On Assignment: Nikon Lenses at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

by Reads (811)

The second day started out pretty much the same way as the first day – wake-up early and get to the site before dawn. The Fiesta was a lot more crowded since this was the day of the Shape Rodeo. Shape balloons aren’t your standard balloons – they come in the form of a house, a bumble bee, Darth Vader, a cow, kangaroo, lighthouse, and other interesting forms.

Balloon Fiesta

This time, I wanted to do something a little different so I asked Steve Heiner, Senior Technical Manager for Nikon (who creates amazing motion videos), to help me set up interval shooting with the Nikon D700. Fortunately, I had a 32 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro card, which was more than sufficient for the shoot. Steve contributed his expertise, a 20mm f/1.0 lens and a clamp to attach the camera to a flag pole facing the field. In the Custom Menu, the non-CPU lens had to be registered, the image count was set to 999, and the camera was set to shoot at 10 second intervals. Automatic exposure, daylight white balance, ISO 640 and matrix metering were also set. Images were relatively small at 2128 x 1416 pixels, which delivered file sizes ranging from 748 KB to 1.21 MB (daylight images were larger). The camera, with a fully charged battery, ran for about 3 hours, capturing about 904 images on the 32 GB card.

To keep it simple, I edited out the first couple of test shots and used QuickTime 7 (File>Open Image Sequence) to put together this stop motion video. Note that the new QuickTime 10 does not – for some bizarre reason – offer this option. Of course, you can fancy it up in a video program by adding titles and music if you’d like but this gives you a good idea of a start-to-finish morning at the fiesta’s Shape Rodeo launch.

While the D700 was shooting on its own, I tried out the Nikon D3100 and the new 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens. After shooting with the D3S, the 16-35mm and 28-300mm lenses the day before, it took me a little while to get used to this telephoto set-up. The 55-300mm lens initially felt a little stiff when zooming but, on the other hand, I knew that it wouldn’t slip out of position when I moved the lens to the focal length I wanted.

Balloon Fiesta

Given the D3100’s 1.5x crop factor and the 55-300mm lens, I changed my shooting strategy since I wasn’t able to get the really wide shots like I did the day before. When stepping back to get a full shot of a balloon on the ground, I found that there were too many people in the shot, so I concentrated on getting tight shots of balloons on the ground. Try shooting into the balloon as it’s being filled with air or when the burner is firing.

Balloon Fiesta

But what I liked best about shooting with the 55-300mm was being able to isolate one or two balloons in flight, both overhead and in the distance. Some of the shapes are so much fun that they had more impact when they filled the frame alone or in pairs. Highlighting one balloon with others in the background can make engaging photos as well. The 55-300mm lens offered enough flexibility to capture single and multiple balloons in flight, so I was pretty happy with my images.

Balloon Fiesta

I have to say, though, that I really got hooked on the 16-35mm and 28-300mm lenses on the full-frame D3S the day before. However, the 55-300mm gave me a totally different perspective and made me look at the fiesta in a whole different way. It was a great learning experience and, if I go back again, I’ll be sure to bring both wide angle and telephoto lenses.

Bottom Line Tips:
If you plan to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Include both wide angle and telephoto lenses in your kit.
2. Bring plenty of high capacity, high speed memory cards (I used about 5 SanDisk cards: 4 Compact Flash, including a 32 GB Extreme Pro card and a 32 GB Extreme SD card)
3. Know your camera. I shot on manual to easily compensate for quickly changing lighting conditions.
4. A few photographers brought a tripod but unless you have someplace safe to leave it, you might find it too much to carry around – the field is huge, so you’ll be doing a lot of walking.
5. Try to capture all aspects of the balloon launch – from preparation to flight.
6. Don’t forget close-up shots of the crew’s hands while gripping the lines that hold the balloon down.
7. When shooting balloons against the sky, try different metering modes. Use center-weighted or spot metering to expose for the balloons.
8. Shoot some video. I was so caught up shooting still images that I didn’t shoot any video and now I regret it.
9. Have fun!

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