Up, Up and Away with Hot Air Balloon Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Up, Up and Away with Hot Air Balloon Photography

by David Peterson 5 comments

They're bright and colorful; they usually come with beautiful landscape and skies surround them; and you almost can't go wrong photographing them. What are they? Hot air balloons! But, the truth is, you can go a bit wrong photographing them. So, I'm dedicating this post to tips for giving you a boost of confidence when you head out to capture these magnificent balloons.

Breaking Dawn

Hot air balloons are often inflated during sunrise and lift off shortly after. This means the surrounding light will be very low, and you could also be shooting into the sunrise. Keeping these two obstacles in mind, there's a reason photographers grapple with lighting situations, and that's to produce awesome shots. Without creative lighting, a lot of images would be dull to look at. And in this case, the low light and silhouettes could be in your favor if you know how to work with them.

Using a tripod will help you out a lot during the early morning light since your shutter speeds will be lower, especially depending on your f-stop setting. Since balloons inflate and lift off relatively slowly, say compared to a race car going around a track, you'll have time to position your tripod for optimal image capturing. With the sun coming up as the balloons inflate, you'll likely find yourself shooting into the light. This can create some terrific silhouettes, perhaps of the balloon master inflating his balloon. Try different angles so you're not just shooting with the light in front or behind you. Side lighting might do the trick in your situation.


One of the coolest things about hot air balloons and photographing them is the fire that inflates them. If you're good with timing, these can be some of your best shots. One thing to keep in mind is that it will be harder to determine shutter speed with the blasts of light they create. Whatever your lighting situation is before they flare will change dramatically when they do, so be careful of over exposure. If you use aperture priority or another automatic mode, that will help. Then you can see what the camera picked for you and go from there if you want to switch to manual mode.

If you go to a hot air balloon festival, they often have an event in the evening that is especially for lighting up the balloons. These events can draw large crowds, often due to the balloons, food and music. You'll contend with more people, especially families and other photographers, so keep in mind that getting an image without people in it if you're aiming for the whole balloon might be difficult. This example above is cropped along the bottom, likely to get rid of the crowds below.

To find a hot air balloon festival near you, check out sites like Hot Air Balloon Directory .

Blue Skies Above

Naturally, when shooting hot air balloons, you'll be getting a lot of sky in your images. There are a few things to keep in mind because the sky is not necessarily the limit. If you have one, bring your polarizer filter. You'll want it to enhance the blue sky and to cut down on any reflections. If you don't have one, you can achieve a similar effect with an editing program, but that will take longer.

In the image of a balloon floating in a cloudless sky, it's only interesting because the photographer used the rule of thirds and kept the balloon to the left third side of the image. Had it been smack in the middle, it would have been too boring. Instead, to keep your balloon in the sky shots more interesting, try capturing more than one in the scene and play with depth. They often look like jellyfish in an aquarium when they're up there floating against a blue sky, so let them scatter and be creative.

Another technique is to zoom in on just the top or the side of a balloon - in other words cropping it. This can make for some great shots as well. Don't feel like you have to get the entire balloon in, in fact, it can be better if you don't.

Up Close and Personal

A lot of times photographers forget to get more intimate with a hot air balloon setting. It's not always all about the balloons. A close up of the balloonist in his basket before lift-off, maybe as a silhouette, can make for some almost journalistic images. While it's tempting to think broad scoped, big skies, and all balloons, remember that sometimes what's right in front of you can be even more interesting.

Perspective: Under and Above

In the realm of perspective, notice the balloon's backdrop. Are you in a mountainous or some other area of interest? If so, you'll be sure to have some great backdrops to work with. The trick then is to wait for the right moment when the background and the balloon create a stimulating image. You'll still want to keep in mind the rule of thirds because likely the backdrop will stretch the entire scene, so positioning the balloon on the left or right third of the screen will likely offer you the best results. Your other option is to photograph from right under a balloon. Between the basket, people, the fire, the rotund balloon, and natural lighting penetrating inside the balloon, you'll have a lot to work with.

If you're able to scope out the area ahead, see if you can get above the balloons and capture them as they lift off. It's a completely different point of view and one that's rarely accessible, so if you can, go for it! Lastly, a lot of balloons aren't just squares and stripes. They'll have some kind of picture or logo, so be careful not to crop those if you can help it. Cropping a repeated pattern like the stripes or squares is okay, but cropping an image usually doesn't look good.

Hot air balloons can be a fantastic subject to photograph because of the unique lighting when they fly, and their wonderful colors. Try taking photos of them this weekend.

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  1. Sachin Khandelwal says:


  2. Janis Goonan says:

    Hi David! I'm going to a hot air balloon tomorrow Saturday and I just read your tips! If I take any good photos I will post them on the Dash! Thank you for always being there with great tips! Cheers! Your Dasher in NC,

  3. Suresh Gupta says:

    Nice article with lot of shooting tips. We don't have much of this activity in India. But it happens once in awhile. Surely I will apply your tips and enhance my shots.

  4. Stan says:

    In the survey ' do you save your photo's in raw format ' there should have been provision for saving in both formats. In my case, with the Nikon DSLR I save in raw, but with the small pocket Sony HX30V that I keep with me when I don't want to lug around the DSLR, it only has jpg.

    Cheers, Stan

  5. Garry Dool says:

    Great article,very helpful and timely . I am leaving for Turkey shortly and taking a Balloon ride over Cappadocia. This article will help me better plan my shots.

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8 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.