I've had a bunch of people over the years ask me about caring for your camera on the playa, so I figured it was time to do a write up of my suggestions. If you've been before, you know how invasive that dust is. It's fine particles get in everything if you let it. Even your best attempts will fail to a degree but you can minimize it to a large extent. I've tried some different things out there and have had pretty good results. I've gotten stuff dusty, but never had any major damage (knock on wood). I've only used DSLR's on playa, so this will be mainly focused on that aspect. Here are some tips to help keep the camera working while you're out there.
Point and Shoot Cameras/Smartphones
- keep it in a ziplock bag (double bagging is best!)
- unless you are using it, keep it in the bag(s)
- bring a few microfiber cloths to wipe excess dust off before putting it back in the bag(s)
- NEVER shoot with it in a dust storm! These cameras do not have the sealing that professional cameras do. You run a very high risk of destroying your camera. Typically the lens will get jammed and the sensor will be covered in dust. Both are bad things. You'll spend more money fixing it than it probably cost to buy it.
- bring your charger or a spare battery
- upload the photos you already have on the memory card to your computer and then format the memory card. If something happens, you won't lose those previous memories.
- the first photos you take should be of yourself with a sheet of paper. On that paper, write down your name, camp name and location. If you lose your camera, someone will have a much better chance of returning it to you on the playa.
- bring extra memory cards & batteries. There is so much to shoot out there. Don't spend your time deleting bad photos to make room on your card. You'll be missing out on more photo opportunities.
- DO NOT shoot in a dust storm! I know, the lighting is amazing. But you're asking for trouble keeping it out during those conditions. I got blind sided by one last year shooting the temple at sunset and I put my camera away immediately. The camera survived. I've heard horror stories of people having to pay upwards of $600 to get their camera cleaned by Canon's service center. That service is normally $50 so you can imagine how bad that bad it can get. That one shot is not worth it.
- put a UV filter on every lens you plan to use. Even a professional lens needs this to properly seal it from the elements
- keep it in the bag unless you're shooting. I prefer a bag that zips closed to help cut down the dust that gets in there.
-seriously, keep it in the bag! I've seen way too many cameras out there being carried around on a bike by just a camera strap. They're usually caked in dust. I can only imagine how the camera performed after that.
- use two sealed ziploc bags to store everything you're not using in your camera bag. It really helps keep the dust out. Chances are you may not use everything you brought with, so it can also save some cleaning time afterwards.
-gaffer's tape is your BFF. Tape that lens to the camera body. This will give you a good barrier of protection. I also use it to tape over every crack on the camera body. Memory card door, battery door, battery grip, etc.
-keep that lens on the entire week if you can. Not everyone has multiple camera bodies, so this can be tough. Pick your favorite lens for what you primarily think you'll shoot and put that lens on before you hit the playa.
-if you have to change lenses, try to do it in the most dust free rv you can find. If you don't have one in your camp, make a new friend or neighbor in the city. Most people will not turn you down. While you're there making new friends, offer to take a portrait and send it to them after the burn.
- if you do change lenses, always keep the camera body pointed down. Gravity settles the dust. Don't give it a better chance to get into the camera body.
- buy a lens brush dedicated for only cleaning the outside of the camera body. This will remove the bulk of the dust. Use if often to help it from accumalting.
- cans of compressed air can help clean dust off but can also make problems worse. I recommend not using them at a close distance or trying to blow dust out of the body/lens seal. You're only going to push it farther in there if you do so.
- plastic rain sleeves are another way to minimize dust on the actual camera. If you'll need to tape the front of it to the side of the lens body. Some people prefer this but I'm torn on this technique. I don't like the idea of something that can trap humidity in close to the camera and lens. If you're taking the other precautions, you shouldn't really need to do this.
- keep your camera safe! There's no faster way to ruin your week than to have your camera wander off out of camp. It might be a city full of amazing individuals with big hearts, but things happen. It hasn't happened to me with my camera, but I've had some things wander off at other festivals. Its rarely with bad intentions, but things just happen. People take the wrong bag after visiting your camp, they're in an altered state, etc. Keep you camera bag in the trunk of your car or in a closet in your rv. If you have to keep it in your tent, get a luggage lock for the zipper.
-Apple Juice (brand name) cleaner. I love this stuff and I will wipe down my camera at the end of every day to help the dust from accumulating. It's all natural and not full of nasty chemicals. The bonus is that it also smells like apples.
Post Playa Camera Care
-download those cards immediately
-clean that camera as soon as you can. In addition to the Apple Juice cleaner I use, I will also take a microfiber towel with some Windex Multisurface Cleaner w/ Vinegar to wipe down the camera. The vinegar neutralizes the alkali playa dust.
- take it for a professional cleaning asap
I do want to offer one last piece of advice. And this may be the most important one of all. Step outside your comfort zone and shoot the opportunities in front of you. This week is all about opportunities. If you see the chance to gift someone some photos to help remember their burn, ask them if you can capture it for them. They will never forget it and you won't either. And it may even open up some doors for yo. My first year on the playa, I offered to shoot a wedding ceremony of some camp mates I had met two days prior. That experience helped me land one of my biggest corporate clients to date and really marked the beginning of my career in photography. Goes to show why this can be such a magical place.
I hope these tips help you guys in your quest to capture the magic that is Black Rock City. If you have any questions, feel free to comment on here and I'll do my best to answer them for you.