On Editing, Workflow, Gear and Other Questions

Photography workflow using Photo Mechanic and Adobe Lightroom

Since I have comments turned off on the blog, I’m sharing some recent questions that have come in from readers, along with my replies.

As an amateur photographer always looking for ways to improve, I was wondering if you might share some advice or recommend techniques for post production. The land and sky in your shots hold such gravitas. Any advice at all is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for the feedback. As I see it, no amount of post-processing can salvage a mediocre photo. So my advice is to work on getting it right in camera. The rest comes naturally. When the light is good, the composition works, and the photograph suggests a story or evokes a feeling, then the editing process is very straightforward: correct color, adjust contrast, and dodge and burn as needed to direct the eye to the focal point of the image, if there is one.

Can you describe your basic workflow once you’ve finished a shoot?

First I copy the images to my computer and make a backup. Then I review all the images. I use Photo Mechanic for both these tasks. (Lightroom is too slow and clunky for the reviewing and culling process, in my view.) I also enter most of my metadata for the shoot at this point. Once I’ve pared down, tagged, and rated or color-coded the set based on my preferences, I import the files into Lightroom. From there I organize and manage the images, typically making simple corrections (such as white balance and exposure adjustments) on the fly. Key images, those to be delivered to the client or otherwise shared, all get processed using Photoshop. Much of that work is actually done in Adobe Camera Raw, where I spend the bulk of my editing time (inside Photoshop). The files are then exported, reviewed, and delivered.

After seeing your setup, I’m thinking about getting the Canon 6D as a second camera. I realized if I’m shooting an event like the Blue Angels, wild stallions, or air balloons, how convenient it would be to not have to change lenses all the time. 

Yes, having a second (or third) camera body at events is essential to the way I work. If I were you, I’d hold off on buying a 6D though, because Canon will soon be announcing a new version of the camera, one that hopefully addresses what I see as its only real shortcoming—the poor autofocus system.

Which Think Tank shoulder bag do you have?

Mine is the Retrospective 10, which is awesome.

I have looked in utter admiration at your photography from Burning Man through the years. I’m looking to take an Olympus OM-D E-M1 to this year’s event. The only question I have is if you were to take only one lens to the event, which one would this be?

Thank you. I have a simple and straightforward answer for you: the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro. I think it’s the perfect one-lens solution for Burning Man.

I have followed your art online and bought the Burning Man book, both of which I admire very much. I am finally planning on attending and would bring my camera gear. I am bringing 2-3 small mirrorless cameras. My question concerns batteries and accessories. With no electrical do you bring a handful of charged batteries? Are there any special accessories you think are indispensable for shooting beyond the ordinary camera/lenses? I’ve heard you have to register the cameras and sign waivers etc. Is there anything special I should know or do to make my effort successful?

If you don’t have access to a generator or other power source, I would recommend bringing an off-the-grid battery (such as a deep-cycle car battery) to keep your cameras, phone and other gadgets charged). In a pinch, you can always charge your batteries using an inexpensive inverter for your car. And if all else fails, you can recharge your batteries at Media Mecca. They have charging stations for journalists and photographers. You’re right, you do need to register your cameras if you plan to publish or otherwise share your photos with the world. Burning Man’s image use policies apply to all published images, but not to use of photos on social media. Don’t worry, you can always request permission after the fact, if need be. Other things that might be useful to bring include compressed air and pre-moistened lens wipes. I always carry large Zip-Loc bags for my cameras in case I’m caught in a whiteout (which happens pretty much all the time!). Other things to consider bringing: business cards for giving to people when you take their picture, and a small notebook for jotting down people’s contact info and/or carrying releases. Have you seen Matt Freedman’s photographer’s guide to Burning Man? You’ll find it here.

Looks like you have at least a drone and the image quality makes me want to believe you’re running around with a Nikon D-Infinity with auto-focusable Zeiss ultra prime glass (exists only for you).

That’s wonderful and hilarious. If only!

Oscar Nominations 2017

The Oscar nominations for 2017 have just been announced. One thing I’ve learned from hanging out on the Oscar trail is that Academy Award nominations often say more about the Hollywood publicity machine than they do about the relative talents of the actors and other nominees. (More on that in my photo essay “On the Oscar Trail.”) That said, here are six actors I’ve photographed over the years who couldn’t be more deserving of a big win on Oscar night. From left: Ryan Gosling, Jeff Bridges, Taraji P. Henson, Casey Affleck, Viola Davis and Michael Shannon.

Exhibition in Telluride

This week I’ll be in Colorado exhibiting my work at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art. The show opens on Thursday with an artist reception. I’ll also be signing copies of the newly published Second Edition of Burning Man: Art on Fire at Between the Covers, the local bookseller and café.

The gallery show coincides with the annual Telluride Fire Festival, now in its third year. The event is billed as a community celebration of excellence in interactive fire arts. It runs three nights and features huge, interactive, fire-emitting art installations, world-class fire performers, fire spinning workshops, and other activities. Should be quite a party.

I spoke about the exhibition with Cara Pallone of KOTO Public Radio. You can hear the 7-minute interview here:

If you’re in or near Telluride, make a point of checking out the festival and please stop in at the gallery reception. Here are the details: Scott London Artist Reception at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art.

Trajectoire

The current issue of Swiss magazine Trajectoire features a ten-page feature about my Burning Man photography. Most of the images were taken this past year (including two taken with collaborator Philippe Meicler). The spread also includes a write-up by Aline Lalliard that describes Burning Man and delves into some biographical stuff about me. Freely translated from the French, the intro reads:

“For over a decade, Burning Man has come to life through the lens of American photographer Scott London. Fascinated by this annual paean to creativity, he says he’s drawn in by the sheer beauty of the art, the people and the desert backdrop. With images suffused with emotion and humanity, he evokes the essence of an event that defies convention.”

Beautifully put, and a lovely compliment. My thanks to Lalliard and the editors at Trajectoire.

Here’s a thumbnail glance at the other eight pages in the spread:

Painted Desert

The Painted Desert series grew out of a great collaboration with the performance troupe Vessel. The project was commissioned by the Mesa Arts Center and is perhaps best described as a merging of photography, costume design and performance art. We put a lot of planning and hard work into an initial photoshoot in the Painted Desert. But the real highlight of the project was presenting it in front of a live audience—as we have now done at several venues in Arizona, including Spark Festival in Mesa, the Public Art Program in Glendale and, earlier this month, the Phoenix Art Museum.

As a photographer, I’ve presented my images in a variety of formats and venues over the years—magazines, gallery shows, books, film, etc. But this is the first time I’ve used photography as part of an interactive experience. The photographs are projected on people and objects as part of the performance. When we presented the show at the Mesa Arts Center, the entire complex became a moving art gallery of sorts, with images flowing across walls, ceilings, floors, and even people in the audience. As you can see in the photos below, the Vessel performers became living screens for the projected images. (In the fourth image, I appear alongside Rachel Bowditch, camera in hand.)

Spark! Festival Spark! FestivalSpark! FestivalSpark! Festival

Vessel is the brainchild of Rachel Bowditch, a respected performance artist recently named one of today’s 100 top creatives by Origin Magazine. It was a joy and an honor to work with her. For more about Rachel’s work, check out her website Vessel Project.

Here are a few more photos from the series. For more images, check out the slideshow here.

Burning Man 2016

Burning Man 2016 by Scott London

I’m still shaking off the dust and getting my bearings after an intense but beautiful week at Burning Man 2016. We were blessed with beautiful skies and gorgeous light for much of the week, but also winds and dust—lots and lots of dust, as you can see in this shot of my cameras.

It’s hard to believe, but this marked the 30th anniversary of an event that has gone from a fringe countercultural experiment, one started by a handful of artists, performers, dreamers and misfits on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986, to a cultural phenomenon that now draws some 70,000 people to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each year.

For all the talk about Burning Man going mainstream, it still represents something rather rare and wonderful—a weeklong celebration of freeform creativity and radical self-expression. The event takes place in a temporary “city” some five miles wide that rises out of a dry lakebed toward summer’s end, only to vanish again after the event is over. For a few brief days, the ephemeral metropolis known as Black Rock City ranks among the largest communities in the state of Nevada.

It’s a place of breathtaking diversity—a coming together of freethinking artists, dancers, performers, DJs, musicians, designers, and exhibitionists of every stripe. It’s also a place of whimsical art installations, startlingly decorated art cars, pulsating soundscapes and wacky theme camps, all set against an uncommonly beautiful natural backdrop.

It was my 13th year on the playa. Burning Man never gets old. If anything, the enchantment and mystery seems to deepen a little each year. Some complain that the event gets a little less fun each time. I understand those sentiments and sometimes share them (mostly when I’m hungover, sleep-deprived, dehydrated, or all three at once). But the fact is that the essential spirit of the event remains unchanged and that each trip out to the desert is, in some deep sense, restorative.

It’s safe to say that my photography has changed and evolved over the years. But the basic impulse is still to try in some small way to capture the beauty, the creativity, the whimsy, the madness and the sheer outrageous good fun of it all. I’m always gratified when non-burners appreciate the photos, but my primary goal is to share them with those who were at the event and, to whatever extent I can, contribute a little creativity of my own to the overall experience.

Last month saw the publication of a new and expanded edition of our book Burning Man: Art on Fire (with Jennifer Raiser and Sidney Erthal). The first edition, which came out in 2014, went through several printings, garnered excellent reviews, and—to our amazement—even topped the Amazon bestseller lists in several categories. It made sense to issue a second edition—to bring it up to date, yes, but also to rectify some of the mistakes and omissions from the first edition. Like the original, the new version was a collaborative effort in every sense. It means that my own creative input was limited. But the book does contain a lot of my images—about 150 by my count—so, for better or worse, it reflects a perspective on the event refracted through my own particular lens.

This year I had the pleasure of working with CNN on a feature about the art cars of Burning Man. The piece includes 20 of my photos of mind-blowing and otherworldly creations (like El Pulpo Mecanico, at left, the flame-throwing octopus on wheels by artist Duane Flatmo) along with an article by Stephy Chung and a Q&A in which I talk about my fascination with these vehicles and the artists who created them. Check out Burning Man’s Mutant Vehicles Eat Dust…and People? (See also Boing Boing and Gearheads 4 Life for additional commentary on the photos and the art cars.)

If you’re interested in more of my reflections on why I love making pictures at Burning Man, check out this 3-minute video clip produced by Discovery’s This Happened Here. I also say more about my Burning Man photography in an in-depth interview made last year with the magazine Pocko Times.

A few technical notes. This year, I shot a total of about 5,000 frames over the course of 6 days. As in previous years, I used a combination of Canon DSLRs. I brought out four this year, each with a dedicated lens. This is my preferred way of avoiding lens changes and not subjecting the cameras to excessive alkali dust. I also brought a film camera this year, but as things turned out it never left the bag. What was different this year? A telephoto lens I had formerly relied on quite heavily—Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 L—never got used this time around. It was a conscious, and I think quite successful, attempt to get a little closer to the action.

I get a lot of questions about my gear and people wonder how I protect it in such a harsh environment. My short answer is that I keep my cameras in heavy-duty plastic bags and carry a camera bag that zips up. This provide some protection from the dust. But the real key, I’ve found, is to use professional equipment with a degree of resistance to dust, water and heat. I love my Canons and in over a decade of shooting with them at Burning Man, I’ve never had any failures to speak of.

This year, I worked closely with Philippe Meicler, a wonderful French videographer, to capture an aerial perspective of Burning Man. If you like my still images shot with a drone, be sure to check out his amazing 5-minute video here. Special thanks to Philippe and his lovely wife, Ghislaine—a great photographer in her own right (you can view her images from the event here.)

This year, I’d also like to extend a special thank you Jonathan Gavzer, Mike Calabrese, Duncan Rawlinson, George Post, Maria Partridge, and especially my campmates Jeremy and Jazzy for taking such good care of me as I was nursing a pesky shoulder injury. I very nearly left the event at the beginning of the week because of the pain. I opted to stay in the end, in no small part thanks to their care, support and encouragement.

As always, I’m also grateful to the many wonderful people of Burning Man who freely consented to let me photograph them in the act of dancing, stilt-walking, hooping, making art, or simply being beautiful. It takes a special patience to put up with tiresome photographers sticking their equipment in your face—pointing lenses at your tattoos, your necklaces, your derriere. I don’t take that permission for granted. My art, such as it is, would not be possible without that open consent and participation. So thank you.

Check out this year’s photos here: Burning Man 2016

Photographer Scott London on his bike at Burning Man 2016

On my bike at Burning Man 2016. (Photo by Duncan Rawlinson)

Rolling Stone’s Best of 2015

Thanks to Rolling Stone for including one of my photos from Burning Man in their selection of best images from 2015. The photo was originally part of a series of 21 images of mine that ran back in September (“See Trippy, Surreal Photos From Burning Man 2015“). What’s really trippy and surreal is seeing my work alongside that of legendary photographers like Albert Watson, David LaChapelle and Mark Seliger. But what a special honor.

Check out the complete gallery here: Rolling Stone’s Best Photos of 2015

Solstice 2016

Each year at the end of June, Santa Barbara, California, officially kicks off summer with a three-day solstice party. The highlight of the weekend is a parade famous for its whimsical floats, colorful stiltwalkers, goofy performance artists, Brazilian drummers, and giggling kids donning masks, costumes, and painted faces, and of course the amazing samba dancers wearing feathers and sequins (and not much else). The annual event got its start in 1974 and now attracts upward of 100,000 visitors and more than 1,000 participants from near and far.

The 2016 theme, “Legends,” evoked lots of characters from American folklore and Greek Mythology, from Paul Bunyan and Tarzan to Medusa and Aphrodite. There were a couple of floats commemorating the late artist Prince—a legend of a different sort. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, donning an inspired airplane costume, came as Amelia Earhart. Inevitably, a pair of Elvis Presley and Donald Trump impersonators made an appearance. And because the Solstice festivities coincided with Pride weekend in cities like San Francisco and New York this year, there were more than a few same-sex couples waving bright rainbow flags.

Below are a few of my photos. You can check out the complete set here.

For the complete set, go to: Santa Barbara Solstice 2016

See also photos from previous years: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010