So, you're going on a hot air balloon ride! I'm so excited for you! Also, a bit jealous but that's okay. This is one of those times that the cost is definitely worth the investment but you still want to get your money's worth of images from your adventure. I've compiled a list of tips, gear recommendations, and even a sample shot list (free download available) to make sure you walk away with those Instagram envy inspiring shots.
As I confessed in one of my latest blog posts (read it here), I am a balloonatic. I am completely in love with hot air balloons. And there’s no better way to remember my experiences than by capturing them with my camera. Hot air balloons are also a great subject for travel and stock image sales. They can be connected to specific places for travel as well as more generic categories like adventure, romance, and luxury. So here are my tips for getting the best photographs while you’re enjoying a hot air balloon ride, whether you want to sell your images or capture your fabulous adventures while on vacation.
I’m sure this won’t surprise anyone who knows me, but I did a ton of research before each of my balloon flights. I also analyzed my shots after my flights to see which lenses I used most often, etc. You definitely want to bring both a wide angle and a short telephoto lens with you. Since space is tight in the balloon you aren’t allowed to bring any bags on board so you’ll either need to carry your spare lens in your pocket or, if at all possible, bring two camera bodies so that you can switch between cameras instead of trying to switch lenses. I’m a bit of a klutz so the thought of changing lens in a crowded space while thousands of feet up in the air makes me more than a bit nervous….I can just imagine the lens falling over the side of the basket! If you don’t have two camera bodies consider renting a second one for your ride. They are quite affordable to rent (you don’t have to go top of line, it’s better to know how to use whatever camera you have than to rent the fanciest one and not know the controls). I’ve used BorrowLenses.com many times and I’ve always been happy with the gear and the service. Your local camera store may also have rental equipment. Make sure your memory cards have more space than you think you can possibly need.
Bring the fastest lenses you have (the lens with the smallest minimum f-stop). My favorite lenses to take are the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2 and the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2. When you are preparing to launch and at the beginning of your ride the sun won’t be up yet so you’ll be shooting in low light. You’ll also be in a moving object so you’ll need to compensate with either higher ISO, which can cause noise in your image, or by using a faster shutter speed (or wider aperture if you shoot in Av mode). I’ve analyzed all my hot air balloon shots in Lightroom, where I can sort my images by metadata such as lens and f-stop. I’ve ranked many of my shots and most of my favorites are shots that are taken between f5.6 and f7.1, so that’s my suggested f-stop range. I also tend to shoot in high-speed mode to make sure that I get a few options of each image. Balloon rides are not inexpensive, but memory space is.
Remember to throw an extra battery, lens wipe cloth, and memory card in your pocket before the flight….there’s no going back once you take off and you won’t have your camera bag with you. It probably wouldn’t hurt to make sure that you have a memory card in your camera, either. Also triple check your camera straps to make sure they haven’t come loose. Same with your lens hood if you’re using one. I generally use my lens hoods except on hot air balloon flights. I don’t take them on the flights for three reasons. The obvious concern is losing the hood over the side of the balloon. The second is the issue of space, the lens hood can add several additional inches to the length of your lens and when you’re in close quarters with other people that can be annoying to everyone. And lastly, I like sunflare in my shots so I don’t want to block it with a lens hood.
Another option to capture your trip is with a GoPro (or similar video camera). Unfortunately, no matter how good the camera is, photos just can’t transfer that feeling of slowing lifting off the ground. But a video might help. The ultra wide lens is also great for getting those selfies with lots of the background in the shot. You could always clamp a GoPro to the edge of the basket to get a time lapse recording of the trip while you take photos with a digital camera. We didn’t have a GoPro when we took our balloon rides so I am super excited to try it again and see how many other shot opportunities open up. But the shot list included below still applies to GoPro cameras.
Before you get into the balloon it’s worth trying to get a corner position, either by outright asking your balloon pilot or by seeing which partition of the basket will be loaded next. If there is a specific view that you want to capture make sure to ask the pilot about it, they are able to rotate the balloon around and can put you into the right position. Be polite, but if you ask nicely most pilots are happy to exceed your expectations. Just remember that their duty is also to keep everyone safe so they may not be able to be as accommodating, especially during takeoff or landing.
I always try to pre-plan as many specific shots as I can before an event. If I don’t write them down I can get caught up in the excitement of the ride!
This is my balloon ride specific shot list:
- Setting up the balloon
- Before take-off selfie in the basket or in front of the balloon as it fills with hot air
- Other balloons if possible
- Across the landscape (with and without other balloons)
- Pointing straight down (with and without including the basket)
- Looking up into the center of the balloon
- Shadow of balloon on ground or reflection in water
- During ride selfie (or ask someone else in the basket to take one of you and vice versa)
- Patterns on the ground
- Silhouettes (balloons in sky against sunrise, people inflating balloons against the light of the heater flames.
- Your chase crew- not during landing
- Packing up the balloon
- Champagne after the ride
I’ve created a one page checklist of everything you need to capture your own hot air balloon ride. Join my newsletter to keep up to date on future hot air balloon and photography posts and download your free copy of my checklist.