Photographing the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

Detail from Balloons

Mary and I travelled to Albuquerque, New Mexico in October to see the world-famous Balloon Fiesta.  Though it runs for a full nine days, we attended two days on the last weekend.  The Balloon Fiesta is a world-renowned attraction and destination.  People from all over the world come to Albuquerque to celebrate ballooning.  We saw hundreds of balloons at the huge Balloon Fiesta Park that is the base for the balloon launches.

Colorful Close-up

Though the Balloon Park is huge, the parking is not.  Most people take local school bus shuttles  from various locations to the Park.  There are usually several hundred thousand people who attend each year.  So, everything is crowed – hotels, restaurants, parking lots, restrooms, etc.  I say this so that you will be more prepared than we were for the crowds.  Everything takes longer than you will imagine.

The Ascension

You can certainly use your point and shoot.  If you use your DSLR, I recommend a wide-angle lens and short telephoto.  I tried to use my tripod as much as possible, but ended up hand-holding about 50% of the time with my Canon 70-200 mm.  Here are the highlights to shoot.

Morning Ascension

The Mass Ascension

One of the most fun things about the balloon fiesta is that you get to be on the field with all of the balloons and not up on some grandstand someplace.  They were literally blowing them up right in front of you and you could get really close.  They blow them up and ascend them in small blocks of 3-5, so you end up walking up and down the field as each group takes off.  It takes a while to get a full sky of balloons, but after 1-2 hours, the sky was filled with them.

Morning Ascension

There is a bunch of visual chaos here, so just snapping away is not a good idea.  Try going from smallest detail to  big sky and back again.  The balloons are very colorful and there is a lot of opportunity to make abstract-like photos of the different colors, shapes, textures, and patterns.  Then isolate a balloon or two.  Then open it up to catch a few or a few hundred in the sky.  There will also be many uniquely shaped balloons – the Wells Fargo Stagecoach, a bumble bee, a cat, etc.  These are really fun to see.  I strongly recommend that you try to get there for sunrise as you will get really nice light and it is less crowded.

The Stagecoach
Weird Arms?
Weird Arms?

The Balloon Glow

In the evening at dusk, the balloons stay on the ground, but are blown up and with the hot gas and flames from the torches, light up like giant lanterns.  Again, I would do the same agenda and process.  Go from small details to large ones and back again.  The shooting is harder because you will need to deal with exposure problems.  When the balloons are glowing you may overexpose and when they are not, you will get underexposed.  I used trial and error to find the right exposure for one or the other situation and just waited until it happened again.  If you can, increase your ISO to the highest possible that you feel comfortable with.  Remember on these long exposures you may also get blurring because the balloons are moving in the wind or light breeze.  This may look good or not, depending on your aesthetic.

A Clown Balloon at the Glow
The Glow
The Glow and the Crowd

Did I tell you it would be crowded?  There will be hundreds of  thousands of  people attending the week-long event.  If you plan well and are patient, you will get great photographs and fun memories.  The 2012 Balloon Fiesta is October 6 – 14.  It is something you should do at least once in your lifetime.  Here is the official website  To see more of our photographs, please go to 

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