Despite all manners of more efficient ways of flight being readily available to the common man, there is still something quite magical about traveling through the skies in a hot air balloon. Unlike the confines of a passenger plane flying above the clouds or the incessantly loud buzzing of a helicopter ride that has you strapped to a seat, a hot air balloon ride simply lets you take in the visceral experience of ascending to the heavens in a relaxing way.
Aside from this, they also make for great photography subjects with their eye-catching designs, the backdrops that surround them, and the fact that they are usually flown together as a colorful collective in a festival.
To get the most out of these breathtaking aircrafts with either a simple point-and-shoot digital camera or one of those professional DSLRs, take heed of the following tips.
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Since most hot air balloon activity happens in festivals, you will want to first actually know when and where they will take place. In the US, the biggest event is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico which is annually held on the first week of October.
Whatever the festival, they usually start early in the day before the sun even rises. The balloons are inflated in these hours to be able to fly in a much more controlled pace with the early morning’s gentle winds. It pays to then show up before the hot air balloons lift off so that you can set up your gear, take note of potential places to shoot from, and consider interesting elements to include in your compositions.
In the beginning of the hot air balloon festival, you can set up panoramic shots even in low light conditions in the dawn with the help of a tripod. It takes some time for the balloons themselves to lift off, so make use of the preparation stage to put up your tripod in optimal locations.
Coupled with that strategy is to bring a wide angle lens to be able to shoot the spread of balloons while they’re still on the ground being inflated and when they’re rising to the air. You can also use the wide angle lens when the balloons have dispersed a bit to capture one or two within compelling backgrounds.
You can choose to zoom in on a couple of more uniquely designed balloons or a single one by carrying telephoto lens. These focused tight shots can show off the intricate patterns of the balloons while also bringing out nice contrasts to each other and the clear blue sky.
Speaking of the sky, you’ll also want to have a polarizer filter with you to really bring out the color saturation of the sky, as well as the balloons’ designs. It will also help remove any possible reflections.
As mentioned earlier, you can come up with good pictures even before the hot air balloons get off the ground.
Wide shots of the balloons getting ready to fly during dawn is one of the more obvious ideas, but you can also try getting up close to just one balloon for more potential pre-flight pictures.
You can take a shot of the balloon’s envelope, the material that’s being inflated, as it is filling up with air. Bring your focus to the propane tanks used to “fuel” the balloons, and then snap a photo of the flames rising for something dramatic. Just be mindful of your camera suffering from overexposure.
A picture of the balloonist’s silhouette preparing the balloon against the rising sun is another composition idea you can use. Having other people in the shot just as the balloons are lifting off also adds a sense of scale for a weightier picture.
For the balloons already up in the air, you can also try out the previous idea by shooting the balloons against the light. Of course, their most powerful characteristic is still the way their vibrant designs contrast with the rest of the area so keep that in focus.
However, you don’t have to force yourself into keeping the entire balloon in the shot. It’s okay to cut off parts of it as long as it makes for an interesting picture. In fact, simply keeping the entirety of one hot air balloon right in the middle of your photo with nothing else surrounding it doesn’t make for a very engaging shot.
Lighting and Angles
There are plenty of opportunities for you to play with lighting in order to get all sorts of great pictures in hot air balloon festivals. As mentioned earlier, you have the break of dawn when the light is still just creeping up from the east which you can use for silhouettes.
For a different take on the early morning light, move to a location with the sun at your back to get warm lighting for the balloons.
Once the balloons are in the air, you can try the two previous angles for lighting for yet another striking set of pictures but with your subjects in flight this time. You can also shift to a place where the sunlight is to the side of the balloons to emphasize one half of their envelopes. Having the sun’s rays in such a composition will make for a more powerful image.
Lastly, some balloon festivals have a special part of the event where the balloons are kept inflated on the ground at dusk. The sunset and the flames under the envelopes create a stunning display of light perfect for picture-taking.
Hot air balloon photography has so many possibilities for amazing shots. You just have to take advantage of the natural environment with its unique lighting and the evocative subjects to bring your visual creativity to new heights. The sky is the limit!
Here are some amazing hot air balloon photos: