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Photography from a Hot-Air Balloon
Introduction - Whether you are flying in a hot-air balloon or viewing hot-air balloons from the ground, a photographer will find many opportunities to take some exceptional pictures. This article explains the techniques required for photography from or with hot-air balloons, and suggests some ways to ensure you come back to earth with the best images available.
Photography Equipment Choices - In preparation for the flight, lets look at the types of equipment you will need. The average flight in a balloon will be quite short, so there is no point wasting your time changing lenses. Far better to have a 2nd camera, which also provides a backup in case of a problem with the first. Space in the basket is limited, so no bulky camera bags or backpacks should be brought with you. A belt holster is best for holding cameras, or you might prefer a neck-strap, though bear in mind that the height of the basket wall may obstruct and abraid a spare camera kept in this position as you lean out taking photos with the other one. A lanyard or length of parachute cord that secures each camera to you is a sensible safety measure, though experiment beforehand to ensure that they do not obstruct your photo-taking style. Dropping a camera is an expensive mistake, as well as dangerous for people on the ground. Likewise, you don't want to drop a lenscap whilst in the air, so I will repeat the comments made in my photography from a horse, camel, and elephant pages. You can purchase an adhesive button that attaches the lens cap with a short cord to the body of the lens or camera, and these are useful if you prefer to use your camera with a permanent neck strap. This allows the cap to dangle safely when not on the lens front. I prefer, however, to dispense with the lens cap altogether when to drop it would result in permanent loss, so keep a soft cloth at the bottom of my camera bag to stop the lens glass from scratching when the camera is resting in there. Your spare battery should be kept close at hand in your pocket, along with a spare, pre-formatted memory card or two. You are likely to be taking many more pictures than you expect to. A polarising filter can be handy to combat those large expanses of blue sky and cut down on haze, though don't forget it will also reduce the available light. It is always useful to have a clean lint-free cloth handy, in case the lens needs a wipe.
Lens Choices - Whilst still on the ground, a wide angle or wide angle zoom is essential. The balloon canopy is very big when compared to the basket and people, so a wide angle lens is most useful to get everything in. Once you are in the air, a bigger telephoto lens will be more useful as you pick out other balloons in the distance, and details on the ground. Although there will still be the chance to take basket + background shots, passenger + flaring shots, or passenger + balloon envelope shots for which the wide angle lens is preferred, most of the other scenes will require a lens in the 50-200mm range - any more is unlikely to give much advantage, and will probably result in softer focus and more blurring. With no time to change lenses, a zoom that covers this range is the most useful. I use a Nikon 12-24mm zoom on one D300 body, and an 18-200mm on the other, and find this the ideal combination for a Nikon DX camera.
Other Useful Equipment - A close fitting hat or baseball cap that is unlikely to blow off will be appreciated. The heat generated when the gas burners are lit is surprisingly strong - this happens regularly during the flight, and you may be concerned that your hair might be singed or damaged. Some balloon baskets have a screen to limit this effect but it is not always so effective for people standing at the edges of basket, so it is best to wear some form of head covering. Once you are in the basket, as the envelope receives its final inflation before take-off, you may find that quantities of dust and sand clinging to the envelope fabric as it rested on the ground will fall down on you and your cameras, so a scarf or similar to protect them until this stops is most useful. A GPS receiver that can store the route is a nice addition to your flight, as it can be used later on to generate a track and height profile, or to geo-reference your photographs.
Flight Preparation - It is well worth making a pre-flight checklist, as once you are in the air there is no chance to pop back for missing items, and no time to fiddle with camera settings. Check that both cameras have the most useful settings already entered, and check white balance, mode, and ISO speed to make sure these are as wanted. Check that the Exposure Compensation hasn't been left on +3 stops! Check that the lens is set to Auto Focus, and that the Image Stabiliser is on, and has the correct mode selected. Check that battery is full, and that there is a spare in your pocket. Check that there is plenty of room on your memory card, with a spare or two also in your pocket. Check that all items are well secured to your person, especially your cameras. Check your GPS receiver is turned on and recording.
In the Basket - For those new to ballooning, it might be useful to discuss the basket, and what to expect. The basket is generally made out of wicker, with a sturdy floor. Its wall comes up to about chest-height, with a rounded lip covered with leather or plastic. The pilot will stand in the centre of the basket to access the gas, vents, and other controls. He will also need space to observe the instruments and operate the radio, so do not get in the way. The basket is not at all roomy, and may be compartmentalised, so there will not be space to swing around without knocking into your companions. A backpack or bulky camera bag is thus not a good idea, and should be left on the ground. You should plan to to have everything you are likely to want at hand, preferably in your pockets. Beware of falling sand or dust from the balloon canopy when it first inflates, and cover your equipment for the first few minutes until this stops. You will enter and leave the basket by climbing over the wall - there is no door, but steps are generally provided. Take note of the hand-loops used when landing. Your pilot will instruct you in their proper use, and advise you on the correct position to take as you approach the end of your flight.
Before Take Off - Once the ballon has been laid out on the ground, and the basket and burners attached, the envelope will be inflated using powerful fans. This is an exciting time for the onlooker, and there are many chances for excellent photographs as this happens, but be careful when approaching all this activity, and obey commands from the ground crew at all times. Beware of the inflating fans - especially for clothing or straps that may get sucked in. If the ballon starts to deflate, move out of the way immediately as once the process starts, it happens very quickly. As the balloon inflates, some of the ground crew may walk inside the envelope to help the material separate or check vent closures. This can also make a good photograph, but you should always ask permission to approach so closely. Hand signals are usually used at this point, as the noise from the fans is tremendous, so keep a constant lookout when taking pictures - you may not hear shouted commands. Once the balloon has been fully inflated, the cold air will need to be displaced with hot air to get the envelope to rise. To do this, short bursts of gas flame will be directed into the balloon. This flaring can result in some spectacular photographs, so be prepared. Closeups of the flames themselves, or wide angle shots as the colored balloon is illuminated from the inside will definitely be worth taking. Most flights occur at dawn, so be there just before the sun comes up for the most spectacular of flaring shots. Once the envelope has been inflated and the balloon has been readied for flight, you will be invited to board. Try to be the last person into the basket, to get some shots of the balloon with a fully loaded basket full of smiling eager faces.
Into the Air - The moment has come at last, and the long awaited flight is about to begin. Listen carefully for crew advice and instructions before take off. You will probably find that the actual moment when the ground crew release the basket and the balloon starts to rise is hardly noticed. You are more likely to be gazing in awe at the long tounges of flame leaping into the air as the pilot adds more hot air to encourage the balloon to rise. Some people have a fear of heights which may put them off from the experience of flying in a balloon, but this shouldn't be necessary. At take off, you should look sideways and into the distance rather than down. In just a short while, the view of the ground resembles that seen from an jet airliner, and any nervousness soon melts away. Shots to expect at this point are: wide angle shots of the basket and background. Gas flaring as the balloon lifts off. Shadow of the balloon and basket on the ground. Other balloons in the air, or balloons against the background of the ground. It helps to be in the highest balloon for the best shots like these.
Back to the Ground - All too quickly, the flight will be over and it is time to land again. The pilot will brief you as to the proper positions and hand holds to take when landing, and probably get you to practice this before take off. Depending on the wind and other conditions, landings can be bumpy at times, and the basket may well tip over so be prepared. Your expensive cameras may not appreciate being tossed around whilst this is happening, so its best to put them away in a case just before landing, though you will probably want them again straight away after this for excellent shots as the ground support crew secures the balloon and starts man-handling the envelope in preparation for collection. Don't leave the basket until told to, as the balloon will be in an unstable state, and with the sudden loss of 80kgs of payload (you!) it may well rise into the air again. A sudden gust of wind can also pull the balloon along the ground. Only the pilot knows when the flight is really at an end, so listen to what he says.
Where and When to go Hot-Air Ballooning - Ballooning happens all over the world, either singly or in groups. There are balloon races to be followed, balloon festivals to attend, and balloon events for a variety of special purposes. Some parts of the world are famous for providing regular balloon trips for visitors: Luxor in Egypt, Goreme in Turkey, and the Serengetti in Tanzania spring immediately to mind, but there are many others. Google is your friend when searching for ballooning opportunities or a list of places to go hot-air ballooning, so I won't provide a list here. Prices vary tremendously, and there are often bargaining possibilities, due to low season, last minute spaces, size of group, etc so don't always agree to the first price offered. It helps to get the best price if you are in the area for a while, and drink in the same bars as the crew. If you can't afford a flight, is it still worth visiting to take photographs? Yes yes yes. A few photo sales may well pay for next year's balloon flight. Show your portfolio to the pilot and balloon company staff. Publicity shots, especially if unique, could be interesting to them, and might result in the offer of a free flight to take more.
Alternatives to Flying - If you can't get to fly at the moment, try and follow the balloon, either in your own vehicle or one of the official chase cars. The best balloon shots are generally when the balloon is near to the ground, not thousands of feet in the air. A radio receiver to monitor the flight will be a useful tool to have with you. The chase cars will tell you the frequencies to be used. If driving your own car, keep your eyes on the road, and get a passenger to keep track of the balloon as it moves across country. Good maps and a GPS receiver will be useful when navigating those tiny country roads. When the balloon comes down, do not obstruct other vehicles by parking across gates and entrance-ways, and do not trespass on to private land to get close to the balloon. If you see the chase cars, ask if they would like a hand to recover the balloon - you will often be warmly welcomed.
Photographic Possibilities - There are, of course, an infinite number of images to be taken, so here are just some ideas for shots you should be looking out for. Try to get in the full canopy and those great flaring shots. Some of the best shots are those taken of other balloons, so if you get the chance, take a flight at a time when there will be other balloons in the air. Taken from above, the distant balloon will provide an excellent point of interest in the scene. Balloon silhouettes are always useful, especially at sunrise and sunset, but it is best to make use of one of the key features of a hot air balloon: its color. A hot-air balloon envelope is usually made in strong primary colors which look very good in a photograph. They are often made from long colored panels as well, and so introduce useful lines into a composition that can be exploited with great effect. Study a composition guide for more hints on how to use lines and color to your advantage.
Other shot possibilities may include: patterns of the canopy, flaring off, balloon inflation and deflation, balloon recovery, internal views of the canopy, balloon shadows, balloon reflections, comparison of balloons to other features on the ground or in the sky. Try to include these other features with the balloon in any photograph, as they give the image scale, purpose, and balance. A single image of a balloon in the sky is not very interesting. Some clouds will help, or other balloons. If the balloon is still near to the ground it may be possible to include the balloon with trees or buildings, so it helps to be near the balloon as it starts its ascent. Once it gets higher in the air, these possibilities are lost unless you can take to the air as well. Above all, take plenty of shots, and then plenty more. With digital cameras, they can always be deleted later, but are hard to recapture.
Never loose sight of what the photos are to be about - if the subject is balloons or ballooning, then they should be the primary point of the picture, but if you are using the balloon as just an item of interest in a photo of a travel scene, for example, then make sure the balloon doesn't dominate or unbalance the image. Include human-interest features whenever possible. Concentrate on your individual style - for me this means good composition. Don't forget to take both landscape and portrait shots, especially if you intend to try and sell your images. Most shots are taken in landscape format, yet most printed images are in portrait!
Finally - Don't forget to have fun, and leave time to enjoy yourself, and preserve the memory of your flight in your mind as well as in your camera. Don't spend all your time taking photographs. Ballooning is a unique and serene experience, and your time in a balloon deserves to be remembered as much for the spirit of the moment as for the photos you went home with.
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