Better Balloon Photography

by joSon Nicholas-Lee

Before sunlight touches the peaks of the mountains; when grass is still filled with overnight dew: that is when pilots across the country transform the morning dawn into a rainbow of color with their hot-air balloons. This kind of scene will cause camera lovers to start clicking away. With careful planning, the delightful moment can be captured so the beauty will never be forgotten. Here are some tips for capturing the balloons and their pilots on film.

It's difficult to imagine that hot-air balloon pilots and photographers have some things in common. One keeps following the direction of the wind, higher-and-higher to touch the clouds seeing our world in a different perspective and discovering that the clouds are no longer the limit. The other combining both technology and artistry with the help of sunlight as a tool to create a work-of art. The differences are infinite, but both have to agree the best time to work is early morning. When the calm wind rises and multicolored lights peek over the horizon, you can hear both the cameras clicking and hot-air gas blowing out flame.

Shooting hot air balloons is more than recording brilliant color. Because balloons are fluid subjects, beginning photographers often get distracted and start clicking whatever is in front of them rather than focusing on the balloons. I've noticed when shooting a group of balloons, it is very difficult to pick and choose what can be enclosed in a frame. In this kind of situation, you need to make a quick decision on which balloon is the main subject before it slips out of your frame. To make this easier I often follow and recommend the golden rule-less is more.

Try to focus on one key balloon as a main subject. Balance your image, use the key balloon to frame and size those balloons around it. You can do this by adjusting the focal length of your lens. It's very important to avoid cropping the balloon unless you're "framing" it with other balloons in the background. It helps to spend a few extra seconds looking through the viewfinder to ensure things are in the right places before you click the shutter. This not only saves film and results in fewer unwanted images, but it also helps to improve composition technique and familiarity with looking through the viewfinder of the camera.

>From a distance, hot-air balloons can be a captivating subject to photograph and a great complement to the landscape. But up close, balloons can be an intimidating subject for the camera viewfinder because of their size. I've discovered that zoom lenses work best when shooting hot-air balloons. Two of my favorite lenses are the 28-85mm and the 90-210mm. The 28-85mm works well when I'm about 50 yards (half of a football field) away from a group of balloons. Zoom lenses allow me the freedom to select ranges of distance that show little or no distortion with the shapes of the balloons in the final result. For distant views, I recommend an 90-210mm, which I use most frequently. These lenses are great for cropping distracting elements and for shooting an entire balloon. Zoom lenses let you get "closer" to your subject. They also allow you to "frame" a subject, such as balloons of different sizes, shapes and colors along with other balloons to form a strong composition.

A good frame and composition are essential in photography. It is not easy to capture a three-dimensional world on a flat surface and still give a sense of three-dimensionality. Careful placement of the main subject and the use of space will make a flat surface appear solid. Try to avoid cropping the key balloons unless you're "framing" it with other balloon in the background. This is the best time to use a wide-angle lens and get closer to the balloons. If you have an adjustable camera, try to use a high f-stop such as f-11 or higher to increase the depth of field. Point-and-shoot cameras have this function built in and the final result is not significantly different from that made with a professional camera.

I often hear people complain that their photos never turned out the way the scene looked during the shoot-especially the color. Choosing the right film to record the multicolored balloons and their detailed patterns is as important as composition of the image itself. Try to use a low-speed film (with a low ISO number) when possible for quality of reproduction. Slide films such as Fujichrome Velvia or Kodak Lumiere and print films such as Kodak Royal Gold or Fujicolor Super G are excellent for saturated colors. These films are also ideal for achieving fine grain and detail in the print or slide. You may want to consider carrying some high speed-film for a pre-dawn shoot. Most balloon festivals perform a light show, typically in the darkness of the early morning when the balloons glow against the black and purple backdrop of the sky. In this case, 400 speed film works great with or without a tripod.

I don't consider accessories such as polarizer filters and tripods essential for my photo kit when shooting balloons. In the morning, when the sun is still low and there's a deep blue sky, using a polarizer filter would unnecessarily limit the light for your exposure. A tripod is great for pre-dawn shooting, but as the sun gets brighter and the wind picks up, tripods can become inconvenient. If you feel the need for a tripod, use one with a quick-release which is as lightweight as possible for easy movement through the crowds.

Finding a hot-air balloon to shoot is as easy as opening the Yellow Pages in your local phone book of the city you are visiting. Hot-air balloon companies and pilots are always eager to display their balloons for your camera. You should make an appointment with the company or individual pilots at least a week ahead and describe your interests. I've found that this is a great opportunity to get to know the pilots; often he or she will fly extra miles to make your photo shoot memorable.

The best places to photograph balloons are balloon festivals. Here, your camera can go wild as it sees hundreds of balloons rising into the blue sky with manifold shapes, colors and patterns so that one wishes to capture it all. The most famous festival is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where several hundred balloons shine in the morning sky with magnificent colors; chances to capture the right moment are endless.

Balloons are very wonderful subjects to photograph; they love to pose for you as much as you want to capture them. Take your time to look around. Keep a grip on your cameras and film, but let your imagination flow the wind.

Copyright © 1997 Balloon Life. All rights reserved.