Burning Man Portrait Report with a Sony NEX-6 by Jordan Blackman

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Burning Man Portrait Report

by Jordan Blackman – His website is HERE

I was riding shotgun in a pickup truck for twelve hours, biting my nails as we lumbered across the American West. Between the bed of the truck and the U-Haul trailer hitched up to it, there was easily a two bedroom apartment’s worth of stuff with us. But we weren’t headed to an apartment. We were going deep into the dust of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

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Now, you’ve probably heard about Burning Man, and maybe you’ve even been. But I never had, and I was anxious about going. I’d heard stories about dangerous dust storms, outrageous orgies, deviant witchcraft and more. Obviously, I’d need to bring a camera and the biggest memory card I could get my hands on.

Unfortunately, my OM-D EM5 had just been stolen. I had shot with that little Olympus for over a year, and paired with the Panny 20mm it really knocked my socks off. I love that camera. But still, I decided I’d try something different. After an obscene amount of internet “research” I picked up a Sony NEX-6. I liked the video quality and price, and I felt that it would be fun and educational to work a new sensor size. Burning Man was going to be my first chance to really use the Sony and I really wasn’t sure what to expect… from the event or from the camera.

Now, one of the big differences between the two cameras is the weather sealing. OMD has it, NEX doesn’t. Burning Man is famously dusty, and so I rigged a plastic bag to keep out those tiny sensor demons. It worked really well, especially with the EFV exposed, as you can see from the pic. The downside was that I was committed to a single lens for the entire week. I chose the Sony SEL35f18.

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Upon arrival at Black Rock City, the name of the temporary town erected in the desert each year for Burning man, I was completely overwhelmed. The expanse of light and art, the creativity on display, the diversity of color and costume… it was more than I could take in. Burning Man defeats one’s power’s of perception, let alone observation. I quickly decided to focus on portraiture for the following reasons:

1. It would keep me focused, preventing overwhelm.

2. It seemed a reasonable task for the 50mm equivalent lens I had.

3. Portraits could be gifts, and gifts are an important part of Burning Man culture.

4. Everyone else would be shooting the giant art installations anyway, and who needs another picture of the man burning?

And so, every day I walked across the dust and invited strangers to have their portraits taken. Here are some of those photos. Below the pictures, I’ll share some thoughts about the NEX-6, some 2000 captures later.

So, what did I think about the NEX-6 compared to the OM-D? They are both great cameras, and I recommend them both. With the NEX-6, when you nail the shot, you get an amazing RAW file, better than the OMD’s. But, it’s harder to nail the shot and then it takes more adjustments to get the image you want from the RAW. With the OMD I had more keepers and less work to do in Lightroom. I think the keepers come from the stabilization and the better focus system. The NEX-6 forces me to slow down and think more both during exposure and development phases. I consider this a good thing for my growth as a photographer. And when you take the time you get some remarkable results.

If you shoot video, the NEX-6 can produce absolutely stunning footage, albeit without the OMD’s excellent stabilization. I consider 60fps a must for video since the conformed footage looks so great at 24fps. If the community is interested I am happy to write up a long comparison with the pros of each as there is much more to be said on this. The short version is, I’m planning to stick shooting with the NEX-6 until a camera arrives with 5-axis stabilization and the video features I want.

As for Burning Man, I’m no longer nervous. I’ll be heading back whenever I have the chance. My overwhelmed feeling has turned to gratefulness. My anxiety into anticipation. I hope to continue my portrait project for many years to come.

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92 Comments

  1. Hi
    Thanks for sharing your amazing photos
    Mmm just wondering how to create images look like the first picture of yathe 2 girls
    I like the color so much
    Is there plug for light room can give the pictures this looks

    Thank you

  2. I really like a lot of the pics! Some of them are outstanding and blow me away. However, as someone else mentioned, they do seem to lack consistancy. There are a few where the shadows are pulled up too much, and they are bordering on the cheesy side of hdr. For instance, the couple sleeping on the ground pic, and the picture of the guy’s back with orange and black.
    Overall though, great shots.

    • Good feedback thanks. Both the photos you mentioned used Sony’s built in HDR features. Since I was exploring the camera I wanted to share the results. I probably should have been clearer about that in the article. I don’t find the results cheesy, but I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Cheers!

  3. I’m impressed by the very personal style in your photography. I especially like the cross-processed ones because you are using a very special way of exchanging the colors. Which app did you use for that? ( especially for no. 1, 2, 7, 14, 15, 22, 25, 26)
    Thanks for sharing! Really inspiring!

  4. fantastic, stunning, awesome portraits – makes me wanna put “attend burning man and shoot pictures there” on my bucket list…
    thanks for sharing.

  5. Don’t know if anyone else brought this up, but:

    “The terms of the Burning Man ticket require that participants wishing to use video-recording equipment (including, in practice, most digital cameras) sign over copyright in their images to Black Rock City, and forbid them from using their images for anything other than personal and private use.”

    Event is held on private property.
    Haven’t been to it & would never go whilst these conditions exist…

  6. Great images and QUITE an adventure…. never used a Sony but the colors are wonderful…love the second shot and the one closer to the end with the mysterious fellow in the bowler hat and pierced nose…the lighting, color and DOF in that one are fantastic!!!

  7. Great images and QUITE an adventure…. never used a Sony but the colors are wonderful…love the second shot and the one closer to the end with the mysterious fellow in the bowler hat and pierced nose…the lighting, color and DOF in that one are fantastic!!!

  8. I have that lens and other 35mm adapted to my beloved 5N, soon the FE Zeiss as well. The AF sucks, particularly at close range and less than direct sun light. The endless focus ring makes me mad coming from fully manual lens, it is just slow – more a problem with the system than the specific lens. Image benefits greatly by stepping it down even as little as 2.2 better 2.5 best 4. I’m not a fan of 35mm on APS-C, I’m a 24mm guy and have become accustom to 75-90mm equivalent length.

    Your work is amazingly rich and well graded. I’m jealous of your experience.

    • This lens is E mount so it doesn’t need an adapter. I had great results even at very open apertures but then I’m not too fussy. I did find I had to be careful with the really wide settings because the DOF would be so thin that I would miss critical focus. That was never an issue with m4/3!

      I agree though that 50mm is just a little wide for all around. But, I don’t mind and I think for portraiture it’s wonderful.

  9. Hello, I rarely post comments, but here…
    What first got my attention: your prose, free-flowing yet brief, liberated. Then the portraits. They say a lot about the atmosphere of tolerance and fun in Burning Man, half a century after Flower Culture. But most of all, they say to me: goodness, this photographer is so involved in those portraits. To achieve that quality of directness, the photographer must not be an intruder. Another photographer I admire in this category is Zack Arias.
    OMD? Nex-6? As someone else on this thread has already suggested, you are probably someone to make stunning portraits even with a soap-box. Do you know the amusing videos where professional photographers are invited to use the cheapest cameras available? See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zh6zr3wKRV0
    Please accept my compliments.
    JJS
    http://serenidee.over-blog.com/

  10. Superb job, my congratulations.
    Shows vision, passion and committment to what you saw in the finder: that’s IMHO essential, regardless of which camera/lens you used, which is ultimately irrelevant.
    Cheers

  11. Love the images so much great content the women with the fire in background is awesome as well as several others When I first viewed them I thought I didn’t like the processing on a second look I was wrong !

    Thanks for sharing

  12. Love the colors – it seems to have really captured the event well! My fave is the banner photo – horizontal crop.

  13. Nice shots Jordan. I particularly like the banner shot (girl drinking from the bottle) and it looks nice with that horizontal crop as well.

    A good zoom looks like it would have come in handy here, though there’s definitely something to be said for the ‘one camera, one focal length’ approach!

    Many of the images have a colour treatment. It looks nice and I think it’s appropriate for such an event, but I was just wondering if you weren’t happy with the natural colours… or if it was just a creative choice?

    (BTW – the 50mm is one of my favourite lenses for the NEX-6)

    • Hey Mars. Thank you very much!

      Well, honestly I’m rarely been happy with the color straight from the camera. The OMD was better right off of the card but not by that much and I would still have done basically the same color treatments. The NEX files were a little rougher by default but I think a little more flexible once I started working with them. I really enjoy the lightroom work though I know these kinds treatments are not every photographer’s cup of tea. For me it’s part of the expression and I realize I still have much to learn about maximizing the potential of LR.

      Oh, another thing I’m reminded about based on the previous discussion with Kitlaugh– I generally keep the NEX set up for video, which I think impacts the default RAW settings for thinks like creative style and white balance (not sure exactly how) and it certainly affects what I see when I shoot the photo. I do this knowing I’m going to get a RAW file I can work with for the stills I shoot. So it’s another reason I’m pretty much always fiddling in Lightroom with each file.

    • Thank you! Well, I agree with you about the Panny video being even better than the NEX line. The G6 might be the best choice for hybrid in the price range I had right now. It’s not just the quality (which is somewhat personal preference but I think the Panny will have crisper looking images). There is also the audio input. The NEX-6 has one annoying missing feature for hybrid: there is no memory function for video settings versus still settings. So you have to switch stuff around and it’s not ideal. That said since I’m shooting RAW it’s not really a deal breaker I don’t think. We’ll see, I’m going to El Salvador TODAY and will be shooting video with it. I’ll have a LOT more video experience in about three months.

      One thing I didn’t mention in the write-up is that the OMD’s video codec is very problematic. Sequences can look great but if they are too busy the codec can crack up and totally ruin the shot. So compared to that this feels like a step up as that issue really hurt my confidence when doing video on the OMD. I also am enjoying the serious DOF effects.

      But, in my case, I realize that the vision of what to record and how to make it into a video people will watch and enjoy…. that’s SO much harder and I have a long way to go with it. So I’m just trying to keep my head down and make some videos!

      What about you, what do you shoot and what was your experience with the NEX-6 setups you had?

      • Jordan, perhaps we could start a new thread or post; it’s get’s complicated pretty quickly, and I don’t want to hijack the thread. I have written about the NEX bodies here:

        http://kitlaughlin.wordpress.com/category/photography/

        Re. video: it was the Sony codecs that I felt were not as good as the Panasonic’s. For example, if I want to do something under 29′ (say for YT or Vimeo) I use 720p/30 mp4. If I have a longer form project (like one of my exercise classes) I use the AVCHD codec; on the Pannys, there is no limit (except the card size). IIRC, the NEXs are limited to 29′ on all codecs.

        And I use second system sound; two amazing USB-stick sized recorders (256Kb/s, 48KHz). These are cheap and brilliant (I use elasoplast to tape inside the collar of my T-shirt, so best sound and no material noise). There’s more, but you get the idea. I will be writing more on this, too, in coming weeks.

      • Beyond the reduced sensor, which I’m sure I could adapt to, the video options in Olympus’ cameras is weak. No PAL frame rates, low bit rate, limited controls in video. That amazing stabiliser is locked behind my video requirements, shame the EM-1 was so nice in hand, better than the A7 I purchased.

  14. Great work, Jordan. I am a member that definitely would like to hear more about the video side; I use a pair of GX7s for this and I am very willing to learn and share (I used to have two NEX6s, too, but prefer the video out of the Pannys). Thanks for posting this. KL

  15. I really loved this set, really excellent images. This reminds me that I really need to stop obsessing over image quality, get a lightweight lil’ mirrorless camera, and get back out into the world!

    • Agreed! Nex-6 is both lightweight AND has fantastic quality. So are the many other choices of mirrorless models out there in the market today. Start shooting away! 🙂

  16. An APS-C sensor and a 35mm that’s all you need for a photo story. I love the color mood. Did you use auto focus all the time or have you been able to manual focus with your DIY dust cover?

    • Thanks Erik for the kudos. I WISH the lens was a 35 or 40mm equivalent, but it’s reassuring to know that anything in the area of 30-55 equivalent is probably going to work for “all around.” Maybe even wider but I wouldn’t know.

      I tried some manual focus but it wasn’t really doable with the plastic on. What I ended up doing was setting it to spot focus and then doing the old autofocus and recompose thing for pretty much every shot.

  17. Awesome photos! Is the dust as bad as it seems? I’d love to bring something like a Leica down there (no weather sealing) and covering it up like you did wouldn’t work as well because it block the RF windows 🙁 Love to hear your thoughts! Thanks!

    • Ryan, the dust really can be as bad as they say. I wouldn’t bring anything that’s too expensive unless it’s weather sealed and you don’t mind it seeing some hard use. I wouldn’t bring a Leica, but if you did you would have to be very selective about when to bring it out of its camera bag.

  18. Nice “weather sealing”! 😉 And it was worth it…the images you created are awesome (my favorite is the 2nd to last one). And I love that it really wasn’t about “the camera” either…need more articles that show how users take their camera and make it work to create great images.

    • Can you believe that’s a tattoo on her back?! Ya know, now that I think about it I should have mentioned in the article that the weather sealing worked well, but by the end of the week I had plenty of dust on the sensor. Nothing that could be fixed in LR though.

  19. Stupendous collection, and shot with my favorite NEX cam, the 6. The image with the girl chugging from a bottle packs a tremendous punch . . . right between the eyes!

      • Who cares if some parts are blown out? It’s the force of the image that counts. Sometimes the range of light intensity is just too much. Dpon’t ever listen to socalled experts that point out blown out highlights. I think it’s actuallt an asset of this image.

  20. Neat, fun, colorful pics – girl jumping with umbrella super neat. This is what photography is all about; more pics more portraits more adventure less camera worship/angst. Yay!

    • Thanks so much! I had one that was truly “frozen” but I liked the movement in the one you see here. Pretty sure the jump was the model’s idea– wish it had been mine!

  21. I like all the images, viewed individually. As a collection, they seem to lack consistent style, at least I don’t see that consistency. Was that a conscious choice Jordan?

    • Interesting observation. It wasn’t a conscious choice– I’d like to develop my own style(s)!

      It could be that with some photos I’m exploring the camera. I notice that the most on the in-camera HDR effects (like the black and white of the bearded man hugging a woman). Even in lightroom I kinda put the raw files through their paces, if you know what I mean.

      That’s another thing, I did make a choice to try to process each photo as an individual image, not working to make all the photos match a specific look like B&W, medium contrast, etc… Exploring again what I can do with looks.

      It could also be just that I’m still very much growing as a photographer and am still developing my own style. I guess these are all kind of different ways of saying the same thing.

      • Thank you for the kind reply Jordan! I was wondering, if you were to prepare these for an exhibition on Burning Man, would you try to achieve a more consistent look, and what would that look be? I know I find that very difficult and sometimes time consuming, but I also feel that images that belong together, because they were shot at on and the same event, or because they have a common theme, should also exhibit some sort of common look. That could be just me of course.

        Still like the images, and I don’t care one bit about what gear they were made with (though interesting to know, ha ha) :-).

        • Thanks Mike. I think I could pretty easily get a “look” by removing the HDR photos and perhaps the B&W photos. To my eye, most of the color photos make good sense together.

  22. It wouldn’t have mattered whether you brought the OM-D or the Nex6. You still would have gotten these great images because you took the time to know your equipment and processing workflow. Great job! The Asian gal, orange squares totem, and sleeping couple are my favs, as well as the B&W’s.

    • Thanks, that is one of my favorites too. It was spur of the moment shot while shooting something else which is what he’s looking at. Most of the others pics I got an email address and sent them a copy. But I never met this iconic looking chap.

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