21 Helpful Tips for Photographing a Hot Air Balloon Festival


As a blog writer, part of my job is to find photographs to go in my articles. This can be really hard sometimes, but when I write about hot air balloons, it is so, so easy.

Pictures of hot air balloons are awesome, and they’re very popular. In fact, they’re so popular that the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the worlds most photographed event!

Hot air balloon photography is so common that it’s more about quality than quantity now. If you’re a photographer looking to get into hot air ballooning, or if you’re a balloonist looking to get into photography, here are 21 tips for photographing a hot air balloon festival!

1. Gear Matters, Kind Of

Whatever level of photography you’re at, its good advice to use the equipment you’re comfortable with. The only thing worse than using a poor camera is using a good camera poorly.

If you’re an experienced photographer, you should be used to your gear. Hot air ballooning brings the same kinds of challenges as other outdoor photography. Landscape shots are great practice for balloon festivals.

If you’re brand new, you might be tempted to go all out on equipment. While it is important to use good equipment and look around for better equipment, equipment doesn’t make a good photographer.

Much more important than equipment, especially for beginners, is creativity and practice. Hot air balloons are a great place to start as a photographer.

Your creativity and skill can really flourish as you photograph hot air balloon festivals. Don’t worry too much about the equipment you use along the way.

2. Be Prepared

This point can’t be overstressed! Hot air balloon festivals are a unique venue for photography. They’re large, full of potential, and can last for days.

With these opportunities come to some challenges. The first thing to be aware of is the number of people, and other photographers, that will be there.

If you’re used to shooting portraits or still life photos, you’ll be shocked at the number of people and competition. On the other hand, if you do a lot of work at concerts or sporting events, you’ll be right at home.

Be prepared to deal with the crowds.

The next thing to know is that you’ll be taking a ton of photos. And why shouldn’t you? There are so many opportunities!

But down be caught without enough space on you’re memory card if you’re going digital. If you can, bring an extra camera in case one gets damaged.

Also, be aware of the schedule. This is easy enough to find out online well beforehand. If you don’t want to miss any opportunities, be familiar with the schedule.

Coming prepared for the crowds, with enough equipment, and with a schedule will help ensure success!

3. Slow and Steady Wins the Race

“Slow and steady wins the race” is normally a phrase used to teach one lesson. However, its really trying to teach two, especially when it comes to photography.

The first lesson is slow. It’ll be easy to get caught up in the hustle bustle of the crowds, the events, and all the potential shots. Take a deep breath and go slow.

Be patient as you wait for your shot to come to you. Sometimes, photographers go hunting for the right shot, and that’s often a good idea. But at such a large event with so much going on, your shots will often come to you.

It’ll be easy to wear yourself out running from one event to the next only to find at the end of the day that you don’t love any of your photos. Be patient and go slow.

The second lesson is to be steady. One of the most common mistakes made by novice photographers is camera shake. Camera shake is the worst.

Using a quicker shutter speed can only do so much. At some point, a photographer just has to have a steady hand.

This lesson could also be called: know when to use a tripod. It may seem like an inconvenience to carry around a tripod all day, but it’s not such a bad idea in the long run.

If it is possible to have access to a tripod without having to carry it all day, go that route. Whether that means leaving it in your car or somewhere else. In any case, be steady and know when to use a tripod.

4. Third Try’s the Charm

This tip applies to both the rule of thirds and your trigger finger. First, the rule of thirds:

For the uninitiated, the rule of thirds is a principle of design that helps ensure good photographs. It’s not the secret to good photography, but it kind of is.

If you can imagine a grid with two lines going horizontally and vertically, the rule of thirds states that having your subject matter meet on an intersection of those lines is the most aesthetically pleasing.

The second lesson is about your trigger finger. Take. Lots. Of. Photos. Trust me.

At any event, you should be ready at all times to take a photo, and when you do, take a lot of them. You may find that the second or third picture you take of the same subject matter is actually your best.

5. Perspective Matters

One of the beautiful things about photography is seeing the world through a new lens, literally.

While some might argue that photography exists to capture images how we would have seen them, that is terribly narrow. Photography can do so much more than preserving images how we see them.

Photography opens up the world to new perspectives. Some of the best photographs ever taken are so good because of their perspective. Crouching, finding a higher view, and tilting the camera can add so much more to a picture.

Taking a photograph straight on is called for in some forms of photography, but not hot air balloon photography. Try to find a good hill, take pictures looking up into the sky, or hop into a hot air balloon and shoot at the ground.

One of the best tips related to perspective in hot air balloon photography involves looking into the balloon. This is especially cool if the envelope is still inflating.

Don’t be afraid to get on the ground or soar into the sky! Perspective will enrich your photography greatly.

6. Highlight Depth

When photographing hot air balloons, try to create a sense of depth. This will help the viewers of your photography feel like they’re there. It will also create a wow factor!

Experiment with using a wider lens and smaller aperture to create this depth. Again, practicing with landscape photography will really help with this.

If you’re just using a very basic camera, you can create a sense of depth by distancing yourself from the subject matter. Having some reference points in the foreground to really show off that depth can be helpful!

This tip is going to require a lot of experimenting on your part, so get out there and shoot!

7. Early Bird Gets the Worm

There are going to be all sorts of events at whatever hot air balloon festival you go to. Some will be early in the day and some late at night. No matter what events you attend, be early.

Being early will help you claim the best spot for your photography. It can also ensure that no one gets in the way of your shots.

We’ll discuss later how important it is to get up close and personal sometimes. If this is one of your objectives, being early makes all the difference.

Not only will you avoid the crowds by being early, but you’ll also have more time to experiment with your settings. Depending on your perspective and the lighting, it may be necessary to make some adjustments.

Avoiding the crowds and giving yourself time to get set will help you stay cool and collected. This may be the most important part of being early!

Rushing can kill really good photography like nothing else. From camera shake to just not being thoughtful enough, be sure you’re early so you can keep calm.

8. Go to the Glow!

Every hot air ballooning festival I know of will have the evening glow. The evening glow is when all the balloons stay grounded but periodically fire their burners.

This creates a lightning bug like effect on a massive scale. It’s one of the best opportunities for photographers at hot air balloon festivals! It presents a unique opportunity for epic nighttime photography.

This event will definitely draw a crowd, so don’t forget the earlier tips of being prepared and showing up early. Also, try to get a good perspective.

You can really do whatever you want with this event. Whether you want to be far off or close up, you can’t really go wrong. If you’re planning on going to lots of hot air balloon festivals, try something new each time.

No matter how many times you’ve been to a hot air balloon festival, this is a must-attend event, especially for photographers!

9. Get Ground Shots

Getting ground shots does not mean taking pictures of the balloons while you’re on the ground, although this is something you should obviously do.

Getting shots on the ground means taking pictures of the balloons while they’re on the ground!

There are a lot of pictures of hot air balloons soaring over the mountains with the beautiful blue sky in the background. There are also a million pictures of hot air balloons in the golden hour.

To get a good variety of shots, make sure to take ground shots. This is especially true of photographing the setup process. Some of the best hot air balloon photographs I’ve ever seen are ground shots.

Getting ground shots is also a great time to get some shots into the envelope. Some of the most colorful and abstract photos are looking into the envelope!

If you’re an avid hot air balloon photographer, you could even go to a festival where you spend a day or two only taking ground shots. This could be a great way to shake things up!

10. Don’t Follow the Crowd (always)

As mentioned before, there are going to be a lot of people at these festivals. Some photographers have been going to the same festivals for years. There are definitely going to be some tried and true shots and locations.

Because of this, it may be tempting to follow the crowd if you’re new to the hot air balloon festival game. Don’t fall into that trap! Be willing to walk to the beat of your own drum.

Preparation helps a lot when it comes to doing your own thing. This is especially true if a venue is unfamiliar to you. Keeping a map and schedule handy can be very helpful!

Of course, there will be times when the crowd is right. Don’t shy away from an awesome opportunity just because its “so mainstream”.

There’s a reason some spots and events are so popular. They have proved their aesthetic value time and time again. So while it’s important to branch out sometimes and do your own thing, also be willing to learn from the best.

11. Get Up-close and Personal

Hot air balloons are big. In fact, sometimes they’re downright massive. Because of this, a lot of times it’s a good idea to take photographs from a distance.

That having been said, sometimes breaking the rules creates the best pictures. Getting up-close and personal with a hot air balloon can produce amazing results.

This principle applies to all stages of photographing a hot air balloon festival. From set up to the landing, don’t be afraid to get hands on! This includes being willing to jump into a hot air balloon yourself!

This principle also means getting shots of people. Involving the crew, passengers, and onlookers can give a personal touch to your photography. Some really great portrait photos can be taken at 1,500 feet in the air!

Getting people in the foreground of your photos can also add some perspective to the size and beauty of hot air balloons. So at all stages of photographing a hot air balloon festival, don’t be afraid to get up-close and personal.

12. Don’t be Afraid to Experiment

This might be the most important tip in all of photography! Experimentation breathes new life into any medium, and especially one as popular as photography.

Doing your research will give you a good idea of what photographs are popular at hot air balloon festivals. You may be inspired to try something new when it’s your turn to shoot!

Experimenting can also mean you take some pictures you really don’t like. That’s okay! Experimenting will end in disaster just as often as it will end in success. Maybe even more often!

As you experiment, be patient, and learn from your failures and your successes. Also, know that just because something worked once doesn’t mean it will work again!

Learning the rules of photography can help you as you experiment. Sometimes you have to master the basics so you can move beyond them!

13. Use the Landscape

Going to a hot air balloon festival as a photographer gives you a pretty obvious objective: photograph hot air balloons. However, nowhere in the rules of the universe are you forced to photograph only hot air balloons!

Capturing some landscape shots will give some nice diversity to your shots. It can also give a feel for what it was like at the festival! But using the landscape is so much more than that.

Using the landscape means letting the natural world frame and enhance your shots of hot air balloons. If there’s a prominent landmark at your festival, work it into your work!

A great opportunity to look for is lakes. Reflections are a great tool to utilize in photography. Mirroring your subject matter in a lake can add a sense of beauty and tranquility that you just can’t find anywhere else.

Using the landscape includes being aware of the lighting. The sun coming over the mountaintops can provide an excellent opportunity!

Wherever you are, use the landscape to add to your hot air balloon photography.

14. Frame Early, Adjust Later

While photographing a hot air balloon festival may be very hectic with the crowd and the schedule and the competition, there is one edge you’ll always have: Hot air balloons are really, really slow.

Hot air balloons are like the weird Walmart people of the sky. They’re big and don’t get anywhere fast. This means you’ll have plenty of time to frame your shot.

Once you have your shot all lined up, you just have to wait for that big blob of air and nylon to move into the frame.

If there is an issue with your framing, a lot of that can be solved in post-processing. Obviously, this isn’t an excuse to shoot out of focus or anything like that, but it does take some stress off of the moment.

15. Get in the Air

This is both a photography tip and a life tip. First, the photography tip.

Some awesome shots of hot air balloons can be taken from balloon to balloon in the sky. This perspective obviously can’t be achieved from the ground!

This is also an opportunity to take pictures of the activity on the ground from the sky. This can give a good overview of what the festival looked like!

It can also be a good way to drop your camera, so be careful!

This is also a tip for life. Photographing hot air balloons is cool and all, but the real excitement is to be found in the hot air balloon itself!

A hot air balloon ride is beautiful and peaceful, but it can also be really exhilarating. The hot air balloon is the world’s first flying device. Don’t you want to try it?

Well, you should. It would be a travesty for a photographer to go to a hot air balloon festival and miss out on actually flying in a hot air balloon!

16. Photograph the Photographer

This suggestion has application for the common, everyday photographer and the photographer who is out there trying to make a living!

If you’re just at a hot air balloon festival for fun, make sure to get some shots of yourself! Document that you were there and that you were alive!

In the age of Google, anyone can find some pictures of a hot air balloon festival and say they were there. Prove that you actually went, get yourself in some photos.

If you’re there trying to make some money, maybe don’t sneak into any pictures. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but most photography agencies aren’t looking for your best selfies.

You can still look for opportunities to photograph other photographers though! This can add some much-needed perspective to your shots and also give a feel fro what the festival was like.

Be sure to ask for another photographers permission before you photograph them, of course. For larger groups though, it should be okay to just start shooting!

17. Shoot Constantly

A photographer should always be ready to shoot. Always. If you’re not, odds are that you’ll miss some awesome moments.

There’s a lot of work that goes into photography! From the preparation to the setup, to the actual shooting, to the post-processing. Once you have the prep work and set up taken care of though, your focus (pun intended) is taking pictures!

Again, the goal of hot air balloon photography isn’t just quantity. You need to do good, quality work. Great photographs come from being ready and alert!

This also means that you need to be ready to move at all times. Setting up is important, but once the moment is gone, it’s gone. In an event as large as a hot air balloon festival, you can’t afford to miss a thing.

So, come with a plan, be ready to move, and have your trigger finger ready!

18. Put in the Post-Processing Work

Post-processing is hugely important and can make the difference between good photos and Pinterest worthy photos.

One of the biggest things to focus in on while doing post-processing is the lighting. A lot of your shots are going to be looking skyward, and that creates some unique opportunities and challenges.

One of the temptations will be to way overexpose your images. Don’t do that. Most of your exposure should be figured out while you’re shooting, but post-processing can definitely help.

There are some people who will argue that overexposing (commonly called exposing to the right) is actually a good practice. If that’s how you prefer to roll, go for it! I would just advise caution here.

If you’re new to post-processing, just play around with things in whatever editing program you’re using. Common choices are Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Post-processing really is a topic that deserves its own topic, so branch out and do some research! This could really take your photography to the next level!

19. Share Your Shots

There are lots of reasons to share your shots! Depending on why you’re into hot air balloon photography, the reason for sharing your shots may vary.

If you’re just doing photography for fun, then you have your reason for sharing already: fun! People really love hot air balloon photography, so sharing some shots on social media is a great way to share the joy.

You may also run into other hot air balloon photographers who can share some tips. Even better than that, you’ll probably make some friends along the way!

If you’re shooting hot air balloon festivals for money, there are a lot of photography agencies willing to pay for quality hot air balloon photography.

In fact, many of these agencies will have prizes for the best photograph submission at a festival. Look for photography agency booths while you’re at the festival if you’re looking into more professional opportunities!

20. Try, Try Again

A lot of these tips have been focused towards both amateur and experienced photographers, but this tip is focused at photographers who are new to either photography or hot air balloons.

Try, try again.

The first time you try anything is not likely to produce the greatest results ever. One of my mentors was fond of telling me that if you see a man on top of a mountain, odds are they didn’t fall there!

Getting good at photography or even just a new kind of photography will take practice. That once in a lifetime shot is out there, and you will get it!

Applying the tips here and getting lots of practice will make a huge difference. Also, the more opportunities you give yourself, the higher the chance of success.

Be patient, work hard, and just keep shooting!

21. Have Fun!

This is hands down the most important tip in this article: have fun! No matter what level you’re at as a hot air balloon photographer, just have fun.

Hot air balloons are awesome, and getting photos of them is an exciting experience! Whether you’re shooting for fun or for work, whether you’re a novice or an expert, hot air balloon photography should be fun!

When you’re at a hot air balloon festival, take time to get to know people. Enjoy the festivities! Don’t take yourself or your photography so seriously.

At the end of the day, hot air balloon festivals and photography are both about enjoying life and having fun!

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

Recent Content

outdoortroop-21 outdoortoop-20