Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 2016 | Active Light Photography | Photo Tours to Hidden Destinations, Anasazi Ruins
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0 Dark-Thirty Morning Wakeup
The alarm went off at 4:00 am.

But I knew it was worth it, so I jumped groggily out of bed. We’d arranged to meet friends at a Blake’s Lotaburger, and park at their daughter’s house, just a short walk from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. This event draws worldwide visitors – over 100,000 of them – and rightly so. Where else can you see 550+ hot-air balloons glowing and lifting off all at once – every day for a week?

0 Dark Thirty - Entering Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

We have to get there WHEN? – Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Start Me Up
I forgot my headlamp in my usual walkaround camera pack. But this time, I was packhorse-loaded with the big cameras and lenses, ready for assignment-level shooting.

At first, it seemed like nothing was happening. The scheduled morning glowdeo was set for 6:30am, followed by a 7 am mass ascension. But at 5:45, when I asked the nearest balloon crew when they expected to begin cold inflation, they said 7:15. Since that didn’t sound right, I went into the field to find more active balloon crews.


Heating up for the morning glowdeo

Cold Inflation, Burner Flares, And Liftoff
It didn’t take long. Cold inflation began happening all around me, but less synchronized than other years. Hollywood-style wind machines filled grounded gasbags up enough to rise in colorful half domes. Then it’s time for burners to blast blue flames up into balloons, with enough heat to start them rising. Referee-striped zebra officials motioned balloons into clear spaces and gave thumbs-up signals. Balloons began taking off everywhere.



“No, we’re not really burning it down…”   – Fill flash on RH figures

The biggest hazard was avoiding open-mouthed spectators with their heads tilted up to watch. Winds were practically nonexistent, so balloons flew lower, presenting a spectacle you could almost reach out and touch. I was expecting high-flying fireflies, but most pilots didn’t reach high elevations until well after sunrise.

Morning Ascension and Sandia Mountains - Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Morning Ascension and Sandia Mountains

Sunrise Colors – Special Shapes
And sunrise was New Mexico-spectacular. Puffy clouds vied with balloons for the most outrageous colors.

Sunrise colors on the ground and in the clouds - Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Sunrise colors – on the ground and in the clouds

When most conventional balloons that were going to had launched, special shapes began lifting off. My favorite travelling snowbird wasn’t here this year, but there was a Darth Vader-Yoda faceoff, a 14-story winged dragon named Scorch, and a large pig running for president on a pure pork platform. Even Smokey the Bear went up. He had a great vantage point to watch for wildfires.

Smokey the Bear - Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Smokey the Bear

Most balloons were down by 9:00 am. We thought about going out for brunch, but the wait was almost 45 minutes without a reservation during this busiest tourist season in Albuquerque.

Scorch the dragon - Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Scorch the dragon

Shot Notes
The night before, I charged up camera batteries including spares, and packaged up two cameras and lenses. My EOS 5D mk II mouinted a 16-35mm f/2.8L and the EOS 7D had the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS on. I carried the 7D and long zoom in a Kinesis Gear camera holster, and a 24-70mm f/2.8L in a case big enough for the long zoom. That case was attached to the belt for the holster.

Aperture Priority and High ISO
I slung both cameras around my neck before walking in. Then I set them for aperture priority and ISO 6400. This worked fairly well. For the wide zoom at f/2.8, I started out at 1/13 second shutter speed. Using IS and taking mostly sky shots with the long zoom at f/2.8 gave me hand-holdable shutter speeds there too. Waiting for burner flares to light up gasbags gave me more light and even faster speeds. I eneded up not using the 24-70mm at all – it stayed in the case.

Huggy bears - Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Huggy bears

This is not a static event where I could get away with a mirrorless camera and manual-focus lenses, so my small walk-around pack and gear stayed home.

AI Servo AF
As the sun peeked over the Sandia Mountains, it became light enough to stop down and stop worrying about shutter speeds. Since just about everything was either at the same distance and filling the frame, or an infinity away, I set both cameras for AI servo AF and let the camera choose the closest AF sensor point. Occasionally, I selected the inital point on an important detail to be sure I got it. Aperture priority with high ISO let me concentrate on composition, with occasional exposure compensation up for bright sky scenes or down for burner-lit scenes where I wanted to avoid excessive blown highlights.

I used fill flash a couple times to highlight foreground figures. A small flash like Canon’s 430EX comes in very handy in telling the complete story. I set flash to underexpose at least -1/3 stop (and usually -2/3 to -1 stop). This gives me a more seamless blend with the ambient light.

Leave The Kitchen Sink At Home
I shot a few kitchen-sink landscapes, but concentrated on showing parts of balloons, equipment and spectators’ faces. To flesh out the story, I captured volunteer zebra officials guiding balloons and preventing chaos. I also photographed mounted APD officers, an unusal sight, and some spectator reaction.

Avoid Boring Blue Sky
I borrowed techniques from years of shooting birds and airshows. An airborne balloon looks best with clouds in the sky. This gives a sense of place and interest you don’t get with plain, boring blue sky. Low-flying balloons gave me options to use mountains and spectators on the ground for scale and interest – viewers are interested in what other people are doing. For pre-sunrise shots, I underexposed as much as a full stop to keep it looking like night.

The Balloon Fiesta is a peaceful, intensely-colorful spectacle. It belongs on everyone’s bucket list.

Ascension and burn - Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Ascension and burn

See more pictures here.