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

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.

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Branson Quenzer
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.

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