Shooting the Albuquerque Balloon Festival with Nikon

The other week I was invited by Nikon to go shoot the Alburquerque Balloon Festival. I figured I’d share some of the photos as well as the experience.

Up at Oh-Dark-Thirty Every Morning
I was prepared to get up early but man, did we get up EARLY. We left the hotel by 4:15 each morning. Do the math and that means you need to be awake by a time that has the number 3 in front of it and that’s just not cool πŸ™‚ It was well worth it though because we were able to get some of the “glow” shots that make waking up so early worth it. Plus, it gave me the chance to try out Nikon’s new 85 f/1.4 (which I’ve also purchased and just got a few days ago). It’s as tack sharp as the original and came in really handy in those hours before the sun came up.

(Don’t forget to click to see larger versions)

The Mass Ascension
The Mass Ascension is one of the main events of any balloon festival. As a photographer, it’s a crazy time. It’s chaotic. There’s hundreds of cool looking hot air balloons all going up at the same time. You just have to pick a direction and go with it. Knowing that I’d want to shoot everything from wide angle to zoom, I stopped at the Nikon tent and grabbed the new 24-120 f/4 VR lens. See, there’s really several shots you can go for. When a hot air balloon is be prepped for flight, they start by laying the entire balloon out on the ground. Then they take this huge industrial fan and start blowing air into the base of the balloon near the basket. The first photos can be taken at the top of the balloon looking in.

The next shot is at the base of the balloon (one of my personal favorites). If you’re nice, polite, careful and wait for the right moment, the folks holding the balloon base open for the fan will let you peak inside for what I think is one of the coolest shots. It’s even better if you can get a silhouette of a person outside the balloon helping to raise it. The people that actually set up the balloon here had already moved, but a kind woman was nice enough to go pose for me (Come on! You saw how I got the illegal HDR church shot, so this shouldn’t surprise you at all) πŸ˜‰

Finally, after the balloon gets airborne you can snag some photos looking up. To me, EVERYONE sees a balloon from the ground looking up so I tried to be creative here. I’d try to compose the photos so that other balloons were in the frame and even tried shooting some at f/16 so I could get that sunstar in the photo. That’s where having the 24-120 helped the most and it’s the lens I kept on for most of the morning. I was able to zoom in on airborne balloons as well as catch any wide angle action without switching lenses. Plus that nano coating is the real deal. You’re able to shoot into the sun and minimize lens flareΒ… big time!

And of course, what mass ascension shoot is complete without a shot of the mass ascension. It’s like these balloons just repel each other because there’s hundreds of them but they never seem to run into each other. What a sight though! You really have to see something like this in person to get the full effect.

Shooting from up high
I snagged the new Nikon 28-300 VR lens (full frame lens since I was shooting a D3S) on the second day because I wanted to get some shots from up high in a balloon. I knew I had a lot of photos from the ground, but I wanted something from a different angle. I also knew I wouldn’t have time or space in the basket to change lenses, and would probably need something pretty long (but maybe wide too) to get what I was looking for.

Here’s the catch. My balloon flight fell through and I never got up. But I was lucky enough to find a 20-30′ high media platform so I made the most out of the situation. When you framed the balloons the right way (when they were close to the ground) it gives the appearance that you’re actually up in the air shooting across at them. As for the lens, I did like the 28-300 a lot, but it seemed a little harder to focus than the 24-120. I was shooting the same exact stuff as the day before but there were many times where the lens struggled to find focus. There also seemed to be a little vignetting but not anything that Lightroom could take care of with the click of a button in the Lens Correction panel. All that said, the 28-300mm will probably be my next purchase. The photos were really sharp (even at 300mm) and there’s something to be said about carrying that kind of range around in one lens.

Nice Weather, Nice Balloons = Little Post Processing
I’d love to give you a bunch of Lightroom tips on how I developed these photos. Honestly though, we had great weather. The balloons were colorful and Nikon made sure we were there during the good light. All of that combined equals very little post processing. Mostly I just increased the Vibrance and Blacks sliders a little, maybe some Fill Light, Clarity, and a little sharpening in the Detail panel. Below is a screen capture of the typical edit which was done in about 10 seconds. Gotta love that!

All of the photos were shot with a 32GB SanDisk CF card. I gotta tell ya, it was nice to have a card that big. It holds a whopping 1500 Raw photos which is nice if you can’t download your photos right away and have to get out for another shoot.

Many thanks to everyone at Nikon and the MWW Group for really taking care of us and making sure we had the right camera and right glass when we needed it. And of course, I owe a huge thanks to you for stopping by today. Have a good one!


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  1. Grear pics Matt… I have alwasy loved ballons….

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  2. Very nice images, too bad about your ride falling through. If you ever make it to the Ann Arbor, Michigan area, let me know and I’ll take you up for a ride.


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  3. Great article and thanks for sharing your thoughts on the lenses you used. I am torn between saving up for the 85mm f/1.4 or using that money and a little more for an upgraded camera body. DX to FX

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  4. Matt:

    Nice shots! As a photographer, I think ballooning offers some of the most amazing color subject matter available. For East Coasters – there is the NJ Festival of Ballooning every July – mass ascensions of nearly 100 balloons during a 3-day festival. Truly amazing.


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  5. outstanding images and back story–the ABQ balloon fest is on my bucket list–might have to move it up in priority. I also just added a 28-300 to my B&H wish list–you’re the second photog in a week to mention it’s all-around utility

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  6. Hi Mat

    Enjoyed your shots. I purchased the 85/1.4 and the 28-300 a few weeks ago and I am pleased with both. The new 85 is sharper than the old one at 1.4 in my experience. The 28-300 is an amazing lens at f/8. I just printed a shot of a cedar tree, with lots of needle detail, at 24×36 inches, taken with the 28-300 at 105mm and f/8. The detail in the print is pretty impressive. I would never have expected this performance from a super zoom. There is lots of distortion, but thats what lens corrections are for.

    Take care

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  7. Wonderful shots, Matt. Congratulations !


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  8. Hi Matt

    I was lucky enough to be in Albuquerque a few years ago for the last day of the balloon festival. My brother and I got up early (although a little later than you) and spent a few hours wandering around and had a great time before heading to the airport to go home to the UK.

    Great shots, especially the early morning ones.

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  9. i just wnat to lewt you know…..i want a FOCUS POINT overlay function in lightroom.

    please support to get this function into LR.

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  10. Matt, Just amazing, beautiful and magnificent photos!!! The colors are just gorgeous! I would love to do that some day! Have a couple of questions. Your photo are so tack sharp, I was wondering if they were all hand held photos? Did you use any on camera filters?

    Again, just fantastic photos Matt!


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    • Thanks Dennis.

      I didn’t use a tripod at all. The only filter I used (on the 2nd day) was a polarizer. You can probably tell in some of the photos that have a deeper blue sky than the others.

      For starters I was using a D3S. So I was able to shoot at a higher ISO in the early mornings (3200, 6400) and get fast shutter speeds. Timing was a lot of it too – just trying to get the moments when things weren’t moving as much. Once the sun came up, it got a lot easier. I was able to get down to ISO 400 and get really fast shutter speeds.

      I do have to say I was impressed with the 28-300mm too. I had that thing racked out at 300mm and the photos are really sharp from it. The 3rd to last photo in the post used that one and they were pretty far away.

      Thanks again πŸ™‚

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  11. If you think “oh dark 30” is early in Albuquerque, you ought to be coming from Santa Fe…..just add an extra hour…….but “oh so worth it”. Great shots!

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  12. Wow! Great shots, Matt! I had assumed you got to go up in a basket after you posted a couple of shots on your Facebook page. You came up with a great solution for taking the mock in-flight pictures, although I’m sure the average Joe wouldn’t be able to get up there. And no sharpening needed! πŸ˜€ Goes to show how much it means to get the picture right in-camera to cut down on your post-processing time.

    Hope your family got to join you on your trip. Kids really get a kick out of hot air balloons!


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  13. Nicely done. Favorite is the inflation with your “silhouette model”. Must make a fantastic, colorful print. Sounds like it must have been a great day having access to all that Nikon gear.

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  14. Hey Matt, great series of shots especially the ones where you havw a bunch of balloons in the same frame. It’s hard to describe but has an almost fairytale feel to it.

    Definitely worth getting up at ‘way too early o’clock’ to get shots like this; an opportunity not to miss; the colours are striking.

    Interesting what you say about the lens choice; the 24-120mm f/4 sounds like a great else especially with the nano coating. Re the new 28-300mm, that’s the lens that Scott brought with him to walk around London with; he certainly liked it and I’ve a feeling that it will now be one of my next purchases. Talking of lenses Scott mentioned that you both now have the new 85mm; just curious…how do you like it? I’ve got the original 85mm f/1.4 and love it; just don’t use it as much as I should.

    Great post,
    Thanks for sharing,

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  15. Congratulations on seizing a wonderful opportunity, really enjoyed your shots, shame you didn’t get airborne, as that would have rounded out the set. For backing music check out “Sailing by” which was composed for a baloon festival, and is used by the BBC to introduce the shipping forecast.

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  16. I live here in Albuquerque and am sad to know that I could have met up with you and maybe got a few tips. Your shots are amazing and very inspiring. I shoot balloons all the time living here they fly most of the year just not as many. Look forward to hearing if you will be at Bosque Del Apache in November.

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  17. Wonderful pictures!

    But how did you get them to be so sharp??

    Thanks πŸ™‚

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  18. Wonderful photos!!! Thanks for sharing these with us. I would love to set the one from inside the balloon as my new desktop background. Could you post it in a higher resolution. Maybe 2000px :-)) Thanks in advance. Erol

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  19. Great shots Matt! I grew up in ABQ and remember those O’dark-thirty mornings when I was on a chase crew.

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