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11 Tips for Photographing Hot Air Balloons

The great thing about hot air balloon festivals is that there are no “back stage passes”.  Unless you happen to have a seat in a basket – everyone has the same vantage point.  And – I really don’t think it matters if you’re using a Holga, point and shoot, SLR, or imaging satellite – there are great images to be had.  But – shooting a launch is work.  It’s busy – it’s furious – and the whole gig can be done in 60 minutes or less.NW Art Air 2010 - Friday - low res-1

On the other hand, it can be tough to even know where to point your lens – as there’s simply so much stuff happening all around.  Now that I’ve shot a few of these – I’ve gathered a few tips that work for me.  So – in no particular order:

  • Again – it’s busy if you’re standing among 40 (or more) hot air balloons.  There’s color, noise, and a heck of a lot of photographers.  Try to take all of that mayhem – and simply pick 3 or 4 balloons that you’d like to focus on during the morning.  If there’s a little break in the action – you can NW Art Air 2010 - Friday - low res-2shoot the ones right next door, too.  Of course – you don’t need to have this list in hand when you arrive.  Simply pick a colorful one when you arrive.  When that one has launched – or you have the photos you’re looking for – just go pick the next one.
  • While you’re looking at your 3 or 4 balloons throughout the morning – look around at the horizon.  There’s a lot going on – and during a break in the action – those are the times to get your “big scene” shots.
  • If you can only pick one lens – go wide.  Your wide glass (zoom or fixed) will be more versatile while you’re there shooting.  Of course, there’s a place for long lenses, too.
  • The event is so short – try to limit your lens changes (in fact – I might recommend not changing lenses at all).  And the fewer lenses you have – the lighter your camera bag – and the easier it will be walking around.

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  • Try to minimize the visual clutter.  There’s a lot going on at a hot air balloon launch.  Try to leave some of it out of the frame.
  • Unless you’re looking for something creative (e.g. long exposures or graduated ND filters) – try to leave the tripod at home.  With everything happening so fast – you’ll want to be more agile.
  • A polarizer will help (though – I admit – I often leave mine in the bag).
  • Shoot from the hip.  Many of my photos are shot from about knee or ankle height.

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  • Shoot on burst mode – sometimes in that moment between shots – there can be a subtle change that will simply make the photo better.
  • Know where the sun is at.  Will you be backlighting your balloons – or will you have that beautiful morning light fall on the face of each aerostat?
  • Be polite, smile – and have fun!  There are a lot of other photographers out there, too.  Share that great spot.

hot air balloons - NW Art Air - 2010 - low res-31 And just in case you were wondering – yes, I underexpose many of my hot air balloon photos.  It can do a few things:

    • It can clean up the foreground clutter by making much of it near black.
    • More of the morning color can be highlighted.
    • I happen to like the architectural elements that silhouettes can add to an image.

Hope that helps.  And if you have more tips – please don’t hesitate to leave them below.

8 thoughts on “11 Tips for Photographing Hot Air Balloons”

  1. Another suggestion that I would make…If you have the opportunity to photograph the balloon festival on mulitiple days (like ABQ Fiesta or some other smaller festivals), look for a different vantage point or get a different perspective

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    1. Hey, Henry – Completely agree! It also gives you a chance to review your photos – and to go back and try again for shots that you missed.

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  2. Thank you for your tips. I am not a professional photographer by any means and my wife and I are going to a festival tomorrow in Virginia. So I was just browsing around for ideas and useful information.

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  3. I am taking my 6 year old grandson to our first balloon fiesta at 4pm in Bristol, UK this afternoon ~ I am so glad I read this before heading off ~ some great tips thank you

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  4. Thank you for all of your tips. I spent the entire morning at my first ‘Balloon Rally’ in Albuquerque, NM but only one quarter of the balloons made it off the ground because gusting winds unexpectively appeared at the landing sight. There was one bad landing so that was the reason they called off the rest of the take-offs. But your tips saved the day, especially ‘what lens to use’, ‘know where the sun is’ and etc. And because I shot from the hip, I came away with some very, very good, colorful, clear photos. The launch did not last very long so I had to pick my spots fast and I set my camera on ‘Burst’ then shot. I ended up with some beautiful photos. I want to thank you again. Oh! By the way, I would like to add one more tip: dress warmer than you think. With layers of clothing, you can always take a layer or two off if it warms up. I was freezing out there with only a ‘Hoody’, a light shirt and a jacket. I should have know they needed a humongous open air area for the hundreds of Balloons. Next year I will even be better prepared. I had a great time and so will you, Gary.

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    1. Thanks, Gary – I’m glad to hear that the event went well for you. And to have Albuquerque as your first launch! I agree – dress warmer than you think – great addition to the list. Have you posted your images somewhere online? If so – feel free to share a link.

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      1. I agree with the dress warmer than you think. Also be prepared to take it down to a light shirt or t-shirt. When you’re in among a lot of balloons that are firing up it can be like standing in a furnace. Especially so with balloon glows. I went to one and it got to 120 degrees among the balloons. That extra lens you’re leaving at home, take water instead.

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