The spectacle of enormous bulbous shapes emerging from the predawn chill of darkness to become towering giants looming over you is something to see.
Photographing the launching of hot air balloons is most definitely an adrenalin pumping experience for any enthusiastic photographer.
From the darkness these magnificent giants sway gently above and around you, with their murky colourless shapes presenting an ominous presence. The crew fire their burners into the sleeping giants suddenly awakening them; they explode into a burst of colour and movement. The burners sound like jet fighters taking off, the activity to launch them is frenetic but amongst what may appear to be chaos are the meticulous crews working in their calm and well-practiced manner.
All this creates the most visually exciting opportunities.
Now after waiting in the dark to the sounds of crews tinkering and tourist quietly mingling, the field is alive with action. The photographers mind is can be overwhelmed with capturing the plethora of striking images presenting themselves. Time now is short and if the photographers keep their heads many wonderful images will be captured for all to admire.
Preparation is the key. Trying to adjust your camera in a dark cold paddock is not a good idea. So it is important to have your settings in place before you step out of your vehicle. For those too timid to step away from the automation of a modern day DSLR camera’s your images may turn out ”ok” but due to sudden and unpredictable flaming burst of light they are very unlikely to reach anywhere near the potential that shooting on “manual” will have.
So, if you want exceptional shots switch your camera onto “manual”. Set the ISO very high and make sure your shutter speeds are faster than 1/80th of a second. If possible 100th will be better because there is a lot movement during a launch and slow shutter speeds will give you images that may be arty but to many will look more like a mistake.
Generally it is very dark and your exposure may illuminate your screen but can appear flat and uninteresting. The trick here is to under-expose. Embrace the dark side…so to speak.
As soon as the burners start going off, being in manual mode, control of your exposure will allow you to create dramatic and exciting images.
Your position on the field will be determined by the elements and the safety requirements of the balloon operators. But look out for interesting backgrounds, silhouettes, water such as ponds and small lakes, if it’s raining then look out for reflections off shinny surfaces. Constantly looking around for other possibilities will make you a much better photographer.
Often while shooting such events I find myself looking back in the opposite direction only to realise the best shot is behind me. Remember that the best shot is almost always the one you don’t first see.
Initially, as these giants start to emerge it may be wise to walk back and take a wide shot into the morning light. Many of these shots are quite beautiful. But then as the action starts to happen I would suggest grabbing your best wide angle lens. Get in “close and dirty” as I like to instruct students. Your boldness will give you the most dramatic images. But remember to stay where the crews are happy for you to stay. At this point of time they control very large objects and very hot and inflammable equipment. Respect must always be your doctrine.
While all this is happening the world has turned a bit more and the light is increasing. Dial back your ISO constantly, after all, who wants images that are overpowered by “noise”. It is a common but fatal mistake to leave the ISO high. As the light increases diligently reduce your ISO.
Also as the light improves the opportunity to increase your shutter speed is wise. Balloons are generally gentle creatures but the people working around them are constantly on the move. The action silhouetted against the flames of the burners and the colours of the balloons makes a great shot. By constantly adjusting your camera you will be able to take full advantage of this wonderful opportunity.
At this point the balloons are now standing high, very high.
Their size is astounding, especially if you are beneath them. The passengers are now aboard and the balloons begin to lift off. There is no going back and you have to be ready or else you will miss great shots. Expose for the sky and wait until the pilots’ fire their burners. That’s it, the shot!
If you are wise you will be constantly moving to line up your images with your backgrounds. The balloon you are focusing on is your subject, other balloons are your secondary subject and your sky, mountains and sunshine are your background. Work to capitalize on all these elements. Wait for the burners to fire and then, click. That’s it. You have a great shot.
The more adventurous photographers may take it one step further and turn off your auto focus. This will give you more control but it will require more discipline and a lot more work under pressure. But to stand out from the average you need to say “what the hell and go for it.
After all this and you find yourself standing in a quiet field with a few curious cows to keep you company. You may be thinking how could you beat that!
At this point all you want to do is play back your images and delete the ones you stuffed up as quickly as possible. But no. Quickly grab your gear and join the chase.
The balloons move surprisingly quickly so there will not be much time to admire your efforts. Time to seek out vantage points that will give you the best light as well as getting you close enough so the balloons appear to be more than a few dots on your screen.
The best spots will get you close while giving you an interesting background in the early morning light. Once again check your settings. Get your ISO as low as practical. Your shutter speeds at this stage can be relatively slow and it’s wise to use a tripod, especially with your longest lens. But remember the balloons are still moving so don’t dawdle, especially if you have opted to fly in a balloon. Your balloon is moving, the other balloons are moving so very slow shutter speeds are not an option.
The final stage of our visual adventure is the landing which happens fairly quickly so choose your position wisely and don’t be afraid to shoot into the sun.
In fact I believe many of the best images are the ones that break that old rule of “never shoot into the sun”. Dam it! Just do it and you will very often get your best shots ever, especially with these big beautiful giants gently heading earth-wards.
Once again, set your gear up before you step into the field. Be brave and switch your camera to manual and be even braver and turn off your auto-focus. Start with your ISO very high, but remember to adjust constantly as the sun rises. Keep your shutter speeds quick enough to capture the action and always respect the balloon crews and stay out of their way.
Finally, enjoy one of the most exciting photography experiences you can find.
Author: Rod Black has a long background as a successful commercial industrial and advertising photographer who was trained on mainly medium and large format film cameras without the luxuries of automatic exposure, auto focus and even the software to recover images in post processing. He is very experienced and over the last few years has developed many techniques to get the best out of balloon photography. He frequently runs photo-tours and photo-workshops in Australia and Internationally.
To experience a combined photography tour and balloon flight, refer to our package: https://www.globalballooning.com.au/yarra-valley/experience/yarra-valley-flight-photographic-tour
by Rod Black