The Page/Lake Powell Balloon Regatta
The Page/Lake Powell Balloon Regatta is held annually the first weekend of November. In 2013 over sixty hot air balloons took part, and over twenty participated in the street fair / balloon glow on Saturday night. Details on the event can be found at the balloon regatta's home page. There are morning launches on Friday and Saturday starting about 7:30. To photograph the launch and flights you should be there by sunrise when they start setting up the balloons.
Hot air balloons in the U.S. can only take off in winds of ten miles per hour or less by regulation. If wind speeds exceed this there is no point in going to the site as no launchings will occur. Note that in some countries balloons can take off in windy weather. In the US spectators are allowed to approach the balloons, and many balloonists will allow you to approach very closely. Even though balloons are typically tethered when they are being inflated, there are tremendous forces present. These forces can make approaching too closely dangerous as wind speed increases, so use good judgment and follow ground crew directions carefully. Help is needed in setting up and taking down the balloons and you can volunteer. Balloons do not normally take-off in the afternoon since wind speeds and gusts are normally higher in the afternoon than at sunrise. They also do not take off if there are thunderstorms within 50 miles of the launch site.
During the festival balloon takeoffs occur at a variety of locations in Page. I choose one at the field at the intersection of Lake Powell Boulevard and South Navajo Drive. There were many balloons taking off from there. Balloons also takeoff from the older golf course on the other side of 89. The balloon glow was held on Lake Powell Boulevard between North and South Navajo Boulevards.
Hot air balloon pilots have only limited control over where the balloon will land. In 2013 there were clear skies and light wind at all levels so the pilots had very little ability to control their landing spot. Good photographs can be taken when the balloon lands and is being deflated, so you should follow a balloon by car to its landing area. Pilots will try to land in a scenic area. I'm told the area near Antelope Canyon is a destination pilots try for but can only reach under good "pilot" winds.
- Photographing a balloon festival is very different than shooting landscapes. Things happen very quickly during launch and landing and you need to know how to operate your camera and be prepared to adjust quickly to changing light or opportunities. Mobility is important. Forget your landscape skills like shooting manual, mirror lockup, manual focus, timer remote, ... They won't help you.
- Arrive early when the balloons are just starting to be set up. This will allow you to view the balloons as they arrive and select one or two attractive ones to focus on. Approach the ground crew and introduce yourself and ask for permission to get close to the balloon. If you are shooting commercially you may need model releases for any identifiable people. I suggest you ask for these after the balloon lands rather than during the hectic launch.
- Limit your photography to a small number of balloons and follow them through the flight process. I prefer yellow or orange colored balloons as these colors complement blue skies, and look best during the balloon glow.
- I work without a tripod during the inflation and early flight process when things happen quickly. This type of photography is called run and gun photography. You'll regret taking a tripod.
- Shoot the inside of the balloons as they are being blown up, with the propane burner/flame in the foreground, or with people in the balloon, or silhouettes on the fabric.
- Meter on the bright areas. I normally underexpose by a stop as well. I shoot aperture priority one stop under when photographing balloons.
- If the flights occur right at sunrise you will need to boost your ISO. The Page Regatta takes off about an hour after sunrise. Light levels are much better than those of some other festivals when balloons go up right at sunrise, but I still shot at ISO 400 to keep shutter speeds high.
- Get close to your subject. Literally stick your camera in the balloon with permission.
- Normal zooms work best during the launch and landing. I shot almost everything with a 24-120. For shots of balloons in the air a long telephoto is best. I used an 80-400. For the balloon glow the wider the better, I used a 14-24. In all phases zooms work better than primes.
- Shoot parts of people and balloons using the rule of thirds to keep things well composed and balanced.
- Shoot from ground / knee / hip level, you can eliminate extraneous background by doing so.
- Use a polarizer to improve blue skies and eliminate glare. Blue skies can easily be improved using a digital polarizing filter, and glare sometimes reduced with a digital haze filter. Digital enhancing filters can also improve the yellows and reds effectively.
- Shoot some backlit shots by placing the sun behind a balloon. Even though balloons move slowly in the sky, you'll need to work fast and anticipate where the sun will be.
- Include the surroundings. At the take-off field in Page the fall color was excellent and I used tree branches to frame takeoffs. The red rock country around Page provides an excellent background for photos taken during landing.
- If your camera and skills allow, shoot some video.
- Fill flash can be useful at times, keep this in mind.
- At the Balloon Glow event light levels will be low. Boost your ISO to 1600 and use a tripod or monopod. These events are crowded and people are everywhere so try to find a spot where people/children won't trip over your tripod legs. I shot near a curb with two legs against the curb, and the third in front protected by my foot. Look for balloons with a glow burner, these will be much brighter than those without.