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Photographing From Above: A Balloon's Eye View

September 29, 2016

Ken Sklute

This article was originally published on September 18, 2015 and has been updated to include current product information.

One of the most remarkable experiences that you can have at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (AIBF) is to see the largest gathering of hot air balloons from above. Reaching altitude in a hot air balloon gives no sensation of movement whatsoever. The balloon is moving with the air, so you will not feel wind on this gentle ride. As a photographer, you will be thrilled with this aerial platform. The perspective from above gives you an entirely different sense of the Fiesta. With good weather conditions, the light can be amazing.

Photo opportunities are everywhere. Watch the sun come up over the horizon. See the warm light bathe the landscape below you. Look down on all of the other balloons inflating. Witness those long shadows created by the rising sun. Capture images of other balloons as they take to the sky. View the magnificent, winding Rio Grande River. Experience a "splash and dash." Take in 360 degrees around you.

Mass Ascension

There is no better place to capture a sunrise than flying in a balloon during the Mass Ascension at the AIBF on a crisp October morning. While drifting along with the gentle breezes, you will be surrounded by over 800 other balloons.

If you are planning on photographing the excitement that is Fiesta, I'd suggest you first arrange a flight in one of the hot air balloons. Contact the ride concession to purchase your ticket for one of the Mass Ascension days. You will be a part of the beauty with balloons in front of you, behind you, to the left, right, above and below you. Many of the balloon envelopes have turning vents so your pilot can rotate the balloon, providing all of the passengers a new perspective of the surroundings.

When I am flying as a photographer, I usually have two camera bodies on my shoulder — the first is an EOS 5D series camera with a wide angle zoom such as the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L and the other my EOS-1D X series with the versatile EF 70-200mm 2.8L IS or EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS lens — this way, I am covered for virtually any situation that I encounter. There is limited room in the basket so you will not be able to bring along a camera bag, but I suggest using a photo vest to hold your digital media, spare batteries and anything else that you may want while you are in the air. I make it a practice not to change lenses in the confined basket, as your attention will be on the calliope of color gently moving in front of you. And some baskets may be tight with space because of other passengers.

When I find myself rising into a pod of balloons, I like to look for:

  • Balloons at various distances from mine, creating depth in the sky.
  • The light from the sun at a 90 degree angle to the balloons, creating dimension.
  • A foreground balloon to give balance to the balloons in the background.
  • Clouds that create lighter and darker balloons.
Creating compositions from above

As you first take to the sky, you will watch the ground slowly move away from you, revealing more envelopes inflating and pilots launching alongside you.

Because you are in motion, you will find that the compositions are continually changing. I look for shapes and patterns in the landscape below me. Because the sun would have just risen, there are long shadows stretching across the field, giving dimension to the balloons in various stages of inflation. This is one of my favorite times to be making images because you are amidst a target rich environment. I like to use my EF 70-200mm 2.8L IS lens to isolate individual balloons or reach into a cluster of balloons as the colors flow.

Soon, the pilots will start to separate from one another based upon the winds at different altitudes. When I find that I am directly above another balloon, I look down to create simple compositions of the balloon with the topography. More than likely, we will be flying over trees, bushes and desert. There are patterns in nature that I like to base my composition on and then find a powerful position for the balloon to be the jewel in the desert.

If the direction of your flight is to the north and west, you may be lucky enough to fly towards the Rio Grande River. The sweet “S” curves that meander through the forest help make many magnificent compositions in both wide angle and telephoto choices. If you see a small body of water in your flight path, be sure that your camera strap is around your neck as you lean over the top of the basket in order to look directly down into the water to see the reflection of the balloon for a photo. Many balloons enjoy a "splash and dash," where the pilot will position his basket to gently skim on the water’s surface, creating a soft wake behind it. There will be plenty of kayaks in the water waiting to greet the pilots.

Landing will be the saddest part of your day. Your excitement will continue to grow from your adventure aloft once you download the hundreds of images that you collected during the last hour. You may find it very difficult to tear yourself away from your computer.

My next subject will be discussing the various kinds of light that you will want to consider using when photographing balloons. Light gives all of our subjects life.

Ken Sklute
Ken Sklute

Ken Sklute of Tempe, AZ., has been working with his passions of photographing people and drag racing for over 42 years.

Ken Sklute

Ken Sklute has been honored as one of Canon's Explorers of Light, a designation shared by several top photographers worldwide. Ken has enjoyed a diverse career photographing people, professional sports, architecture, weddings and landscapes. Ken spends much of his time photographing, teaching and lecturing both nationally and internationally.

Ken Sklute began his photographic career capturing 200 mph race cars in New York at an early age. He soon moved into the wedding and portrait industry, working for a volume wedding studio for three years before moving into working for different independently-owned studios. Ken bought his first studio in 1983 in New York, working at the finer locations throughout the New York metropolitan area. He chose to relocate to Phoenix, Arizona in 1996 in order to be out in the landscape of the beautiful desert Southwest and to enjoy the Phoenix wedding market.

During Ken’s 42 year professional photography career, he has accomplished the title of “Photographer of the Year” in 32 out of 38 years in the states of New York, Arizona and California. Ken is a PPA Master of Photography and Photographic Craftman. In addition, Ken has been awarded 14 Kodak Gallery Awards, the Kodak Gallery Elite award, WPPI Grand Award for Weddings and 15 Fuji Masterpiece awards, amongst many other awards.

Some of Ken’s clients have been the National Hot Rod Association, U.S. Army, Sports Illustrated, Oakley, Associated Press, National Dragster, Epson, Kodak, Newsday, as well as most of the photographic industry trade magazines.

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