Photographing balloon glows

The Fourth of July isn't the only event that lights up the night sky

Balloon glows (also known as night glows) are usually held around a hot air balloon race or as a part of other festivities like airshows and fairs. The premise is that a bunch of hot air balloons are set up in a large area while the baskets remain anchored to the ground. As the pilots fire their burners to keep the balloons inflated, they light up against the evening sky and is quite the sight to behold.

Here in St. Louis, when you hear about hot air balloons you’ll probably think of the annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race; a balloon glow is held on the night before the race. However, I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with the event over the years as it has become extremely overcrowded and hard to traverse. Vendor lines are so long that they spill out into the crowd area, and good luck getting a view up front to photograph the balloons inflating unless you arrive hours earlier.

The glow this year was even cancelled on the spot due to wind, with pilots reduced to just firing their burners sans balloon. While not uncommon for glows to be called off for weather, the issue was that the call was made far too late for an event of this size and this was poorly communicated to the crowd through inaudible loudspeakers. There were a lot of confused people making the long trek across Forest Park back to their cars while incoming arrivals weren’t informed at all.

But whether it happened or not: if you ask me, the only thing that should be inflated at a glow are the balloons – not the crowds. So I think the best course of action is to hop right in your car and head out of the big city where there are other glows to be found in smaller towns. While lacking the spectacle of large glows like the Forest Park event, they make up for it with small, intimate environments that are easier to get to and much more accessible to get around. Most of all, the balloons are there all the same and offer no shortage of photography opportunities.

Where to go? Two sites to check around for glows is HotAirBalloon.com and Balloon Federation of America. So if you have decided where you’re going, what should you bring?

Gear

A single hot air balloon is massive…a group of them even more so. You’ll certainly want to bring the widest lens you have; the 16-35mm is the most obvious choice. A 24-70mm would also work fine too, and this lens is great for ground shots like people and the balloon pilots. Those two lenses are all I usually need and if I had to take just one, it probably would be the 24-70.

If you don’t mind lugging one around, a long telephoto lens can be useful for ground details and candid shots of pilots from a distance while the crowds are still roped off from entering the field. Once the crowds are let loose, it’s difficult to grab anything from a distance without someone crossing in front. That’s why I wouldn’t fret about leaving the long lens at home and simply get in closer with a 24-70 when you want the close-up shots on the ground.

As is usually the case with night photography, don’t forget a tripod. If you have a camera capable of high ISO, I’ve found that you can often get away with shooting handheld as the balloons and burners are bright. But a tripod will allow you to get even sharper (and less noisy) images, and is also helpful with setting up compositions between the balloons lighting up.

Particularly in the case of spring or fall glows, the temperature drops rapidly as the sun goes down and it gets a little chilly. So don’t forget to bring a light jacket and a pair of thin gloves that allow you to comfortably operate a camera as your hands may eventually be uncomfortable by the end without them.

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Photographing the glow

Every balloon glow has their own spin on the format, but they generally are as follows: the event starts around sunset as the balloons are inflated. Spectators are not allowed around the balloons until they’re fully raised; at that time the ropes/barricades goes down and everyone is allowed to walk amongst the balloons, take pictures and interact with the pilots. (Quick note: I’ve heard some glows may not allow people to walk around the balloons period, but this has not been my experience.)

At random intervals, a countdown or a horn will signal the pilots to fire their burners simultaneously. All the balloons will be lit at once; naturally these are big photo moments that you’ll want to be ready for. Exposure is key: you need to expose for a lit balloon rather than a dark one in order to avoid blowing out the picture. Between signals, the pilots are randomly firing their burners to keep the balloons inflated, so take advantage of these moments to adjust your exposure as the balloon is lit so you’re ready for the mass lightings.

A tripod will allow you to drop the shutter speed, but there is a catch: the balloons are constantly swaying in motion and you will get motion blur if your shutter speed is too low. I try to keep it anywhere from 1/15th to 1/60th or higher (depending on the sway / wind) and open up my aperture or raise the ISO if I need more light. You may even want to go even higher with the shutter speed if you’re photographing the fire shooting from the burners. And don’t forget to keep an eye on your exposure and make adjustments as the night falls and the environment gets darker.

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You’ll be looking upwards a lot during the glow, but also look down on the ground for the small moments. There is always the surprised face on a child when the burners goes off, or you can photograph the pilots in the basket at work. Many of them may fire their burners just for you if you approach and they spot your camera. Also consider anything interesting in your environment that the balloons could compliment. In a “Why didn’t I think of that?” moment recently, I saw a photo from a balloon glow at an airport where the photographer shot a great image of an airplane sitting on the runaway amongst the balloons glowing in the distance. It was a brilliant move to take the shot at that time because the crowds were gathered at the balloons and not around the planes.

Finally, I find that the time is very short with smaller glows so don’t get hung up on one spot for too long and work quickly – it will probably all be over before you know it. I suggest arriving earlier to not only plan things out, but partake in other activities that the event has. Or you can simply bring a lawn chair or blanket, grab a corn dog and chill out.

Balloon glows are a very simple concept and I think it’s a nice evening outing that not many people consider as often as they should, so take advantage of them as they come around.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.