Chasing balloons, Part 1

Everything is awesome

Surrounded by citrus orchards and mist-shrouded mountains, the soccer-turned-balloon field is an exciting place to be. There is so much action and colour to take in, everything to be captured with a camera.

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Something smells good

Fish tacos, garlic fries, smokey BBQ ribs and fire roasted sweet corn would all be wonderful right now but I need my hands for my camera.

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A balloon smiles at me

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I’m smiling back.

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“C’mon, c’mon, step inside…”

The balloon crews are used to photographers hanging around. Even better, they invite us to step into the open balloons as they inflate them. The industrial fans blowing air into the balloons are powerful and disconcertingly loud, and there are plenty of ropes to trip or garrote you if you’re not paying attention.

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With other photographers waiting their turn, I can only appreciate being inside this kaleidoscope for just a moment. But I’ll have my photographs to remind me.

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Watch out for fire blasts

The pilots fire up their propane burners, blasting fire into the balloons to heat up the air inside. With each burst of flame, the balloons slowly rise.

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Turn up the ISO

As the sun sets, it becomes more photographically challenging. We turn our cameras’ ISO settings right up and get our shutter speeds as fast as possible to keep up with the movement in growing darkness.

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It’s glow time

The balloons don’t fly at night; fully inflated, they bob gently, safely tethered to the ground. In the dark, the balloon glow comes from pilots igniting their propane burners. They blast their flames at different times: the balloons twinkle. They blast them all at once: the rainbow radiates against the black sky.

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When I get back to my room at the Santa Paula Inn I realise that I’m starving – I skipped dinner. Luckily, I’ve got a bacon scone to eat, which I bought from the bakery at Rabalais’ earlier that day. Even though we’re meeting up at 6AM tomorrow and I know I need to get some rest, it takes a few hours for my exhilaration to subside. When I finally fall asleep, I see balloons in my dreams.

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Hot air balloons have been on my ‘To photograph’ list for some time. I had hoped to attend last year’s Canberra Balloon Spectacular, which is held annually in March, but project deadlines at work made it impossible. I decided to photograph hot air balloons somewhere during my long service leave.

I googled hot air balloon festivals and hot air balloon photography workshops in the hope of finding a workshop connected to a balloon event. As this would be my first time photographing hot air balloons, a workshop would provide guidance and easy access to my subjects. That’s how I ended up visiting Santa Paula – to attend a photography workshop at the Citrus Classic Balloon Festival.

It was the second workshop I booked for this trip. I had already signed up for a cowboys and wild horses photography workshop in Cody, Wyoming (1-7 August, blog posts still to come). The plan fell into place easily – fly to Los Angeles, go to Santa Paula, then San Francisco for a few days, then onto Cody.

I want to photograph more hot air balloons and have my fingers crossed for a future Canberra balloon spectacular and the big one, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. If you’ve been to a hot air balloon festival anywhere in the world I’d love to hear about it.

In the immediate future – I’ll be going up in a hot air balloon for the first time when I’m in Myanmar in December, with these guys – Balloons over Bagan. Yes, I’ll have my camera in hand.

Citrus Classic Balloon Festival

  • The 2014 festival was held on 25 and 26 July.
  • The festival was held at the Limoneira Soccer Fields, off Highway 126 in Santa Paula (18249 East Telegraph Road), California, USA.
  • Friday 25 July (6pm to 11pm) included carnival games, food stalls, live music, Sunset Wine Dinner (tickets sold separately), Evening Balloon Glow
  • Saturday 26 July (6.30am to 11pm) included Sunrise Balloons, tethered balloon rides, vintage car display, carnival games, food stalls, live music, Craft Beer Dinner (tickets sold separately), Evening Balloon Glow
  • Friday tickets cost US$12 (adults)/US$5 (youth)
  • Saturday tickets cost US$15 (adults)/ US$5 (youth)

Jansen Photo Expeditions

  • Husband and wife team Mark Jansen and Holly Higbee-Jansen specialise in small group photography workshops and tours throughout California and beyond.
  • The hot air ballooning workshop was USD$205. Our workshop passes got us half-price entry to the two days of the festival.
  • We met up in the afternoon on the Friday to explore adjacent farmland, photographing old barns, tractors and equipment, then moved on to the balloon festival. We met up again early on Saturday morning (that’ll be my Part 2 post).
  • I enjoyed the workshop, which was hands-on and provided excellent opportunities to get in close to capture the action. Mark and Holly were available to instruct us and offer technical advice/assistance, and while our workshop group stayed in contact, we were free to move around the balloon field and immerse ourselves in the experience. I’m pretty chuffed with the photos I took over the two days of the workshop/festival.

My solo USA trip (2014) – about this series

I travelled alone to the United States from late July to mid-August. This trip covered California, Wyoming and Colorado. The primary reason for the trip was to attend a couple of workshops, one on hot air balloon photography and the other on photographing wild horses and cowboys. I also caught up with an old school friend.

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  • Craig Hind

    Nice! Some lovely moody shots there with great colour. You captured the burner shots perfectly – I love that blue flame. :-)

    • Thanks, Craig. Burst mode was very useful for capturing the flame moments. I can’t wait for my next balloon festival, wherever that may be.

  • Cindy M

    Big balloon festival in Albuquerque, annually. Haven’t gone to see it. There used to be quite a few balloon enthusiasts here; about 4 or 5 times a year, on a Sunday, while heading to our breakfast restaurant, balloons in the sky. :-) They look like suspended holiday ornaments. And I always **hate** the Re/Max balloon, ugh. Or Wells Fargo (bank). No advertisements, please!! ;-) Occasionally a balloon will pass right over our house; its fire-letting has such a charming hiss. I think of it as “dragon’s breath.” Glad you had a good time at this fest. Oh, nearly forgot to mention…no ballooning around here for quite a while now. I think it’s a combination of our ongoing recession and the older Baby Boomers (who could afford upkeep and had the time) have simply gotten too old. :-(

    • Yep, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (mentioned in my post) is on my To Travel list. Probably can’t do it next year, but definitely sometime in the future.

  • Love the look of the colours in the balloons – so colourful, fun and memorable. Good luck with your Myanmar balloon trip!

    • Thanks! The hot air balloons in Myanmar will just be one activity during the almost 2 week trip. Fingers crossed for good weather conditions on the day.

  • Row

    Incredible photos, TFP! The hot air balloons are so breathtaking. :)

    • Thanks, Row. I’ve wanted to photograph hot air balloons for some time. The experience didn’t disappoint.