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Favorite Photo Places: Hot Air Balloon Festivals

By Will Keener and Ron Wolfe—

Image © Ron Wolfe

It’s hard to imagine an event that could provide more colors, shapes, characters, configurations, and downright joy to photographers than a hot-air balloon festival. The kaleidoscope of color and the interaction of the setting, the viewers, the balloons and their crews make for a stunning variety of possibilities.

Living within hours of one of the first and finest balloon festivals, experience has taught us that there are some tricks to the hot-air trade worth sharing. We’ll use photos from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta –one of our Favorite Photo Places– to illustrate. Each October for nine days, this fiesta attracts balloons from around the world– up to 700. In the most recent fiesta, balloonists from 41 U.S. states and 17 foreign countries participated in the spectacle. Crowd totals over the duration of the most recent event numbered more than 880,000.

You’ve got to be an early bird. In Albuquerque, pilot briefings start at 5:30 a.m. Which direction will the balloons flow off the field? Any chance they will pass back over the field at higher elevations? (This often happens in Albuquerque.) What time will the direct sun become a photo factor? Pilots are very picky about windspeed, in ballooning. Are winds too high, weather too threatening?

Image © Ron Wolfe

A check of your local conditions can save a frustrating trip to the launch field on days when pilots choose not to participate. Site familiarization can be important. If you get a chance before launch day to check out the site, you can identify potential pleasing backdrops and those that aren’t so pleasing as well.

It takes a minimum of five people to get a typical hot-air balloon up and launched and it is a ballet of its own to watch. Crews roll out the fabric envelope and set the location for the gondola (wicker passenger basket), then go to work assembling all the hardware pieces and lines involved in preparing to launch. Large blower-fans push morning air into the envelope. The pilot fires up the propane burners to test them. Crew members fan out to coax the envelope into proper shape and ensure all lines and cables are properly aligned. This part of the process offers many photo opportunities, typically in the pre-dawn light.

Image © Will Keener

A ‘walk-around’ wide-angle to telephoto lens is a good choice, the wider the better (or you can stitch photos at any focal length to emulate that wider angle you didn’t use)! You’ll want to zoom in on interesting people, select clusters of balloons, and zoom out to capture panoramic images of balloons during mass ascensions.

Light changes fast during the assembly and launch. During the earliest launches (called dawn patrol), the sky will still be dark. A setting of ISO 800-1600 will help you capture the balloon as the pilot turns on the burner, lighting the colorful envelope. Later, you can adjust the ISO as lighting dictates. You’ll want a shutter speed of 1/125 or more, depending on your focal length, to help you freeze action.

Clothing is another important consideration. We dress in layers and make sure we have thin effective gloves for shooting in the cold. Extra batteries and memory cards are also a good idea, especially in the cold weather. You might want to consider a graduated neutral density or a circular polarizing filter for scenes after the sun pops over the horizon.

Image © Will Keener

Getting the chance to fly during a festival is a special treat. This will give you a perspective on the event that most ticket holders can only dream about. A fisheye can give you a great view of the pilot, a stream of hot air blasting into the envelope and the colors of the balloon itself. Your telephoto will come in handy for shooting interesting features below you – other balloons coming off the field, lines from roads and fields, and interesting building shapes.

There’s plenty to see and shoot from the ground, too. Balloons lifting off and floating overhead in overlapping patterns, colors often brightly illuminated by the early morning sun and delightful special-shape balloons all make for fun shots. Are there other objects that can be juxtaposed with the balloons? Aircraft, the moon, interesting clouds, contrails, nearby mountains are all examples.

Image © Ron Wolfe

Another part of many balloon festivals is the balloon glow. Beginning at twilight, crews stand up their balloons and then light up the envelopes using their burners to give bright, colorful effects. Sometimes the balloons light simultaneously to broaden the impact. Choose a wide-angle lens and a fairly wide aperture, f/4 or f/5.6, and use a shutter speed 1/200 or higher. This will dictate ISOs in the 400-800 range, but balloons still jiggle around despite the fact they are tethered and sharp images stand out at night

No matter how well you plan, things on the launch field can go awry. Time seems to speed up when you are in the thick of shooting. The launch can be over before you know it! No matter how your photos come out, try to take a moment to appreciate the magnitude and the majesty of these events. Stop, look, breathe, enjoy yourself!


Balloon festivals and rallies take place throughout the U.S. all year round. Google “Balloon Festivals” for a location near you.

Best Red River Paper for hot air balloon photography prints: Polar Luster Metallic.

Image on Home Page © Ron Wolfe.

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Original Publication Date: November 15, 2019

Article Last updated: November 15, 2019

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