What sort of camera should I buy for photographing the 2016 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?
First of all, what do you want to shoot? If you want beautiful photos of eye-popping brightly colored balloons against a brilliant blue sky, the choice is easy. Just about any modern digital camera from a reputable manufacturer will generate those photos beautifully. The one recommendation I would make is to choose a model that accepts a polariser filter. The polariser filter will give you the deep blue skies you want in sunny photos and beautifully saturated color (read my polariser tips article here). This is the one filter you cannot mimic in post processing.
Frankly, any DSLR or mirrorless camera with 6 Megapixels (made in the past ten years) or more of resolution will do the job superbly. Choose one lens in the 19-135mm zoom range (your 18-55mm kit lens will do fine) and you will have all you need for an easy to carry kit that produces sharp, clear photos in bright sunlight. Don’t forget the polariser filter!
Shooting before sunrise in low light
Do you want poster size, noise free, sharp photos of glowing balloons in pre-sunset near darkness? Pictures of Dawn Patrol or Glodeos (hot-air balloon glow ceremonies) are best captured with DSLR digital cameras with exceptional High ISO (noise free photos captured in low light) capabilities. Also, having vibration reduction built into your camera or lenses will allow you to shoot freely without a tripod and produce sharp images. Most older DSLR cameras and “point and shoot” digicams tend to produce somewhat noisy (grainy) images at higher ISO’s.
If this type of photography is not that important to you (you’re fine with a little extra grain in your low-light photos), there is no need to upgrade to a newer DSLR or mirrorless camera with excellent low-light capabilities. I shot the photo shown above with a decade-old 6 Megapixel Nikon D40 at 400 ISO. The noise can barely be seen in Web resolution images. I’m happy with that. If it really matters to you, then expect to spend a budget of about $1000.00 or so for a new DSLR camera body that will have the low-noise low light capabilities you need.
Your best camera accessory
Honestly, you best camera accessory is location. Simply being willing to walk to where the best photos are will do more for your photo quality than any choice in gear. I travel light, one camera body, maybe two lenses at the most and a pair of legs fueled by a tasty New Mexican breakfast burrito and lots of fluids. I use older, smaller DSLR cameras since the bulk of my photography is done in the sweet spot of light after sunrise when the balloon colors really pop. I’m constantly on the move and shooting.
Why a DSLR Camera?
A DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera or mirrorless camera has a prime advantage over smaller “point and shoot” cameras. In general, they have a larger sensor which results in better image quality and lower noise when compared to “point and shoot” cameras. This is changing rapidly as camera manufacturers are placing larger sensors in some of their better “point and shoot” camera models. Also, DSLR cameras offer interchangeable lenses and easy use of filters such as polarisers. As your photographic skills grow you will want to start experimenting with different lenses. DSLR cameras offer the widest choice of lenses on the market.
Personally, if I had a budget of around $300 or so for a camera, I would look for a good deal on a close-out model DSLR from Canon or Nikon with the kit lens or buy a used model from a reputable dealer. It is a better longer term investment than buying a “point and shoot” digicam without interchangeable lenses.
Manufacturer Refurbished Cameras, Great Buys!
Here is something most people are not aware of when they buy manufacturer refurbished cameras that can be had at great prices from reputable online dealers like adorama.com or bhphotovideo.com. Manufacturer refurbished cameras are individually hand checked by the manufacturer before sale. Plus, they often have a full warranty, 30 day return policy, and rock-bottom prices. I have always purchased refurbished or used cameras from these two top online camera dealers without issue.
I was asked to recommend suitable lenses for photographing the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. In truth, your image stabilized (or vibration reduction) equipped 18-55mm standard kit lens will do the job for most photos quite nicely. You will have no problem “filling the frame” with the gigantic balloons that surround you, and the extra sharpness from the stabilization (vibration reduction) feature insures that you have sharp images with slower shutter speeds as the sun rises fully. A lightweight 18-135mm or so lens with stabilization or vibration reduction will be perfect for isolating details and close-up shots. Ideally, you want to keep your eyes on the action rather than worry about changing lenses. Try to stay away from anything that will require a tripod. Carrying a tripod will simply slow you down and wear you out as you move around looking for great shots.