5 Tips for Doing Photography from a Hot Air Balloon or Biplane

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Do you do most of your shooting with your feet firmly planted on the ground? Camera shake is a basic concept that directs you to take a strong stance, brace your elbows, and keep that camera as still as possible. But what if you are not on the ground? What if you are up in the air? For myself, I would say that 95% of my photography happens on land, and while I get to do some underwater scuba photography sometimes, and that shooting from the sky is something I have only done a couple of times. But I hope that the lessons I have learned will help you, when and if you have that rare opportunity to get up off the ground and photograph the world from new heights.

001 Title

These tips are inspired by a balloon flight that I had in Bagan, Myanmar. Despite growing up with one of the world’s largest balloon festivals in my backyard (Albuquerque, New Mexico), I had never been in one. I have helped many land, but never been up in a balloon. So in Bagan, when an opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t think of a better way of seeing the over 2,000 temples of the area from the air. Also, I will show some photography examples from a single engine prop plane flight over the Bay Area, California.

So here are my five tips for doing photography from midair:

1. There’s limited space – so chose wisely

In anything defying gravity, whether it be a balloon or a plane, space is always limited. Before going up, there should be a safety briefing, and the pilot has the final say. So talk to the pilot and see if you can get a spot on the corner, or if he knows the best place from which to get a photos. It may not even be where you expect.

002 Limited space

2. The changing light conditions – be prepared

Most balloon flights start before sunrise, for both romantic notions, along with better flying conditions. But for a photographer that makes our job all the more difficult to capture the early morning darkness, turning into blue, then golden hour, and finally full daylight. So we have four different lighting conditions that need to be captured. If you bring a tripod leave it on the ground. It may be good for a sunrise picture, but getting the balloons or airplanes ready requires work. So there are lots of moving parts, and when you are in the air, you will definitely not need it.

The tip is really that there are many variables regarding light conditions.  I know it is a little obvious, but in a balloon (or airplane) you are not in a stable environment.  You will be dealing with multiple light conditions in a limited time and it is not so easy to just wake up the next day and fly again, so you need to be prepared for anything.

Bring a flash for fill. Use a gel on your flash to balance the blue or orange natural light. The fill flash is for the people in the balloon. During flight the balloon rotates, thus there are many times when the sun is at your back, being able to fill the shadows with some light is beneficial.

003 Changing light 2

003 Changing light

3. Camera – bring a second one along if possible

While I am not a gear junky, this is one place where it is nice to have another camera on hand. The confining space and the dynamic conditions (take off, spinning, turning, landing, etc., along with the changing light) make an extra camera really handy to have to be able get a range of shots in a limited space, in a limited amount of time. There are really not many options for doing that without having multiple cameras.

4. Lenses – take a long one

So what lenses to put on your cameras, is the next logical question. My first tip with lenses would be to bring a long telephoto. I have seen too many people with a 16-35mm lens try get the whole landscape, but when you are up high, you can get everything in frame with a longer lens. At 16mm the features of the landscape become minuscule from the air. It may seem strange to you to use a longer focal length lens for landscapes, but they are your good friend when floating or flying.

004 Lens 150mm

150mm lens

5. Don’t forget to just enjoy the trip

Balloons are to airplanes, as sailboats are to motorboats – they are quiet and hover calmly. It’s a bit surreal that it’s just a pocket of air that so delicately hoists you off the ground and drifts with the wind. It’s so smooth, so enjoy it!

Let me give you a breakdown of what I found worked for me, and if you have your own ideas please share them in the comments below.

004 Lens 200mm

My two cameras where a Canon 7D and a G-12. I brought two lenses with me, an equivalent 16-35mm lens, which stayed in my bag once we loaded up, and a 70-200mm. I brought a Canon 430ex II flash that was mounted on the hot shoe of my Canon G-12 (no need for it to be on the 70-200 when you are floating way up in the air). The flash was used primarily as fill light when the balloon would spin into the sunset with the sun behind. Thus, the basket, pilot and other passengers wouldn’t be black silhouettes or the background being totally blown out. I used a ¼ CTO gel to balance the orange morning sun.

Using my 70-200mm lens I was able to compress the background while still encompassing the landscape. In this case using a higher f-stop could help for clarity of both foreground and background. However, depending on when you actually get up in the air, you might want some more speed while keeping your ISO down. You also need to remember that you are moving. On the other hand, while directly over a subject a little less depth of field can be used, so a larger aperture. Takeoff and landing would be the best times to get some nice landscapes, but inside the balloon safety is first, and we were instructed to have our cameras secured. Thus, after takeoff get ready to start shooting before you are just way too high.

005 Zoom in

While having coffee and getting instructions from our pilot I asked a question, made a joke (that was not about safety), and hinted at a corner spot. The pilot, in my case, goes up every day during the winter months, and was no fool when it came to understanding my intention. So what do you know, he assigned me first, right in the corner. Whether he did it for a tip or for photography sake, I have no idea, but it worked in my favor. Instead of only a 180 degree view, I saw more like 270 degrees and that was 25% more options. I took it.

So go out there and get up in the air, land safely, and see the world from a new perspective. After all, photography is about perspectives and new horizons. Change your perspective of the world down here.

006 Salt Ponds of San Fransisco Bay Areal Photo from Single Engine Prop Plane

007 Sutro Tower San Fransisco 170mm from Single Engine Prop Plane

Seeing things in a new way can only make you understand your time on the ground that much better. As photographers a common goal we all share are the amazing visuals that we capture and create. So create from above, and share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Branson Quenzer has chased bygone eras in a vastly changing Chinese landscape for over a decade. He has a Master’s Degree in Economics, whereby he uses a paradigm of seeing the world through a system of interlinking processes and changes, to explore photography and the world. Please visit his website to see more or contact him through Facebook.

  • David

    Nice article Brandon!
    Taking a longer lens is a good thought. In the past, I have asked permission to tag along for the inflation to take photos before dawn even though I wasn’t flying. Excellent and at the right price 🙂 16-35mm handheld at high ISO was ideal. Bracketing especially when the flames were going to get the best exposure. I have seen shots where the photographer was inside the partially lit balloon with a ultra wide angle lens when the flames are on are great but clearly with special permission.
    I recently went in a Cessna for a scenic/photography flight for the first time with window open using 24-105mm lens and was awesome despite the cost. Similar to a no-door helicopter flight very fast shutter speeds were needed due to the vibrations. I would be interested in the range of shutter speeds you used once aloft as balloon rides should have less vibration. Better to have high ISO noise rather than blurry images. 1/focal length would be the minimum of course.
    Also, take care of the direction of your shots compared to the sun’s direction. Sun glare/haze on the skyline after sunrise can make for good silhouettes but makes for difficult shots where even exposure across your frame would be better.
    Lastly, search for patterns in the landscape looking as straight down as possible for nice abstracts (as you showed in one shot).
    Enjoy
    David.

  • Doug Sundseth

    FWIW, when taking shots with a sunrise/sunset background and flash fill, I prefer to use a 1/4 cut CTB (sometimes even more), so that my skin color correction (toward orange when using any CTB) enhances the sunrise color rather than muting it.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Tagging along is great especially if you know someone… always access is key and if you are not an “official client” you can sometimes get away with more shots, like you mentioned inside the balloon. You have any photos to share? We would love to see them.

  • David

    Inside balloon inflation description at
    https://digital-photography-school.com/going-the-extra-mile-to-get-the-image-you-envisioned/
    Others examples:
    https://shotofadventure.com/2015/04/12/hot-air-balloon-cairns/
    http://phantomprod.com/CTDanBurnInside.jpg (not mine)
    http://www.traveller.com.au/the-morning-peak-hour-with-just-the-right-altitude-1of98

    Other ideas like panning of another balloon and silhouettes of people with inflation at:
    http://photographyblogger.net/42-incredible-hot-air-balloon-pictures/
    My shot (non-HDR) below
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidmarriottsydney/
    Note that you can also get the shot completely underneath if you move downwind when people are getting into the balloon.

  • Ed

    Love those hot air balloons! Thanks for the great reminder to get out and try new modes of transportation. Balloonists enjoy the occasional “Spash and Dash” (similar to “Touch and Go” but wetter.) It is a good way to practice your micro-adjustments to the buoyancy of the balloon.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Cool photo, thanks for sharing. Hot air balloon just cooling off!

  • Branson Quenzer

    Doug, absolutely you could go the other way to get a different results. Trying to keep things simple for the readers from the air. Gels are always in my bag, little bits of plastic make a big difference. Maybe the cheapest camera gear out there!

  • Branson Quenzer

    Look at the colors in the flame!!!

  • pete guaron

    Another similar choice is a helicopter – especially when you can sit in the front, alongside the pilot, in a chopper with a glass bubble cockpit. Provided the thing’s been cleaned properly, the only obstruction is the seat you’re sitting on and a rung for your feet. The view is magic.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Absolutely! Helicopters too. And what about drones… don’t get the personal view but getting up in the air requires some different ideas.

  • herve attia

    Good article and great photos from Bagan, Burma. I have never tried to take photos from a balloon. I might be wrong but balloon company does not allowed tripod because of small space and safety reasons. Therefore, photo must be taken handheld at high shutter speed in order to get sharp image. it could be an issue if you decide to do the shoot at sunrise/sunset when the amount of light is low : shutter speed must stay high and aperture should be around f8 ….so you end up boosting ISO.

    Now shooting handheld with a 200mn lens can be tricky : shaking issue while you try to zoom in.

    I went to Myanmar recently and here my blog entry : http://terrificshot.com/blog/2017/2/6-best-places-to-visit-in-burma-myanmar

    Cheers,

    herve

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