To you, it may be the same old stuff you’ve seen a thousand times. But out-of-town guests consider your local attractions to be something special.
Driving to Balloon City
We had my brother and sister-in-law in from Chicago for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta last weekend. Every first week in October for over 40 years, balloonists from around the world have come to Albuquerque to fly, see and be seen. This year you can expect 550 balloons and at least 886,000 visitors, according to pre-event registrations and estimates.
So how do you actually find a place to park at the world’s most popular balloon fiesta? That’s easy – you get up early. Very early.
Early AM Parking
Ordinarily, driving to Balloon Fiesta Park takes about 30 minutes from our house. But even though we got up at 3 am and left around 4:15 am, it was almost an hour and a half before we got out of the car in the parking lot and walked in. We did get a parking space within easy walking distance, less than 100 yards from a gate.
Since we’d bought tickets online the night before, getting in was relatively quick. But it’s like going through airport security – I had to make sure I left my small pocket knife in the car, take off 20-25 pounds of photo gear, keys and cell phone, and walk through a metal detector. And just like the airport, you need to remember to put everything back on / away afterwards. I walked off without my keys, but a good Samaritan chased after me and asked if I’d left them behind. Thank you!
Inside, unlike prior years, not much seemed to be happening. And there also seemed to be a lot more people than usual – but it was the first full day too.
Blow it Up!
We found 10-13 or so conventionally-shaped hot-air balloons in the process of inflation near the park’s center. Crews stretched balloon envelopes to their full length on the ground, then rigged up ropes to baskets and checked gas burners. Big fans – more like Hollywood wind machines – revved up and blew air into the envelope, held open by a couple crew members. Other crew secured the parachute vent at the top of the balloon once it was full enough.
After the envelope half-filled, the pilot fired the burner to heat and completely fill the balloon with hot air. This is what makes the balloon rise – it’s full of hotter air than its surroundings. Other crew hold the crown line until the balloon is fully upright and inflated, then bring it into the basket and tie it off.
Cleared for Takeoff
Pilots intermittently fire burners to keep the envelope upright. Then paying customers or crew hop into the basket. But no takeoff happens until the Zebras – volunteer launch controllers – get radio confirmation to ok liftoff. This morning only a handful of balloons got permission to light up burners and go. It was still pretty spectacular seeing the intermittent burner flames making those few balloons glow like giant fireflies up in the dark sky. We never did find out why no one else was allowed to take off.
Flying high now…
Sunstar at Sunrise
Sunrise sees a spotlight spill of light across the park, with long shadows leading back to the sun. Suddenly everything’s bright and shiny, and you can see it all clearly.
Don’t have a cow, man…
Special Shape Pushups – Cows and Darth Vader
Balloons starting pushing up in mass. A Brazilian cow raised bulbous eyes and a toothy grin next to Darth Vader’s forebodingly-dark head. Neighboring Yoda balanced out Darth’s blankly-evil glare. And there were a few special shapes new to me. A gun-toting cowboy turtle had hands extended over six guns, ready to draw. And a squat green frog grinned out at the crowd, arms slightly raised.
Cow and Frog
Smurfs and Penguins from the lot
After waiting awhile for more balloons to lift off (they didn’t) and enduring the crowd’s crush for longer than I’d like, it was time to go. Yes, I could see a blue smurf, pastry chef and a penguin from the parking lot, but didn’t feel like going back. We were all in need of snacks and a nap.
I knew I’d want everything from close-up wide views to flight shots to laser-tight focus on balloon crew and passengers. But I also hate being a packhorse. That usually means a Leica M-camera and a couple lenses with an EOS R and maybe two more lenses. I decided on the lightest ultra-wide option I have, Leica’s 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar-M ASPH (actually a 16-21mm zoom). I also included Leica’s very light 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. I couldn’t find the external EVF for the Leica M10, so I took the heavier Leica SL mirrorless camera instead.
For the EOS R I had a heavy but relatively fast 70-200mm f/2.8L IS v1 for telephoto views, and Sigma’s 24mm f/1.4 Art for middling wideangle views. This gave me some redundancy – if one camera died for any reason, I still had wide and normal to telephoto lenses available on the other.
And I used all four lenses. Before sunrise, I had the two f/1.4 optics mounted for low-light shooting. Both cameras give usably- good results to ISO 6400, but I’d rather keep the ISO lower to make noise reduction a little easier in post. After sunrise, I switched – the 16-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar went on the SL, and the 70-200/2.8L IS on the EOS R.
Keep it up
Burner flames with luck will provide most pre-sunrise light, turning the balloon envelope into a giant diffusing sphere. I just accept that I’m going to blow out naked flames. But they’re a small-enough part of the scene that they won’t suck a viewer’s eye away enough to mess up the story I’m telling.
I also want to show crew and passengers doing their thing. For that I’ll usually avoid sweeping views and get close to balloon baskets. Sometimes you get other spectators’ faces and expressions In the near foreground with ultra-wide views, providing a nice counterpoint to (in this case) Darth Vader’s and Yoda’s faces. A kid’s expression of wonder reminds me I need to be more amazed and less jaded.
I also used an on-camera 600EX II-RT flash to fill some pre-sunrise shots. This spotlights a subject and keeps noise low. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to use flash on-camera, but with balloon burner light and just enough flash power, I avoided harsh shadows.
The gleam in Darth’s eye…
Diffraction at Sunrise
Diffraction sunstars played a prominent role around sunrise. The trick is to put the sun far enough behind something so it doesn’t blow out the whole scene, but just enough so it still diffracts around whatever it’s behind. But it can be hard to see where the sun is with an EVF on mirrorless cameras. I ended up estimating and shooting a lot of pictures in my attempts. I try to avoid lens flares shooting into the sun, but again couldn’t see them well enough in a mirrorless EVF. I did get the diffracting sun looking like a gleam in Darth Vader’s eye…
Burner and Envelope
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (nd), An Event Like No Other. Retrieved from https://balloonfiesta.com/
Hello Little Home (October 4, 2019), Essential Tips for Planning an Awesome Trip: Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Retrieved from https://hellolittlehome.com/albuquerque-balloon-fiesta/
Douglas Crook (nd), How to Inflate a Hot Air Balloon. Retrieved from http://sites.psu.edu/douglascrook/wp-content/uploads/sites/58725/2016/08/Assignment-5-Revised.pdf
Albuquerque Business First (Nov 1, 2018), How this year’s Balloon Fiesta attendance compares to last year. Retrieved from https://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/news/2018/11/01/how-this-years-balloon-fiesta-attendance-compares.html