Photographing the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

Although I’ve been to New Mexico many times (I have family roots there), I had never had the opportunity to attend the Balloon Fiesta, held every fall for the last 45 years. Kathy and I scheduled in three sessions at the Fiesta’s opening weekend during a recent photo trip to NM. (A session is a morning launch period or an evening glow event; virtually nothing takes place mid-day. Each session’s admission requires a separate ticket. For comprehensive information, visit their web site.)

Inflating for the Dawn Patrol
Inflating for the Dawn Patrol

The Fiesta is efficiently managed and they shuttle thousands of visitors in and out on buses from satellite parking lots. Be sure to get tickets online ahead of time: you’ll save a few dollars and avoid standing in the ticket line at 5:00 AM, not an appealing proposition, but we saw plenty of people doing it. We got to our shuttle at the Coronado Center at 4:30 AM. (Yes, you read that right. If you want to capture the Dawn Patrol, roll your butt out of bed, grab your equipment and move it, Sparky.) The ride to the Fiesta was about 30 minutes. Dawn Patrol inflations began about 5:45 and they lifted off about 6:00 AM.  Even at that dark, early hour there were plenty of people at the Park. There is food and coffee available, so don’t worry about eating breakfast first.A tripod or monopod and high ISO are extremely helpful in the pre-dawn darkness and later for the evening glow event. I shot RAW at 1600-2000 ISO and used a travel tripod as a monopod for support. As the sky brightened, I was able to abandon the tripod and gradually lower the ISO. I reversed the process for the twilight event. I mostly shot with a Nikon D500 with an 18-140 lens. A longer zoom will help you isolate balloons in the air. All images were processed in Lightroom Classic CC.

One of the best features of the Fiesta is that visitors can walk freely among the balloons as they inflate and lift off. We figured out that it is best to photograph the balloons (wide-angle lens) from the leeward side. Then, as the balloons lift, turn and shoot them from the windward side as they drift away. They will be side-lit by the rising sun as it rises behind the Sandia mountains. The trick to good images is using a zoom and constantly recomposing and turning around. Several hundred balloons will lift within an hour or two; you’ll get dizzy trying to photograph them all.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, NM
Dawn Patrol before Liftoff

After photographing for a couple of hours, we thawed out with a breakfast from the Blake’s Lottaburger stand (five stars) and visited some of the vendors. The main street of the Fiesta resembles a state fair, with merchants, demonstrations (Canon is a very prominent sponsor) and plenty of food stands. We left at 11:00 AM and occupied ourselves until we returned for the twilight glow event, which started just before sundown. We returned a final time for the Sunday morning liftoff and then hit the road for Abiquiu and Plaza Blanca.

I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did the Fiesta would be near the top. For photographers it offers endless opportunities for images of brightly colored balloons against a brilliant, blue New Mexico sky.

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