Shannon Across America: Las Vegas – City of Lights, City of Sin

I've a feeling we're not in the midwest anymore

This is part of a series of posts chronicling my travels across the western United States over the course of several weeks, living on the road and randomly visiting places along the way. You can start reading about the journey from the beginning.

Las Vegas

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I had been to Vegas only once before as a transfer flight between cities, only seeing the Strip from the airport windows. That didn’t necessarily mean I left without winning: to pass the time I played the slot machines in the airport and won about $40 bucks. I consider that to be a miraculous feat as the airport slots aren’t known to be very generous.

But this time, I would be headed right into the city to get the proper experience. I arrived feeling a bit rough and I needed to clean out my car and reorganize my gear, so this was only one of two times on the entire trip that I sprung for a motel room.

I left the tripod behind and walked around the Vegas Strip with just my Canon 5D and a 16-35mm f/4 lens. Though a tripod would have dramatically helped my photos, I went handheld not only due to the crowds but because the sidewalks of Vegas is sketchy for tripod carrying photographers. Not for those who would threaten photographers with weapons, but rather those who threaten with policies.

Without getting into fine details or specific exceptions, generally a city sidewalk is considered public property which means that photographers have every right to stand around and take pictures. However, bored security guards often don’t understand the law (or care to) and will sometimes come over and attempt to shoo you off “private property” if they spot you using a fancy camera and a tripod. I’ve dealt with them in downtown St. Louis, and members of my photo club even were tailed by them during a photo walk in Clayton recently.

Things are more muddled in Vegas when it comes to dominion over the sidewalks: past issues have included the county allowing some sidewalks to the private sector and casinos claiming ownership over sidewalks pushed onto their property when streets are widened. Handbillers, street performers and protesters in particular have all had their issues. Whether I would have issues or not, going handheld for this visit was good as it was simply easier to just walk around and explore. This worked out well as I was not bothered by anyone the entire time.

The Vegas experience

7V1B0266This is likely going to sound like a huge understatement, but Las Vegas Boulevard was probably the strangest place out of all my travels.

Walking along the way, you encounter all sorts of hucksters like panhandlers and musicians trying to sell crappy music on CD-Rs. A common sight is handbillers (aka card snappers / porn slappers): people hired by sex services to pass out promotional cards that they flick and slap to try and draw your attention as you walk by. Then there are the costumed characters littered along the walkways trying to get tips for photos with them, and quite honestly I don’t see the appeal in getting your picture taken with an overweight Batman or a drunken Homer Simpson. In all cases, you learn to completely tune out all of the above.

But the street attractions aren’t all bad. There was a talented group of street performers comprised of a racially diverse group of young people who did athletic stunts, performed song and dance and made light-hearted ribs at ethnicities of audience members who had traveled from overseas. They were very difficult to photograph as I was farther back in the crowd, only had a wide-angle lens that maxed out at f/4 and it was too dark to gain shutter speeds needed to capture the action.

Though without tripod, I was still able to take advantage of elements in the environment to stabilize my shots. I took some long exposures of the Vegas Strip by setting my camera on things like pillars and walls. The walkways above the streets offered good views (and arguably the only place undisputedly public property), but the plexiglass lining the sides can hinder the clarity of your shots.

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My tour of Vegas was simply for exploration; I did not spend any money at the casinos nor did I attend any shows and I was content simply walking around and taking photographs. Now that I know the area much better, the next visit I’d like to bring a small backpacking tripod so I can quickly deploy, compose shots and get moving before attracting too much attention. If I ever get my hands on one, a tilt-shift lens would be desirable. Oh, and I must drop in on a Penn and Teller show.

After leaving Vegas, I was tempted to backtrack to the Hoover Dam but I wasn’t interested in dealing with the crowds, so I instead decided to continue on southwest towards the California border. I thought about visiting Death Valley but ultimately decided that it would put me too far off my tentative route and continued on. Next time I’m in Vegas I might make the drive over to Death Valley as a part of the trip.

I finally crossed the California border and the west coast was closer than ever, but still had a ways to go.

Next time: Ghost town…haunted by tourism