The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is renowned as the most photographed event in the world, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a dazzling spectacle of bright colors, distinctive shapes and incredible magnitude. On the ground, the action and flames are exhilarating; once aloft, hot air balloons appear suspended, almost by magic. The wonder and the awe of the Balloon Fiesta is something we want to hold on to by capturing it with our cameras.
Just up the hill in The City Different, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops has been dedicated to the craft of photography and to photographers for more than 25 years. So who better to ask about photographing the Balloon Fiesta? We sought advice from two of Santa Fe Workshops’ world-class instructors, Nevada Wier and Rick Allred, on how to successfully make images at Balloon Fiesta. Nevada Wier is an acclaimed travel photographer and world adventurer who has gone to the Fiesta about a half-dozen times, primarily in her role leading advanced-level workshops. Rick Allred has also been many times over the years, beginning in the late ’80s. He frequently teaches introductory classes at Santa Fe Workshops, where he excels at making photography fun and accessible for beginners. Here’s what the two of them have to say.
Start with a plan. Make sure you have the gear you want and need, and that your batteries are charged and everything is ready to go the night before, because you’ll be starting before dawn. “Get there early—that’s the hardest part,” Nevada says, stressing: “Very quickly the light gets too harsh, and all the balloons have ascended by roughly 9 a.m.” Rick agrees that for at least one day of your Balloon Fiesta experience, you should make it there early. “Go down for the mass ascension,” he says, “and capture all that stuff: the action of the inflating, the balloons going up, all of that.” But mercifully, he suggests sleeping in the next day! That’s right, Rick advises you to “sleep in the next day and go around Albuquerque, and shoot the balloons up in the sky.” This can produce some very unexpected images, as the balloons pass in front of rivers, mountains and man-made structures. If you’re quick, you may even catch some of the fascinating places where the balloons land, or have a chance to document the chase crews meeting the balloons on the ground.
Rick asserts, “Both are fun experiences. You don’t have to be there for the mass ascension every single day. Expand your vision and look for interesting settings. That will give you better variety.” Nevada agrees that you should aim for variety in your photographs, mixing shots that are taken from close up, middle distance and far away. She recommends you look at the Fiesta like a story. “Approach it as a story, rather than looking at singular images,” she says. “If you give yourself an assignment or a theme, that’s a nice way to get involved.”
It’s good to have a general plan in mind, but both Rick and Nevada agree that it’s important to stay open to possibilities and go with the flow once you’re there. “If you’ve never been, you don’t want to get rooted in one spot. It’s helpful to walk around and get a feel for the atmosphere,” Nevada says. “Explore for a while, and then commit.”
As you photograph, you’re likely to encounter a number of challenges. You’ll begin in the darkness of dawn, which can be tough. “You have to consider, where is the light?” Nevada says. Look for flames, neon signs or other light sources and then make images using that existing light. The lighting conditions change rapidly as the sun rises, so Rick suggests taking control of the exposure as much as possible. “If you understand shooting in manual mode, shoot in manual and check your settings often. If you don’t shoot in manual mode, learn to use exposure compensation. That way, if you are shooting in aperture priority or shutter priority, you can control the exposure more.”
One of the biggest difficulties at at the Fiesta is how easy it is to get overwhelmed by it all. Rick has some straightforward advice for overcoming this problem: “Just start! You have to start somewhere.” He adds, “If you get overwhelmed, come back to simplicity. Focus on one or two subjects. Zoom in on only a few things. Choose one subject on a simple background.”
Nevada, on the other hand, reiterates the importance of telling a story with your photographs. She says, “Because it is so overwhelming, it’s easy to become cliche and only focus on the graphics. But to make an image that’s unique, try looking at it differently. Include people, or commit to following a specific balloon for a while, or maybe get a theme: little kids, or the wonder of looking at the balloons. Then you start to see things you wouldn’t have seen before.” She suggests a mix of images to tell the story, including overall images to convey a sense of place, images of small details, the human element, action shots and a few “wild card” images. She explains, “Ask, yourself, ‘How do I convey the sense of awe? How do I convey the space in New Mexico, or what it’s like to have so many balloons gathered in one place? This event is so unique because there are so many balloons, so how do I convey that?’ Ask the questions, then try to answer them visually.”
Nevada also advocates for experimentation to come up with something unconventional once you’ve gotten going. “Just the graphics of it can be gorgeous, so go ahead and get your ‘insurance shots,’ but then, move on and experiment. Try panning a balloon as they go up, or use a slow shutter speed. Don’t be afraid to try different angles. Go low, try different perspectives. What does this look like from the point of view of a child? Of a dog?”
Rick agrees that it’s helpful to relax and play, and not to put too much pressure on yourself. “Really, there’s nothing wrong with shooting some cliches. If you’re stuck, go ahead and shoot the cliches. It’s not bad, and it can get you going. Then you can push past that. Once you just start shooting, then you’ll start noticing things after that. If you get caught up in expecting that every shot has to be perfect, you’re not pushing the button.”
Once you’re at the Balloon Fiesta and you’re in your creative zone, keep exploring your surroundings, keep trying things, and keep making a variety of images—any images you like. Rick advises, “Shoot a variety of things. Give yourself permission to shoot anything that catches your eye. It could be a garbage can; if it interests you, shoot it. That will keep your shutter button working.”
Though the balloons are the main attraction, both Nevada and Rick encourage you to look beyond the balloons. Rick says, “Even at the mass ascension, all sorts of other things are going on. There are food booths, workers, activities for kids. Look around and keep an eye out for other interesting things.” He pauses thoughtfully and opines, “That really goes for photographing anywhere.”
Nevada agrees. “Follow all the different possibilities,” she says, adding: “Don’t be afraid to approach people! People are there for a reason––they come from all over for this event. You can learn some of the most interesting and amazing backstories.”
No matter what you shoot, Nevada encourages you to push yourself. “Don’t get stuck in the same old photo,” she says. “Challenge yourself! That’s the whole point of photography.”
The most important piece of advice from both Rick and Nevada? Enjoy yourself! “Keep having fun,” Rick says, and Nevada echoes the sentiment. “Having a good time,” she says, “is always key.”
So as you’re photographing, be sure to savor your Balloon Fiesta experience, because that’s exactly what it is: YOUR experience. As photographers, we make photographs to express ourselves, to encourage deeper experiences, and to relive memorable moments. “Images that work are the ones that evoke a feeling,” Nevada says. So make images that mean something to you. Make images that capture your own amazement, astonishment and delight—images that express your own point of view—for those are the images you’ll cherish.
Both instructors suggest a quality camera that can perform in low light and preferably one that allows you to manually control the exposure.
Rick recommends a wide-angle lens with a bit of zoom, around 17-70 mm, to use when the balloons are still on the ground. Once the balloons take off, he likes to use a bigger zoom to get close-up images of the balloons as they get farther from the ground.
Nevada says a tripod is helpful, but not essential.
Most importantly, don’t forget to bring an open mind, a spirit of curiosity and a sense of adventure!
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place Oct. 7 – 15 at Balloon Fiesta Park, located north of Alameda Boulevard, one mile west of I-25 in Albuquerque. Visit balloonfiesta.com. For more about Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, visit santafeworkshops.com.
Story by Melyssa Holik