Hot air

A Favorite

One of my favorite landscape pictures of all times came out of a recent trip to California when we had the chance to take a hot air balloon ride. I say “came about” advisedly because I think the best photographs involve some planning and certainly careful consideration of the composition. In the words of that famous quote by Ansel Adams, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”. So while I was able to prepare for this shot in many ways, it was my first balloon ride and not knowing what to expect, a lot of what took place involved quickly reacting to the circumstances. The opportunity for this picture “came about” as the altitude and direction we were facing changed.

This, my favorite shot of the whole experience, came when the balloon rotated round to face the folds of the hills and mountains, with mist nestling in their valleys. That by itself made for a beautiful vista. However, seeing the multi-colored striped balloon rising as we were descending allowed me to time a shot with the other balloon in the skies above the hills, in a way that was well balanced.

I have just been asked to co-author and article on hot-air balloon photography on The article provides a few tips to enable other photographers who like me had never taken a ride in a hot air balloon to be prepared.

Tips for balloon photography

Hot air balloon rides are a wonderful way to get some very interesting landscape shots from a different perspective than you would normally when both feet are planted firmly on the ground. I always believe that to get the shots we would like, it is best to prepare as much as possible. If you have never been in a balloon before, it may be hard to pre-visualize the shots, but you can definitely break down the categories of shots you may look for and be prepared for those.   Here are just a few suggestions.

The pre-launch phase of the excursion provides some fascinating opportunities for color-filled photographs. Most balloon rides are done in the early morning.  So be prepared for some low light shots with bright flames pouring into colorful balloons.  A high ISO will likely help here.

Think also about people shots – both catching the feelings of anticipation while on the ground and of course when in the balloon’s basket.  Think about how you can get a good depth of field to have your subjects in the basket, just a few feet away in focus, and the environmental context behind clear too.

Maybe the most obvious shots from the ride will be the broad landscape shots from high in the sky.  Make sure you get an outside position on the basket and of course have a wide angle lens available. For the series of shots that this image comes from, I was alternating between single frame exposures and bracketed shots for HDR processing, depending on the contrast level in the scene.  The balloon is almost constantly slowly rotating and so at times you may be pointing almost directly into the sun with very high contrasts.

A good balloon operator will alternate between high altitude (6,000′ or more) and low altitude (skimming the trees) phases of the ride so think about the different views that this will present. Remember, just as with any other photography, don’t get stuck on one point of view. Don’t just look out for the horizontal shot. Look down and think wide as well as zoomed in.  Look up too and into the balloon, especially when the flame is roaring.  Whichever direction you are looking, think carefully about the position of objects of interest, for example another balloon.  Where does the object best fit in your composition?

One final tip – don’t forget to take the camera away from your eye and just enjoy the awesome fact of floating across the countryside in the early dawn hours.  It is magical and some of the time you need to just look around and experience it!

You can read the original Pixsy article and enjoy other balloon photographs at

Final thoughts

If I get another opportunity to get up in a hot air balloon, I will jump at it. I will follow the advice I have given others after our first magnificent experience, if you are taking a balloon ride, pick a beautiful place. Colorado anyone? New Mexico? How about the Amboseli in Tanzania? I’m ready! I was going to say “fired up” but just couldn’t bring myself to do it ;-).