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On Assignment: Nikon Lenses at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta
by Theano Nikitas -  12/29/2010

Nikon really knocked it out of the park this year with the introduction of 14 new lenses, including fast prime lenses and telephoto glass from the ultra-wide 16-35mm to the super-telephoto 200-400mm f/4G ED VRII. To give journalists the opportunity to test some of the lenses - and to have some fun - Nikon organized a press trip to New Mexico for the 39th annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The Fiesta has been on my bucket list for a long time and I must say that this gathering of 650 pilots and around 800,000 spectators from all over the world exceeded my expectations. Well, except for the fact that we had to be on the road by around 4 a.m. since ballooning is best conducted in the hours just past sunrise when the air is more stable.

Balloon Fiesta

Even at pre-dawn, there were plenty of photo ops including the 1/3rd mile-long Main Street, which was lined with shops selling everything from custom-fitted toe rings, Southwestern clothing and balloon-themed souvenirs to all sorts of food including breakfast burritos and handmade donuts. There was something of a carnival atmosphere as well, with games and assorted vendors hawking neon light sabers and cowgirl princess hats with feathers and blinking tiaras (and, yes, I bought-and wore-the cowgirl princess hat with the blinking tiara).

Balloon Fiesta

Wide Angle Zoom
Between the pre-dawn darkness and the often garish, mixed temperature lighting from the store fronts, shooting Main Street was a little challenging to say the least. Fortunately, I brought the Nikon D3S with me and paired it with the new NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR (Vibration Reduction) lens. Although at F/4, the 16-35mm lens wasn't the fastest lens of the group, the Vibration Reduction combined with the D3S' amazing high ISO performance allowed me to make some great pictures despite the low/no-light conditions.

Balloon Fiesta

Auto focus was fast and accurate, exposures were generally spot on (I was shooting manually and played around with exposures), auto white balance worked surprisingly well and images were virtually noise-free even when shooting at ISO 1600-2000 (which doesn't even begin to challenge the D3S' high ISO performance.) I certainly could have pushed the ISO higher but I liked the look I was getting and, thanks to the lens' image stabilization, had no problems handholding the camera at 1/50th-1/80th second shutter speeds.

Pairing the Nikkor 16-35mm wide angle lens with the full-frame D3S was a good choice when shooting on Main Street, and on the field where the balloons were launched. While there was, as expected, some distortion at the far edges when shooting at 16mm, this lens allowed me to capture full scenes at close distances. With so many people crowding Main Street and the field, it was important to get as close as possible to avoid having the shot cluttered with too many people.

Balloon Fiesta

Of course, shooting with the 16-35mm lens on a full-frame camera has its downside since you're limited to a maximum 35mm focal length. There were a couple of times during the first morning that I wished for a telephoto lens as a few "Dawn Patrol" balloons were launched and soon looked like little dots on the viewfinder. I was, however, able to get close enough to capture a number of pre-launch shots as the balloons took on an eerie glow.

Timing your shot with the burner blast to get an illuminated balloon shot can be tricky but there seems to be a certain rhythm to how often the burner is fired and the glow lasts for a second or two. If you miss the shot, set the camera to continuous shooting to make sure you get at least a couple of images. It was easier to capture the glow while the balloon was still on the ground since burner blasts were more frequent than when the balloon was aloft.

The real action starts when the sun rises and the Mass Ascension begins, with multiple balloons launching at the same time. Fortunately, as you'll see in some of the images, the Balloon Fiesta has few restrictions and visitors are permitted to get extremely close to the balloons as long as you don't get in the way of the teams setting up the equipment. On the field, the 16-35mm lens allowed me to capture some great wide-angle shots of the envelope (uninflated balloon) splayed out on the ground as the crews get ready to attach it to the basket. The balloons typically range in size from 65,000 to 105,000 cubic feet and measure about 70 feet tall once inflated, so a wide angle lens like the 16-35mm was perfect to capture the pre-launch preparation.

Once the envelope is attached to the basket, a gasoline powered fan is used to blow air into the balloon. The air is then heated by a flame-producing burner and, since hot air rises, helps lift the balloon to a vertical position. Once the balloon is fully inflated and upright, pilots and crew have to wait for the go-ahead from the on-ground "air traffic controllers," for lack of a better term. These men and women are easily identified by their black and white striped outfits, which they personalize with balloon pins and other funky embellishments. These men and women, along with team members for each balloon, will let you know where it's safe to stand during the launch. In the meantime, check out the people handling the lines - it takes a lot of strength to hold the balloon in place.

Balloon Fiesta

Wide to Telephoto
While a wide-angle lens is great for on-the-ground shots, once the balloons started flying, I switched to the new NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 ED VR lens. At 28mm, it was wide enough (on the full-frame D3S) to grab shots of balloons still on the ground but also had enough telephoto reach to capture close up shots of the balloons as they left the ground and floated away. At about 28.2 ounces, the 28-300mm is only slightly heavier (about 4.2 ounces) than the 16-35mm lens and was quite comfortable to shoot with.

Balloon Fiesta

There was the occasional (and minor) vignetting at mid-to-full telephoto but otherwise the lens provided sharp, crisp images, fast AF and effective Vibration Reduction. Although IS wasn't really necessary for most shots since I kept the ISO around 800 and shutter speeds at about 1/500th second, when shooting from awkward angles (i.e., straight up into the sky), the image stabilization came in handy.

Once the balloons have reached their maximum height (the Balloon Fiesta estimates that at 500-1000 feet, but it seemed higher), it's difficult to capture images that are more than a random sprinkling of tiny balloons unless you have a super-telephoto zoom or you're in another balloon. I think that compositions that combine balloons still on the ground with those that are just launching made some of the images I took that day more interesting. I also found that pointing the camera straight up into the bottom of the balloon and zooming in was another interesting perspective.

Balloon Fiesta

As the balloons were launched, chase crews (including photographers) for each team jumped on their trucks and headed out to track their respective balloons. The chase crew and pilots are in touch via two-way radios or cell phones so they can be on hand when the balloons land. When the balloons touch down, the chase crews help recover and pack-up the equipment. Although I didn't participate, you can sign up to be part of a chase crew (there's usually someone at the entrance to the field asking for volunteers) and be part of the post-flight celebration. No guarantees, but you might be able to grab a ride on one of the balloons during the fiesta by volunteering for a chase crew.

The field was pretty much empty by about 10 a.m., but there's plenty to do in Albuquerque and the surrounding area, so there are plenty of photo ops outside of the fiesta, including Old Town and Taos.

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!