetts until the father showed up for a conference or business meeting and have the father served. As these states have no statute of limitations on establishing paternity and collecting back child support, the mother would receive full payment back to the child's birth. Factor 8 might work simply because a judge could decide that it made sense for the child support lawsuit to be heard in the state where the child was born and lives.

How does it work with non-U.S. citizens? Massachusetts litigator Jerry Nissenbaum explained how it can work when a foreigner is visiting Massachusetts: "She'll go back [to her home country]; stay a year or so to bond with the child and not let dad bond (she doesn't want to get stuck here); come back with baby, file complaint; get a $40,000 per year order [top of the Massachusetts guidelines but courts can and do award much more, all of which is tax-free to the recipient] and then the Massachusetts Department of Revenue will collect and send it to her US-based bank account that she can use with a debit card at home, or wherever she is in the world." The same approach should work if the foreigner visits Burning Man and gets pregnant as a result of a one-night encounter with a man from Massachusetts. If the father happened to be from some other state, the foreign mother would simply use the courts and agencies of that other state (but, as noted above, Nevada and other states where child support is capped would limit the profits).

Some litigators pointed out that a quicker option might be to sell an abortion. The typical rate for an abortion Massachusetts, for example, is about $250,000 (see the "Women in Science" article for more on how this works).

The most obvious way to make money at Burning Man is by selling tickets... to Burning Man. But in 2014 the founders converted their LLC into a non-profit organization and won't be able to take out millions of dollars in profits for themselves.

You can take the burner out of the desert; can you take the desert out of the burner?

A friend who returned from her first Burning Man in 2014 to teach at Harvard asked me "How do you apply the spirit of Burning Man to everyday life now?" My response was that I had always tried to have at least part of my life be a "gift economy." Instead of trying to make at least a few dollars from each thing that I did, I gave away most stuff, e.g., software that I'd already built, readership of my books, articles, and photos or use of my Web server, while charging for the stuff that took a lot of effort and could bring in real money, such as software that someone was asking me to build.

She responded that for her Burning Man reminded her to stop spending such a large percentage of her life doing things out of obligation. "I need to take time to create," she said. Being in the environment of Burning Man makes one more likely to say "I am going to take a substantial amount of time off for self-expression."

"Would you go back?"

The most common question for people with whom I have discussed Burning Man is "Would you go back?" I wouldn't go back as a tourist. I would go back to join a group of 10 or 20 friends in a camp. I would go back to show Burning Man to friends or family. I would go back to operate something for the community within Black Rock City.

See this September 2015 weblog posting about attitudes toward marriage and children, conversations that I wouldn't have had without being part of a camp.

Boring RV Rental Logistics

Whether you're going as a tourist to Black Rock City or joining a camp, an RV is certainly the comfortable way to spend a week in the desert. Feeling hot in the mid-afternoon? Turn on the generator and the A/C. If you filled up the tank at the gas station in Gerlach you'll be able to run the generator for all of the hot daylight hours. If your RV rental does not include bikes, you can get much better quality ones anyway from the Play Bike Repair theme camp (they'll fix your bike for free if you bring your own).

The biggest RV rental outfits have a big footprint at Burning Man. We saw a ton of El Monte RVs and they will pre-position the RV at Burning Man, fully stocked with food and bicycles. You could therefore skip all of the lines to get in and out of Burning Man by taking the Burner Express bus from Reno or San Francisco or by flying into the Burning Man airport.

We rented someone else's 31' Class C RV from, a sort of AirBnB for RVs. They drove it from California to the Grand Sierra Resort casino's campground right next to the Reno airport. They waited for a delivery order from Safeway that we had placed and put everything inside the RV or the fridge as appropriate. They had guys inside Burning Man ready to fix problems, e.g., when we had six failures on four of the bikes that they included with our rental they were there to swap them out (unfortunately, unlike the Playa Bike Repair folks, they didn't have any bikes sized to fit someone 6' tall (my height)), or when our CO detector was sounding any time that we turned on the generator (it had expired years earlier, according to the prominent label on the exterior). The quirkiest thing about doing business with is that they maintain that the driver they select hire and supervise actually works for the renter and the renter is responsible for any accidents that he gets into. We returned our RV without any damage in Reno. The folks later told us that the driver they'd hired, who technically worked for us, had some sort of accident on the way back to the Los Angeles area. Therefore we would be responsible for up to $2500 in damage, after which insurance would kick in. Eventually they agreed to waive this additional fee and accept the $8000 or so that we'd paid as full payment.

Whatever you do it won't be cheap. All of the RV companies charge higher rates during Burning Man and we didn't hear of anyone who spent less than $6000. If you live in the Reno area this would definitely be a good lifestyle business. An RV that is worth about $20,000 can easily be rented for $6000 per week during Burning Man.

The camps arrange for fresh water delivery and gray water pump-out every day or two. You can do that too but it must be done in advance. Four of us managed to take very quick showers every other day in an RV with about an 80-gallon fresh water tank. The limiting factor was gray water capacity as we had not arranged a pump-out.

If you don't desperately need afternoon air conditioning you can save yourself a lot of money, and still get regular showers, by just joining a camp (typical fees for a camp being hundreds of dollars per person, as opposed to the thousands that an RV will cost).