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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 🙂 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) 😉

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 flare… 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!