Ralph Lee Hopkins
Ralph Lee Hopkins

Ralph Lee Hopkins travels to to the world’s wild places with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. A dedicated Canon photographer, Ralph relies on an arsenal of lenses that he carries in a sling bag for easy access.

Up Up and Away: 5 Tips for Photographing the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

September 30, 2016

Although I spend much of the year traveling the globe, each fall I make the pilgrimage to New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. I come here for the colors, the crisp blue skies, and to get close to the action.  And this year, I’m here with Canon USA teaching a special 4-day photography workshop.

If you’ve never been, the photo opportunities will amaze you, no matter what your level of experience. The great thing about the Balloon Fiesta is that the events are timed for the best light, a dream for photographers. For mornings balloon glows the action starts well before sunrise and lasts until twilight in the evening.

But to maximize the photo ops, it’s important to keep in mind the essentials skills that free your creative juices.

What I love about photography is the blend between the creative and technical aspects of the craft.

On the creative side, the photographer’s mantra – light, composition, moment – comes into play. Seek the light, compose carefully, then wait for the moment.

On the technical side, we’re talking about shooting modes, working with high ISOs, nailing the focusing point, adjusting exposure, and choosing the right lens for the situation.

In most situations I’m an aperture priority shooter, setting the f/stop to control the depth-of-field, then letting the camera pick the shutter speed. If the speed gets too low, I pump up the ISO, or work in auto ISO and let the camera do the work.

I generally use a single focus point, pre-focus and lock, then re-compose before clicking the shutter. There are a number of ways to lock focus, from holding the shutter button halfway down to using the focus lock button. With practice, muscle memory makes it second nature.

As far as lens choice, I’m very partial to fast, wide angle zooms (like the EF 16-35mm f/2.8) for including foreground and making the balloons look really big. But I’ll have a longer zoom (EF 24-105mm) in my bag, or sometimes work with two camera bodies so I can easily choose.

No matter what equipment you carry, it’s helpful to know the basics, although at the end of the day it all comes down to being in the right place at the right time. 

Below are 5 Tips to help improve your chances for making some of the best images of your life:

1. Arrive Early & Stay Late Purchase and print your tickets online and at least arrive 90 minutes before sunrise. The event staff does a great job of routing the traffic to the parking areas. Make your way out onto the field and find where the first balloons are filing. Ask one of the event staff to get oriented.

2. Be Mobile It’s important not to carry too much gear and be nimble so that you can operate efficiently down on the field while the balloons are launching. If I could get away with it, I’d carry only one camera with my wide-angle zoom, but I rarely do.  I also carry a compact tripod for shooting slow shutter speeds. If you are mobile, and moving freely, you can become part of the action and find good situations.

3. Shoot the Glow There’s a decisive moment to every situation, and the time to shoot the balloons at twilight is during the Balloon Glow event, or when the balloons are firing up at sunrise. You’ll either need a tripod or a high ISO to have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any movement and limit camera shake.

4. Face the Twilight Sky When shooting at twilight look for the blue sky, rather than shooting toward total darkness. Twilight is time when the sky goes blue, even when it appears dark to the naked eye.

5. Include People for Scale So often in photography we try to avoid having people in our images. At the Balloon Fiesta people are part of the event and, in many cases, add scale to the scene making the balloons look as large as they really are.

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