Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
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It didn’t go off as planned.

Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta attracts tourists and hot air balloons from around the world. You’ll see everything from the usual colorful round balloon shapes to Darth Vader, the Spiderpig, and Elvis. As you might guess, expectations run high for this world-class event.

After our arrival the night before the Fiesta’s start, we scoped out Balloon Fiesta Park and the available parking. We had already reserved a room at the Motel 6 North, dog-friendly lodging just a couple miles from the Park. We set our iPhone alarms to 5:20 AM and went to sleep.

Petroglyph Alternative to No Balloons

We discovered our alarm wasn’t set early enough. After our 6:00 AM departure, we got stuck in a police-directed traffic snarl that needed 40 minutes to go one and a half miles.

When we got to Fiesta parking after paying our $8 fee, we discovered that high winds had canceled all events for the first day. Fortunately, it took us much time to get to downtown Albuquerque and the Gold Street Caffe. After an excellent breakfast, we went hiking in Petroglyph National Monument’s Rinconada Canyon. Petroglyph National Monument allows leashed dogs on trails, making it a favorite of pet-loving locals. It also has one of the densest collections of rock art anywhere in the Four Corners.

To avoid unnecessary driving the next day, we found KKOB radio at AM 770, the official news station of the Balloon Fiesta. We also downloaded ABQ Journal’s Balloon Fiesta app with news updates. Either way, we would know if events were canceled due to wind or rain before we committed ourselves.

Morning Darkness with Glowing Gasbags

The alarm woke us at 4:45 AM and we were on the road by 5:20. This time, it took just 20 minutes to arrive and park. The attendants honored our parking stub from the previous morning too.

The first thing you see are balloon crew spreading big, bright patches of color on the ground. Crews begin blowing cold air into their balloons for cold inflation, but Zebras, the stripe-costumed launch directors, have final say on whether pilots get to fly or not. Zebras check the airworthiness of balloon envelope and basket, advise pilots on wind and overhead traffic, and signal clear for takeoff. You’ll see them walking among inflating balloons.

At the point of maximum cold inflation, pilots will make a preliminary fly decision and begin hot inflation. The bright flames from gas burners mounted to each basket make that warm glow much prized in balloon photographs. They also heat the air which completes the fill and forces the balloon upright.

Glowdeos, synchronized burns scheduled in morning and evening, give everyone marvelous views of glowing balloons. Balloons rise like colorful soap bubbles in the morning’s mass ascension.

You can’t tell what shape a balloon has if you’re standing close to the basket when inflation starts. You might see bright patches of green, black or white as the envelope grows, but you’ll need to step back to recognize the traveling snowbird, one of many special shapes balloons.

The evening glowdeo presented clusters of color and shapes in a riot of glowing fabric. In one spot, it looked like a giant scarecrow was warding off two big bumblebees while the spiderpig watched.

Where To Nosh Afterwards

After the evening fun, we found great barbeque dinner at Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ. Everything is fresh-cooked – you point at the meats and sides you want, and they slap it down on a platter for you. It’s maybe a half-hour drive from Balloon Fiesta Park, and it’s worth the drive.

See all the pictures here and here.

Shot Notes
I used Canon’s EF 16-35mm f/2.8L on an EOS 5D mark II and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS on an EOS 7D for almost all pictures. I took a few shots with the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L. I probably could have used my EF 24mm f/3.5L TS-E lens to avoid tilting the camera up, but I was traveling light and had left it at home.

Most of the time, you’ll either be going close with a wideangle or doing flight shots with the telephoto. The wide also works for balloon crew and spectator pictures. I didn’t use a tripod for early morning and post-sunset pictures. In a widely-attended event with lots of moving people, it’s tough to use one anyway, so I relied on high ISO and good camera-holding skills for sharp shots. You can generally handhold captures with 1/focal length shutter speeds and get usably-sharp pictures.

I also held down the shutter button for lots of 2-fer sequences. The second image is usually sharper because you’re not squeezing that button when you capture it.