Last Sunday I covered the Color the Skies hot air balloon festival at the Mistlin Sports Park in Ripon. It brought back memories of when I was a young photo student in college and some friends and I went to the Great Reno Balloon Race in Nevada. We drove through the wee hours of the morning to photograph the predawn launch of the balloons. Although we were excited to shoot the balloons, we were also a bit bleary-eyed when we got there. In retrospect, maybe we should have stayed in a motel the night before but we were young with more eagerness than sense.
Hot air balloon races are always fun and colorful events to photograph or just watch. Some, like the one in Ripon with a little more than a dozen balloons participating, are small events. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico (Oct. 4-12) boasts about 700 balloons. Whether the balloons are in the air or on the ground, photo opportunities abound. It’s no wonder that everyone from seasoned photographers to casual picture-takers from all over flock to see them.
The way the balloons work is that they are basically made of a parachute-like material that are filled by hot air (as the name suggests) from a flame from a large propane burner all attached to a rattan basket. It’s the heated air that gives the balloons their lift.
Hot air balloon races/festivals always occur very early in the day, often starting before sunup. This is to take advantage of the cool morning air, which makes the balloons’ hot air more effective and buoyant. It’s also an advantage for photographers. Some events have what is known as a “dawn patrol.” Some of the balloons actually take off before the sun comes up. When the burners are lit off in the darkness, the light from the flames brilliantly illuminate the thin fabric of the balloons making them look like giant colorful glowing light bulbs. As the sun starts to rise and more balloons are inflated, photographers can also take advantage of the blue and golden hours of the waning morning.
The balloons are first unpacked from trailers or large trucks that they are rolled up in for transportation. They are spread out onto a tarp on the ground and then are attached to the baskets. Then crews use large fans (the kind that firefighters use to evacuate smoke from a building) to force air into the bottom openings of the balloons for an initial partial inflation.
Once the balloons reach a certain size the burners are fired in large rocket-like blasts, which fill them up with hot air. As they start to rise the balloons are tilted upright along with their baskets. The fire from the burners can add even more color and action to an already colorful scene for you photos.
Exotic equipment isn’t necessary to capture hot air balloons. Most events let you get pretty close the balloons so a wide-angle lens should suffice. By the time most of the balloons are in the air the sun is usually up and there should be plenty of light so event so even a slow (re: inexpensive) telephoto lens should be good enough to capture them floating serenely across the sky.
A couple of other considerations: Dress in layers. The early morning hours of these events can be a bit chilly but the days can warm up as the sun rises. While you can get in pretty close to the balloons, once they are inflated and ready to take off, they can be difficult and unpredictable for the ground crew to handle especially if it’s windy. Be aware of this and listen to the crews’ requests to get out of the way. Lastly the vehicles that transport the balloons to the events are also chase vehicles. Watch out as they leave to follow the balloons as they fly.
As I mentioned before the Ripon hot air balloon event is over but the Great Reno Balloon Race, featuring about 100 balloons, is coming this weekend (Sept. 5-7). So if you want to do a little traveling or wait another year there are balloon photo opportunities to be had, you just have to be willing to get up early for them.