Tips for photographing the 2016 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
This is a once a year event, and you want to walk away from it with the best images possible. It is such an emotional experience that it can be easy to overlook some basic strategies for getting your best photos.
After attending Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta’s for five years, I’ve gathered a few top tips that will help you to walk away with the best possible images from this event. Check out my impressions of a day at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
Get There Early!
Really, you should be there in time for Dawn Patrol at 6:00 AM. Yes it’s early! The early bird gets the best photos! Dress in layers because it is quite chilly at that time of the morning. It heats up quickly once the sun rises. The morning moves very quickly after Dawn Patrol and by 9:00 its over. That three hour window for balloon photography feels like a fast-moving hour. If you’re in place and unrushed (and had your morning coffee and breakfast burrito) you will be able to capture photos.
Lens Choices for DSLR & Mirrorless Cameras
Generally, your 18-55mm kit lens will be just fine. Having an 18-135mm lens will cover just about any type of photo you may want. The balloons are huge so you don’t need much telephoto range beyond your standard kit lens to catch eye-popping closeups.
Ideally, the lighter and simpler your kit the better. You want to focus on the fast-moving action rather than swapping lenses. Once the sun comes up, things move very quickly. The simpler your camera gear, the better. If you have an image-stabilized lens or camera, all the better. You will be in constant motion. Don’t complicate things by bringing too much gear.
Use a Polariser Filter
Shooting hot air balloons at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is all about eye-popping, vivid colors. Once the sun rises, you will want to capture all of your colors as vividly as possible, framed by a crisp blue sky. The key is to use a polariser filter. It deepens the blue color of the sky, removes reflections, and enhances the saturation of the balloon colors as well.
The photo above is a good example of how a polariser can enhance your photos. The sky becomes a richer, deeper blue, one of the most useful benefits of a polariser. The polariser minimizes reflections, making colors more vivid and pure.
Something to keep in mind: A polariser works best when your subject is oriented at 90 degrees to wherever the sun is. To get a general idea of where polarization will be the strongest, point your index finger at the sun, and then stick your thumb out. Wherever your thumb is pointing is the part of the frame where the polarizing filter will have the maximum effect (the strongest, deepest blue backgrounds). Conversely, the closer you shoot to the sun, the more washed out your skies will look. Your position in relation to the sun and the use of a polariser allows you to control the quality of light in your photo. That is something the pros are constantly doing. In fact, you can see the difference quite readily on your Live View screen or viewfinder. Practice this tip beforehand, and you will become quite good at creating the best lighting conditions in your sunny day photos.
Many inexpensive “point and shoot” cameras do not have the screw-mount on the lens needed to add a polariser filter. However, if you are serious about getting good photos, you will want a camera that allows you to mount a circular polariser filter on your lens. This is the one filter that you cannot mimic in digital photo editing, and it is essential for great photos on sunny days. Consider upgrading your camera if you want the best possible photos.
Update On My Polariser Advice
If there is one thing Albuquerque is known for, it’s a powder blue New Mexican sky that provides a beautiful backdrop for Balloon Fiesta photography. Sometimes, that powder blue sky is best seen au natural, without any help from a polariser, especially at sunrise. It is a softer, less contrasty blue that you may prefer. So, use your discretion. On some days, the sky may benefit from the darkening effect of a polariser filter. On other days, it needs no help at all. The three photos shown below were photographed at the 2017 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta without a polariser filter. It’s all a matter of taste!
When NOT To Use A Polariser
On days that are overcast or cloudy, a polariser will have no effect on your photos (it can improve close-ups of flora, but that is another subject). It is best to remove the polariser from your lens on overcast days as it slows down your shutter speed somewhat. A polariser should not be used before sunrise, such as in the photo below. It will not make any meaningful difference in the overall color of the photo until the sun is higher in the sky.
Finally, there is no need to use a polariser when you are shooting in shady areas. Because a polariser is a single element that screws on the front of your lens, it is quite easy to remove and slip in your pocket without fuss.
Special Shapes Rodeo Is the Photographer’s Friend
The Special Shapes Rodeo features the most colorful and unusual hot air balloons at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. However, it can be the most challenging as well. Weather conditions must be perfect for these large, odd creatures to ascend.
The last two Special Shapes Rodeo I attended did not have ideal wind conditions. The Special Shapes balloons were inflated, but never ascended. That is a risk we accept for the sake of safety. However, when wind conditions are ideal, and the skies are powder blue, this is the most visually thrilling day of the event. Be sure to include at least one Special Shapes Rodeo event in your photography itinerary!
The Special Shapes hot air balloons have an added dimension that can make your photos more interesting. Because they are often based on characters, they have personality and attitude that can be used in your photos to tell a story. You’re photographing giant cartoon characters with facial expressions and poses. Use these attributes to create interesting photos!
Look For Pleasing Color Combinations
Dazzling color is one of the most appealing attributes of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Often, you will see a combination of hot-air balloons and background colors that work so well together that they make a compelling photo. Look for those color compositions as you scan the field and sky around you. Sometimes, it is the combination of individually mundane elements that make for beautiful compositions.
Strong, appealing colors make for great compositions that pull your eye into the frame. Look for appealing colors, strong contrasts, and graphic shapes.
To get vivid, eye popping colors in your photos requires developing a sensitivity to how natural light shapes the scene in front of you. Use your polariser to darken the background sky. Is the front of the balloons adequately illuminated by the sun to provide plenty of detail or is it partially obscured by shadows? Do the colors and shapes create an interesting composition? Are there any distracting elements you may not want in the frame? Asking yourself these questions will help you to fine-tune your photo as you capture it.
Leave the Tripod At Home
Mornings pass quickly at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. From Dawn Patrol that begins about an hour before sunrise, to the end of Mass Ascension you have a three hour window for capturing the best shots you can of the spectacle before you.
Subtract any time you spend waiting on line for breakfast, and eating, and those three hours pass pretty quickly. Ideally, you want to be light on your feet and in a position to move about quickly to get the best photo opportunities. A tripod will slow you down, not only by its weight and bulk, but in setup time as well. By the time you place the tripod in the proper position, your hot air balloon subject has drifted away…
Do I need a tripod for pre-dawn photos of balloons?
No, not really. For one thing, modern digital DSLR and better “point-and-shoot” cameras can provide noise -free images in lower light than ever. By setting the camera ISO to 800 or higher you will often have a fast enough shutter speed to capture crisp pre-dawn images with minimal noise. Also, even the most inexpensive kit lenses on DSLR cameras have some form of image stabilization or anti-shake. Combine that with holding the camera steadily, and you will have plenty of sharp photos.
Here is what the pros do to get sharp pre-dawn balloon photos: Shoot handheld, and allow the camera to meter the scene and shoot when the hot air balloons are firing their burners. Generally there is a one-to-three second window of opportunity when that happens. The light from the burners works much like a camera flash, providing adequate, and often dramatic, lighting for the scene in front of you. To do this well, you need to hand hold your camera, have good timing, and have the metering set in center weighted mode (adjust as needed) to properly expose the brightness of the flames emanating from the burners.
Be sure that you are close enough to the action for the dramatic light from the hot air balloon burners to light up your composition. Shooting hand-held in this way will allow you to move around quickly for the best images.
The Best Location for Photography
One of the most common questions I am asked is the best location to be in for the best photos of the Balloon Fiesta. There really is no such thing. Because balloons are simultaneously ascending from every part of the field, good photographic compositions can be had from just about any location.
Keeping your camera kit light and moving about freely will be the best way to capture a wide range of interesting photos. Of course, that will work up a good appetite, and the perfect excuse to try some of Albuquerque’s Best Restaurants after the morning’s events have concluded.
Know Your Camera Well
It is not good to bring a camera that you have never used before. If you buy a new camera, be sure to practice using its features before you come to the Balloon Fiesta. The event starts in the early morning darkness and is fast moving. You don’t want to be figuring out how to change settings on your camera as your favorite balloons are floating away. If using your camera becomes second nature you can focus on the action in front of you with minimal distraction.
This completes my Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Photography Tips for now. Oh, one more thing. Be sure to check the weather forecasts for each day of the Balloon Fiesta. That New Mexico blue sky is an amazing backdrop for the balloons. Enjoy the Fiesta!