Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Photographing the Fiesta

The premier event for photographers in Albuquerque is the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.  This year's Fiesta, which ended last Sunday, featured 540 hot air balloons from 22 countries including Russia, Japan, Norway, Mexico, Belgium, and Brazil.

Over the 10-day run of the event there are lots of balloon-related activities, but the big attractions are the Mass Ascensions, when all the registered balloons launch from a 78-acre park on the north side of Albuquerque.  As you can see from the photo above, spectators can walk right onto the field and watch as the balloons are inflated and lift off.

On other days, if the wind is right, the balloons fly northwest from the field and over our neighborhood, landing nearby.  This year they came two days in a row.  (That's our house in the first picture below.)

Photographing the balloons is a joy and a challenge wrapped into one:  beautiful shapes and colors for the eye, but all moving more or less randomly, changing positions constantly, and none under my control.

Consequently, as a  photographer I have to compose on the fly (pun intended), trying to get a pleasing arrangement of light and subject into the frame.  After shooting, I work with the images on my computer to improve them by cropping or adjusting colors, intensity, saturation, etc.  Here are some examples.

First, I look for pleasing or interesting spatial arrangements of the balloons.  This is easier, of course, when the balloons are still on the ground.

And while the balloons are on the ground, I look for the drama of firing the propane burners to heat the air inside the balloons and allow them to stand up . . .

Then, of course, comes the drama of the launch, as the balloons lift slowly off the ground and catch the prevailing breeze . . .

Once the balloons are launched, the air is full of photo ops, but they are constantly changing from second to second, due to the movements of all the balloons.  I look for -- and sometimes wait for -- a pleasing arrangement in the air, as in this sequence from a not good arrangement (basket cut off) . . .

to OK . . .

to better (but still a problem with the basket cut off) . . . 

to really good (with a lucky capture of the moon):

Speaking of the moon, because it was there, I looked for opportunities to include it with a balloon or two:

Sometimes an uninteresting wide shot can be cropped in post-processing to yield a nice composition:

Depending on where you stand, you can see the balloons floating directly overhead like colorful marbles in the sky . . .

and occasionally you'll get a surprise, when one marble becomes two:

To convey the scale of the Mass Ascension I use wide shots from further away:

On the other end of the process -- balloons flying over and landing -- I look for many of the same elements, but with some variations.

I use features on the landscape (houses, trees, and people) to provide a sense of scale and power:

As on previous days, the moon was still up, so I looked for nice pairs like this one:

And I looked for pleasing arrangements of balloons in the sky and on the ground:

Landing approaches brought some balloons directly overhead, so close you could say "Good morning!" to the people in the basket, and they would respond in kind.

As a general rule, to get a well-lit image, you should have the sun shining on the subject from behind or from the side of the camera position.  But for artistic effect I also look for images that are back-lit, with balloons in between the sun and the camera, like these.

Balloon landings can be very gentle or very bumpy and dramatic, depending on the wind speed at ground level.

Here's a video of a bumpy landing.  The basket touches down first and slows down quickly, but the balloon itself acts like a giant sail and continues to travel at the speed of the wind.  So the basket and its passengers are dragged bouncing along until someone (or something) can bring it to a halt.


On the last day that balloons landed in our neighborhood, I had two pieces of good fortune.  First, one of the "special shapes" balloons -- Airabelle, the Creamland Dairy cow, landed in the field near our house.  The balloon is huge, even by commercial balloon standards -- literally as big as a house!

The balloon landed right in front of me; it would have landed on me if I hadn't moved.

It landed fairly gently, and the chase crew of about a dozen people was on the scene quickly to deflate and pack up the balloon.

My second piece of good luck was the arrival of a more normal-sized balloon, one of the last to land that morning.  The wind was lighter, so this landing wasn't as bumpy as the one I showed earlier.


After the balloon and basket came to a stop, I ran over to help hold down the basket while the pilot and two passengers waited for their crew to arrive.  The pilot graciously invited me to climb in and take a few photos, and even fired the propane burner a few times for me to shoot.  So while I wasn't flying, I got a sense of what it feels like to be beneath a giant balloon:

If you would like to see these images and videos in a larger format, please visit my photography website, Todos Juntos Photography, by clicking here.