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Hot Air Heaven

Fall is here. The smell of green chile and propane is in the air again! If you've ever been to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, you'll know why I look forward to those things. If you haven't been to the Balloon Fiesta, you should start planning to visit the annual nine day celebration that occurs the first full week of October.

Located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the 2004 International Balloon Fiesta was the 32nd year of one of the most photographed events in the world. It's not surprising, since the Fiesta displays over 700 balloons and has a total attendance of over 850,000 people.

Attracted to Albuquerque by great weather and perfect flying conditions, balloonists find the high central desert around the city a mecca for year-round flying. Early October conditions are perfect: weather is generally clear, temperatures cool in the morning, and wind is light. Albuquerque is well known for "the Box" - wind conditions that allow balloonists to fly at different altitudes and stay within reasonable distance of, or even land back at, their take-off site. When combined with a mass ascension of 700 balloons, the Albuquerque "Box" means that you'll be able to capture dozens, even hundreds of balloons in close proximity in the sky.

Situated in central New Mexico's Rio Grande valley, Albuquerque is the state's largest city. The city and its suburbs stretch from the high mesa west of the river, to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains ten miles to the east of the river. Flights into Albuquerque and hotel rooms get scarce during the Fiesta, so plan ahead or you'll be hunting for a flight and room. Visitors to the Fiesta can either park at Balloon Fiesta Park located on the north edge of the city, or avoid traffic via one of the event's five park & ride locations. Onsite RV parking provides another alternative that cuts your morning trip to the site substantially. Tickets are required at $5 per day (children 12 and under are free) and can be purchased by phone, online, at the park, or with an inclusive park & ride ticket.

The Balloon Fiesta includes a variety of different events. The best known events are the four weekend morning mass ascensions, where over 700 balloons take off in under two hours. You must get up very early to catch the balloon flights, which start before dawn. 

Mass ascension days start with a few select "Dawn Patrol" balloons lifting off between 5:45 and 6 a.m. Shortly after Dawn Patrol checks flying conditions, the first wave of balloons begins assembling and filling their craft. 

By 7:15 a.m., pilots begin to launch the first wave of several hundred balloons. By 8 a.m. the second wave of balloons takes off, filling the sky with an amazing array of colors and sounds. 

By 11 a.m. the Fiesta is winding down as most balloons have flown away or landed, leaving you with the remainder of the day to explore.

Other Fiesta events include the "Flight of the Nations" ascension of international balloons, two Special Shape Mass Ascensions, balloon glows, and weekday morning contests of pilot skill, where significant prizes are awarded to winners. The Special Shapes Ascensions display over 70 unique shapes from bears to boots. These are great opportunities to capture a wide range of unique balloon shapes all at once. Balloon Glows are one of my favorite events and occur throughout the week. 

During the Balloon Glow, balloons are inflated at dusk but don't take off. As the pilots fire their propane burners, the balloons light up like light bulbs - with beautiful colors to complement the sunset. Bring a tripod to evening events or be prepared for higher ISO speeds. I like using slower shutter speeds to capture the action as the balloons light up and sway in the breeze. A large crowd meanders amongst the balloons, so make sure your tripod is tall enough to elevate your camera to shoot over the crowd.

When you attend the Fiesta, you'll want to be able to change film/ISO speed throughout the day. Early in the mornings you'll need higher ISO speed and larger aperture or VR/IS lenses to be able to shoot the pre-dawn activity on the field. Keep in mind that before dawn, the primary light is from the balloons' propane burners. Spot metering on the balloons helps keep your exposures set correctly. As the sun rises, balloons become beautiful jewels as they fill-up and ascend into the deep blue sky. As the morning progresses, switch to lower 50-200 ISO speed to get lower noise/grain photos and capture more saturated images. When using polarizing filters, use them carefully, as it is very easy to over-filter and end up with black skies.

You've probably seen one of the many balloon calendars at bookstores. Many of these calendar shots come from Albuquerque, particularly the pictures with dozens of balloons in them. If you get a chance, review a couple of these calendars to see the variety of shots you can capture. I like using wide angle to moderate telephoto zooms, although fixed lens can work. The balloon fiesta takes place on a large dirt field, so moving around to get your composition is possible. Balloons are very large and balloonists setting up can block off a lot of ground with their equipment and vehicles. Zooms help you work around the moving obstacles and crowd a bit better.

Pay attention to the direction of the light on your subjects. Backlit balloons can be nice, but unless you catch them with their burner on, they tend to show up muddy and underexposed. You will have more dynamic shots if you catch side lit balloons by shooting north/south and more saturated images shooting west. If you happen to catch an overcast day, limit the sky in your pictures and focus on detail shots filled with balloon color instead.

My favorite shots emphasize the brilliant color of the balloons and sky, focusing on one balloon with several in the background. Wide angle or modest telephotos lenses work well for this, with wide angles being particularly good if your foreground balloon is still on the ground. 

Don't forget to capture the setup action - showing the crews assembling and inflating the balloon. These shots are also good opportunities to capture shadows of people on balloons or other detail shots. For portraits, try and shoot looking up from a low shooting position so that you can capture the floating balloons behind your subject, while minimizing the crowd. 

The most memorable shots, which I find toughest to do well, are the mass balloon shots. I've done many, but the ones I like best include one or two balloons in the near foreground, so that it isn't simply a bunch of small subjects spread around the frame. Finally, long telephotos have at least one clear use - compressing distance to capture balloons in the environment. Watch in particular for ways to capture balloons in front of the moon or heading towards the beautiful Sandia Mountains in the east.

Don't expect to find a free ride unless you have balloonist friends that fly in the Fiesta. However, you can pay to ride the balloons, which is a special treat. You won't be able to drag a tripod or big bag aboard - so plan to travel light. Bring along a lot of film/media and batteries, as it could be a while before you land. Try shots of your fellow passengers with balloons in the background, views up into the balloon itself, as well as shots of balloons against the city and desert surrounding the field. Be prepared for landing, as wind can make it a rough experience if the chase crew isn't nearby to help.

If you decide to attend the Fiesta, plan extra time to see the many photogenic and historic sights located nearby. Around Albuquerque, sights range from ancient Petroglyph National Monument west of town, to the rugged mountains of the Sandia National Forest east of town, and the architecture and art of Old Town Albuquerque. Other historic sites such as Bandelier, Salinas Pueblo Missions and El Malpais National Monuments are within a ninety minute drive.

For more tastes of New Mexico culture, Santa Fe is a quick hour drive north. If you take the Turquoise Trail route, there are many scenic small towns to stop and photograph along the way. Another ninety minutes past Santa Fe takes you to Taos, with more traditional architecture, artists and accommodations. Finally, fall markets throughout the region offer art, as well as colorful and spicy New Mexico chiles - that make for beautiful scenes of New Mexico life.

I've been to four different Fiestas and I'm always excited by the thought of returning again. I hope you get many memorable images and experiences out of the event as well!


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