Photographing Hot Air Balloons

By Greg Meland on April 27th, 2009

NYIP Graduate Greg Meland was kind enough to contribute this article to NYIP Photoworld. As you’ll read, Greg developed a keen interest in hot air ballooning and has combined it with his love of photography. As we stress to all NYIP students, a great way to give your photographic career a jump start is to combine photography with something you know well. Your familiarity with some activity or place (in Greg’s case working as a crew member) will give you access to great photographic possibilities and an insider’s viewpoint. We congratulate Greg and suggest that he use this published article as a stepping stone to his next.

In 2009, the Albuquerque Fiesta will run from October 3 to 11. You can read all about it at www.balloonfiesta.com. While Albuquerque is one of the largest and best known balloon events, there are dozens held around the country at various times in the spring, summer and fall. Visit www.hotairballoon.com to check for balloon events near where you live.

We’re always interested in ideas for articles for NYIP Photoworld, so if you have a body of photographs and a story to go with them, get in touch with us at editors@nyip.edu and we’ll consider your proposal. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get published in Photoworld!

balloons

In December 2004 I was introduced to hot air ballooning while living in Palmdale, California. A co-worker was a balloon pilot and he invited me to watch and help crew his balloon one weekend. After that first weekend, I was hooked! Over the next several months, every time Bill would take his balloon out on a weekend, I was there crewing and taking pictures. I was enthralled with the photographic possibilities.

During the first week of October each year the skies over Albuquerque, New Mexico are filled with hot air balloons from around the globe. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest balloon event in the World. Bill invited me to help crew his balloon at Fiesta in October 2005. I was only able to attend the last half of Fiesta that year. However, in 2006 and 2007 I attended all nine days of the event and captured some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken.

Reactions from people when I tell them I am going to fiesta to photograph the hot air balloons are something like “Oh, that’s nice.” When most people think of a hot air balloon, they see it floating leisurely through the sky. Even fellow photographers think that it sounds boring. “They just sit there floating in the sky” is one comment I’ve heard. “They move so slow!” is another. Well, it’s not as boring or as slow as you might think! The colorful balloons against a clear blue sky can be amazing and offer a multitude of photographic compositions.

balloons
balloons

Currently, I use a Nikon D200 along with two lenses, an 18-200mm and 80-400mm. The 80-400mm is perfect for full frame close-ups while the wide angle is best for ground shots. To remain mobile, I use a monopod instead of a tripod. I like to set the camera to shutter priority mode to select a fast shutter speed and freeze the action. When possible, I try to keep my ISO around 100, although I have used as high as 1600 in low light conditions. I normally shoot everything in RAW mode to allow for more flexibility in the digital darkroom.

balloons

A typical balloon launch at Fiesta starts before dawn with the “Dawn Patrol”. The “Dawn Patrol” is a group of selected balloons that launch before the rest of the field in order to verify the winds aloft. The balloon crews arrive at their designated spot on the 72 acre field. While the pilot attends a “pilot briefing” to get the most recent weather information, the rest of the crew patiently waits. The crew-chief will assign positions to the rest of the crew. Once the pilot briefing is over the crew jumps into action. The balloon is laid out. The basket and burners are checked. Then comes cold inflation, hot inflation and balloon stand-up. When the balloon meister gives the O.K., the balloon is launched.

After the “Dawn Patrol” has launched,the mass ascension comes next. During a mass ascension, there is so much activity it’s sometimes difficult to capture all that’s going on. After launch, even though the balloons float relatively slowly, the photographic compositions change very rapidly. The sight of several hundred hot air balloons lifting off and floating over the balloon field is completely amazing.

ballloons

Photographing the mass ascension on the field provides an opportunity get some close-up shots of the balloons and the crew in action. However, to get photos of the entire mass ascension, you need to get back away from the field a little. This is where my 18-200 really works well. The key to good mass ascension photos is to pick the right spot. That’s where the “Dawn Patrol” comes in handy. The “Dawn Patrol” balloons will show you approximately which direction the balloons will be floating. Pick a spot on the edge of the field where the balloons will float over top of you and you’ll get some fantastic shots, both coming at you and floating away.

Even though a hot air balloon is at the mercy of the winds as far as which direction it can fly, balloon pilots learn how to use the varying winds at different altitudes to steer their balloon to a specific place. During the balloon competitions pilots launch their balloon from a mile or two off the balloon field, fly their balloon to the field and attempt to drop bean bags or some other marker on a specific target on the field. The competitions provide unique opportunities to photograph a mass of balloons flying toward you at very low altitude (sometimes 10 feet or less). It’s an awesome sight. Another competition is the ‘key grab’. During the ‘key grab’ (the key is usually to a vehicle donated by a local automobile dealer that the winning pilot get to keep) the pilots again launch from off the field and fly to the field an attempt to grab an envelope containing a key attached to a pole standing at a specific place on the field. Again, the photographic possibilities with a mass of balloons coming directly at you are incredible.

balloons
balloons

Several evenings during Fiesta offer a chance to photograph the balloons during a “balloon glow”. Just as the sun is going down the balloons inflate and will light their burners in synchronization with each other. This offers a unique opportunity to get shots of the balloons lit up and glowing against the evening sky. This is where you can get some of the most beautiful pictures.

balloons
balloons

Two days of Fiesta are dedicated to the “Special Shape” balloons. This is another opportunity get some unique photographs. “Special Shape” balloons are balloons shaped other than the normal teardrop shape. These include balloons shaped like: Darth Vader, bumble bees, Noah’s Ark, a lighthouse, the US flag, the space shuttle, and many others. The “Special Shape” mass ascensions are just as awesome as the others.

balloons

Let’s not forget the “gas” balloon race during the Fiesta. While ‘balloon’ and ‘race’ don’t seem to go together, it’s another opportunity to get some fantastic photographs. The ‘race’ is actually a distance competition and the balloons are in the air for several days. The inflation process for the gas balloons is an extremely long process and I’ll admit it does get boring. However, when they launch you have to be ready. The balloons rise quickly off the ground and are soon out of sight. The best photos are when they are on the ground just as they are launching. If you’re lucky, they’ll launch right at sunset or just after, when the light is just right.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is not the only opportunity to photograph hot air balloons in action. There are several balloon rallys and festivals around the country. I recently attended the Quik Chek Festival of Ballooning in Readington, New Jersey. This annual event has grown significantly in just the last three years. This year they had 125 hot air balloons participating.

balloons
balloons

October is quickly approaching. If you have the opportunity to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and see the “kaleidoscope in the sky” I highly recommend it.


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