When you book a balloon ride you may (like me) think that you don’t need to think too much about taking pictures: “f/8 and be there” would be all you need.
What you haven’t realised (or perhaps you did, and that’s why you’re here) is that the lighting conditions are going to be really difficult. Balloon flights nearly always occur at dawn, due to the weather conditions (particularly wind). But dawn is a really tricky time to take photographs.
Here’s what I did on a recent flight, it seemed to work pretty well.
Before the flight: choose your equipment. I cut back to two lenses – an 18-55 for wide-angle shots, and a 70-300 for telephoto. A polarising filter would have been a good addition, but I don’t have one of those.
Next, before the flight setup: I knew that I’d need pretty fine control, so I set my camera for full manual mode. I also checked the other settings, such as for the cursed ‘bracket’ mode – I have taken so many almost good photos ruined by forgetting to turn bracketing off.
Getting there: my flight started 30 minutes or so before dawn with the setup for the balloon. It was effectively dark at this point – I was shooting 18mm f/4.5 1/60″ ISO 6400 and getting photos that only had material in the far end of the histogram. That’s pretty much the extreme of my camera in terms of low-light.
Once dawn twilight started I began cranking my camera down. As I was on an 18mm I wasn’t getting too much depth-of-field problems from shooting at f/4.5, and with vibration reduction 1/60″ is fine for hand shake. So I took the improving light on the ISO to start with, cranking the ISO down whenever the picture started going past halfway on the histogram. This is purely a personal taste question, about the tradeoff between underexposure and noise, but I really dislike noise. Another reason to keep the picture a bit underexposed is to get better pictures of the flame from the burners heating the air
The balloon inflating is a good subject, and you can need to move quickly as it inflates quite rapidly once it gets going. I stayed on the wide angle throughout – the details weren’t that interesting, and the best shots I could see were including the most of the balloon.
After a quick scramble in for take-off we were away. I was still on f/4.5 and 1/60″, but now on ISO 200. The light is still improving, and as I was at my camera’s best ISO (it can do ISO 100, but you lose dynamic range) I was now slowly increasing the f/stop. While the depth of field on my 18-55mm lens is unlikely to cause any depth-of-field problems, the 70-300 is likely to have some problems unless it’s past f/11 or so, although it also needs a 1/125″ minimum handheld exposure.
Once moving it’s a slower experience. Try a range of different options as the balloon moves, and you’ll find you have plenty of time to try several variations on one subject.
Not too far into the balloon ride I found that the light had gotten better enough for me to start to worry less about it, so I switched over to aperture priority, and also started to play with my long lens for close ups of some of the things in the lake. I probably started a bit early, as the f-stop was still giving me depth of field problems with that lens.
Don’t forget to keep your eye out down as well as around – there were some rowers on the lake who made a very good subject on the day of our balloon ride.
Soon enough it was time for landing. To get one more interesting shot in, I set my camera to high speed, and took a sequence of photos as the balloon landed. Which, of course, I then turned into a time lapse video:
And that’s that.