David English: Surreal Vegas

What’s the most exotic city in the world? Let me suggest a city that’s famous not for its indigenous culture, but for its artificialness. In fact, it’s known for appropriating other cultures and spitting out faux replicas of those cultures. The city is Las Vegas. As a substitute for the real-world locations, it fails miserably. Yet as a funhouse mirror to the world, it succeeds admirably. Love it or hate it, there’s no place quite as strange as Vegas. I like to call it the surreal capital of the world. And if you know what to look for, it’s one of the most photogenic cities you can visit.

I don’t live in Vegas and I don’t gamble. I’m not sure I would ever have visited Vegas if I didn’t need to go there several times a year for tradeshows. I can wax poetic about Vegas being an ideal place to photograph, but the truth is, before I started shooting with an M8 and then an M9, it was mostly just a tradeshow destination.

I had tried lugging around a DSLR (a Canon 40D), first with a 24-105mm f/4 zoom lens and then with a 50mm f/1.4 lens, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. I also found it difficult to carry both a DSLR and a notebook computer with me throughout the entire day. I switched to a small mirrorless camera with a fixed lens — first a Ricoh GR Digital II and then a Sigma DP1. Both were lightweight enough to carry all day, but their relatively slow lenses (f/2.4 and f/4, respectively) limited what I could do, especially indoors.

Then I discovered the Leica M-series. A lightweight camera with a fast, sharp lens was just what I needed.  A rangefinder with an extra lens or two is small enough to carry around, even with a notebook computer. These days, I leave the notebook computer behind at the hotel and carry an iPad and M9 everywhere I go in Vegas. I try to schedule blocks of time away from the tradeshow, when I can wander around looking for something interesting to photograph. If I’m able to shoot over several days, I’ll often dedicate one of the days to an ultra-wide-angle lens, such as an 18mm Super-Elmar, 16-18-21mm Tri-Elmar or Voitlander 12mm. That way I’m forced to view Vegas from a different perspective.

Because I’ve visited Vegas so often, I’ve come to appreciate the peculiarities of the city. Once you move beyond the clichéd tourist stops, such as the synchronized fountains at the Bellagio or the Siegfried and Roy statue at the Mirage, you’ll have ample opportunities to apply your photographic skills. Fortunately, the hotels are relatively inexpensive (thanks to the gamblers), food is reasonably priced (if you visit a buffet sometime during the day) and the Deuce bus conveniently runs the entire length of the Strip all the way to the old downtown area. It costs just $7 for 24 hours of unlimited rides.

On my recent trip to Vegas in mid-April, I decided to use only my 24mm Summilux with the M9. The 24 lux is fast enough to handle the dim light found in most of the hotels, yet it’s tack sharp — even wide open. My first stop was the Sahara hotel, which is closing on May 16. The Sahara is one of the last of the Rat Pack era hotel-casinos and I wanted to get some shots in before it’s gone for good. The photos titled Sahara Signs, Sahara Skylight and Sahara Rat Pack show the faded glamour that was the toast of the town in the 1950s and 1960s. For another glimpse of nostalgic Vegas, you might visit the Riviera hotel, which still has its old-style chandeliers at one of the back entrances (as seen in the photo titled Riviera Entrance).

Moving on to the Encore hotel, the photo titled Encore Display shows one of the stylish window displays you can see as you walk through some of the hotels. Even the escalators and ceilings can have a distinct look that’s worth photographing, as you can see with the photos titled Treasure Island Escalator and Treasure Island Ceiling. The newest hotels, such as the Cosmopolitan and the Aria, are fascinating examples of contemporary architecture and interior design. Check out the photos titled Cosmopolitan Painting and Aria Perspective for what you might come up with, if you pause a moment to observe your surroundings.

Expect to do a lot of walking in Vegas. That’s when you’ll be happy to be carrying a lightweight M-series camera rather than a heavier DSLR. Wide-angle lenses will help you deal with the massive scale of the buildings, entrances and signs. The hotel-casinos are relatively dust free, so they’re usually the best place to quickly change a lens. Early Sunday morning is a great time for seeing Vegas without the crowds (think of the Parisian photos of Eugène Atget).

Don’t expect to get any shots of the gamblers, as the casino sections of the hotels are usually off-limits for photos. Even the arcade and shopping areas can be touchy about your snapping pictures, as I’ve been asked several times to put away my M9, after taking what seemed to be an unusual number of shots. It may depend of whether you appear to be a tourist or a commercial photographer.

One security guard told me that it was fine to take pictures of family and friends, but not of the facilities or the architecture (which was what I was interested in photographing). The guards have been kind and polite, and most helpful about what is permitted. In that sense, Vegas didn’t seem to be exotic or surreal.

-David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2 and moved to an M9 in November 2009. You can see his photos at www.protozoid.com. His main website is www.davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is www.classicfilmpreview.com.