I have wanted to take photos of hot balloons for a while now. My buddy Paul shot a beautiful panorama of the Adirondack Balloon Festival in 2008, but I was unable to make it last year. Let’s blame it on the heavy rain or the impossibly early hour. 5AM, that’s crazy talk. Last weekend my friend C. and I laughed at the tornado alert and drove to Cambridge, NY to check the Moon Glow at the Cambridge Valley Balloon Festival 2010. Spoiler alert, the tornado had the final word. Read on.
The Moon Glow consists of tethered balloons illuminated by their gas flames orchestrated to music. If this sounds exciting on paper, this wasn’t much compared to standing right there, a few feet from these glowing behemoths. This is why I do photography, to capture scenes you don’t quite see everyday, to remember improbable and beautiful spectacles.
Photos below, but feel free to check the full-screen Flickr slideshow, it looks good large on black, or click on any of the thumbnails below to open a larger view.
I had made a few phone calls to the pilots scheduled to fly that weekend and even though the wind had prevented them from taking off earlier, they confided the show wasn’t canceled just yet. We took a chance and so should you. The road to Cambridge, an hour north-east of Albany, is worth the free ticket alone. It’s a gorgeous drive at sunset, the kind of expedition that reminds me why I moved to this country: prolonged stretches in nature, gentle rolling hills, abandoned sheds and silos, small towns I had never heard of, farmers peacefully sitting at the end of a long driveway, looking at the void. I loved it and if we hadn’t been late I would have taken a few photos. Next time, always a next time.
We arrived at Cambridge around 8pm, right on time for… Taste of Cambridge. It tasted very Cambridgy indeed, nothing I won’t be able to forget. A dozen food stands and tents; at the end of the lawn, people setting up chairs and blankets, waiting for the balloons to show up. We explored “Cambridge, NY: 2,158 inhabitants” for a bit and returned to discover 4 baskets sitting on the grass, empty envelopes next to them. I grabbed my camera and started to take pictures while each team proceeded to inflate their vessels. I was expecting a deafening concert of burners and they didn’t disappoint. What I didn’t account for was the incredible heat coming out of those jet streams. Wooosh. I couldn’t get closer than 6 feet without pictures from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark coming to my mind. Sizzling.
The balloons rose up to the sky but the baskets stayed only a few inches from the ground the whole time. As you can tell from the photos, it seems surprising they decided to get 4 of them so close to each other. Trust me though, the teams were hard at work trying to prevent any incident. I have to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure the show was going on. The crowd, safely packed a 100 feet away behind cops, seemed to enjoy the performance but the music was barely heard from our location. I bet I missed some really good Kenny G. As far as I could tell, each team was alternatively firing their burner for a few seconds, to a beat unknown to Man. It was gloriously bright for every precious instant.
What happened 20 minutes later is still confusing, but it happened *quickly*. We noticed the balloons swaying left and right, bumping into each other ever so slightly. The wind suddenly picked up and panic ensued. A few warnings were yelled, the burners shut for good, and from the darkness came a wall of fabric silently crashing our direction. We quickly walked out of the way and the balloons collapsed around us. I’m not sure how much the envelopes weigh but I didn’t feel like trying to guess with my face. The cops made sure everybody was OK and a fire truck pulled over to light the whole scene. I’m confident nobody got harmed, though it seems that gust of wind took a lot of people by surprise. I don’t think Moon Glow, as it was intended, ever happened but I came back with 150 photos and I hope you enjoy a select few.
My photo tips. I would love to say these photos are easy to achieve but they are not, for many technical reasons. Thank the camera here, not me: I was mostly standing in the dark, waiting for a bright light to shine for a few seconds from one of 4 random balloons. Running like a blind chicken, really. Shooting in low light requires a camera with high ISO sensitivity, a good sensor, and decent noise control. Shooting a fast event requires a camera with a solid focus engine, a good burst rate and shutter priority mode. Combine the two and you are left with only a few choices, semi-pro or pro cameras, the likes of the Canon 7D/5D/1D or Nikon D300/D700. I bought the Canon 5D Mark II for that very reason: to take pictures in the dark, without flash. One can get pretty far by leaving a camera on a tripod for 10 seconds or more though, but it just wasn’t possible here. I had to be able to aim, focus, and take a few shots in 2 or 3 seconds.
A camera runs on light. Do not starve it. In almost pitch black conditions there isn’t much choice but to shoot in Aperture Priority mode, pick a fast lens, and open it wide open to grab as much ambient light as possible. Sure thing, this comes at the cost of a thinner focus plane and slight loss of sharpness, but this is a compromise to weigh against disastrous noise at very high ISO or a blurry photo. My fastest lens is the Canon 50mm f/1.4, a small, inexpensive, quality prime lens. It’s my favorite lens for concerts, when I need to shoot even faster and not poke everybody in the eye. I didn’t pack it though; expecting a large field of view, I used a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, a solid ultra-wide lens. It rocked.
The second part of the equation here is a robust post-processing tool. No need to lie, many of the photos I shot between ISO500 and ISO2000 were noisy, especially in the sky region. After using Photoshop for years, I switched to Lightroom 2 in 2009, a fantastic tool I’m not giving up anytime soon. I would run Noise Ninja from Photoshop now and then to clean photos taken at night. For the first time today I used Lightroom 3, a new major release, featuring a brand new denoiser. I was floored. This is the best denoiser I’ve ever used, period. It performed great on this series and degrades very smoothly into a pleasing painterly look. If you shoot in low light, you need to evaluate this product. I did blow some highlights but there isn’t much you can do when shooting such a large dynamic range. Another new feature in LR3, profile-based lens correction. It works beautifully as well, recognizing my lens and camera automatically. It will fix distortions, aberrations, and vignetting automatically, though you can adjust each parameter later on. I can’t tell if it’s better than the leader on the market, Dxo Optics Pro, but it’s much faster and I don’t have to juggle with another software or enormous intermediate files. Win.