A Wide View of the Balloon Fiesta

A Wide View of the Balloon Fiesta!

When 600 plus hot air balloons take flight and you are right under them as they fly by, even the most hard-nosed grumpy person I know smiles.  This was my 5th year at the Balloon Fiesta.  It doesn’t get old, in fact, each year has gotten better.  Part of the experience for me was made so much better by getting to spend the week with my oldest and best friend whose distance keeps us from spending time together.  I have known Damon Halper since 1978 or so.

In 2014, my first year to go, I remember the announcer bragging because they topped 500 balloons participants.  This year I think the number was over 700.  I can’t explain in any adequate way the pure childish magic of watching that many hot air giants float up.  Then add in the special shapes and one feels like a kid at the bottom of a toy box looking up to the most wonderful childhood companions floating by.  It is pure magic, I go and exhaust myself, but I come back feeling so much younger inside.

This year I was delighted to make the acquaintance of Elizabeth Walker who owns a marvelous piece of flying artistry in canvas named the Looking Glass (Alice in Wonderland).  Her balloon is simply beautiful.  She invited me to participate with her crew and while I was not able to participate as much I wanted I got to spend one morning with them as they launched. 

The morning of the fiesta begins with the dawn patrol.  Here several balloons go aloft to test the currents pre-dawn.  They inflate in the dark of the night and as they ignite their burners they glow so wonderfully against the dark Sandia Peak that rises over 5000 feet above Albuquerque. The balloons lift off at the first hint of light in the east and when they do not have their burners engaged you really can’t see them against the predawn dark sky.  But wow, when the burners are going, seeing them glow against the night sky in the air is such an amazing experience. 

During this time the pilots attend a briefing about the day’s events, weather etc.  Elizabeth’s crew had just showed up in their pick up and trailer when I did.  She was still in briefing.  As the dawn broke, they pulled the Looking Glass out of the trailer and spread the balloon out and began the process of hooking up the burner and attaching the gondola to the balloon.  Ironically during one of my trips I had photographed Elizabeth’s balloon in flight before and loved the photo so much made a meme out of it.


It was a stellar morning as the crisp New Mexican air was not too cold but just gold enough to nee a light jacket.  And as the sun began to light up the Sandia Peak to the east, the clouds caught fire.

Once the burner was attached it was tested.  I felt like a child watching the flames lick the sky as Elizabeth lit up as did other pilots around us.  The roar of the burner is not terribly loud but it is a roar and you can easily imagine some dragon breathing deep and belting out flame.

The gondola is laid back down on its side and the balloon properly attached.  They don’t begin by inflating it with hot air but rather use a fan to fill the balloon part way. This is called cold packing I think.

Then when the balloon has enough volume of air in it, Elizabeth turned the dragon on and started filling the Looking Glass with hot air.  I love the joy in her face as the flames backlit her and the crew.  I enjoyed feeling the heat against the chilly morning air.  And as the balloon inflated and filled with hot air, it righted itself almost like some living being standing up from laying down and sleeping.  It is easy to imagine the looking glass a living thing, breathing flame and dancing in the air!.

Elizbeth’s passengers for the day's flight was a wonderful young couple who had just gotten married.  The affection for each other and excitement for the flight made the flight even more magical. 

Congratulations to Brady and Hannah Mayfield on their recent marriage and honeymoon balloon flight!

Once the balloon was inflated I switched from a 28-105mm zoom to the Irix 15mm Firefly.  The reason is that I wanted as much of the balloon in my frame as possible while being close to the people in the gondola.    I think you will agree, I accomplished that well.  The Irix lens got me just what I wanted.  One of the things I have been asked by several photographers is about the lens not being autofocus.  It is a manual focus lens.    But here is where the magic of its wide-angle comes in. 

One trick landscape photographers often use is hyper-focal distance.  Depth of field is an important issue in any shot.  But when you focus on infinity, there is a point where everything past a certain distance (different for each lens) is in focus.  So, what I did was simply put my Irix on infinity and make sure I stayed about 10 ft from anything I shot and didn’t worry about focus.  Viola, problem solved.  The pictures are crisp and very in focus. 

Each balloon must be cleared to take off.  Officials come around dressed in black and white come and talk to the pilot when they are ready and give the clearance to take off.  Everyone that I met who represents the Balloon Fiesta has been fun and very kind, these two were no different.  Soon Elizabeth had the clearance to fly and the Looking Glass lifted off.   Sitting here writing and I get goosebumps, I know I am just a big kid but to see something that big just float off the ground like a feather in the wind?  To see hundreds just float!  WOW!

It is said that the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is the most photographed event in America.  I can believe it, cameras abound.  What do I shoot with?  A Pentax K1 of which I have found to be the most capable camera that I have ever used.  Combine my Pentax with the Irix lens and that is a winning combination!