Let me Ease Your Visual Overload Anxiety

Considerations at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Written by photographer and educator, Alex Kent.

Visual overload is one way to describe the world famous Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With over 600 registered balloons each year and 10s of thousands of people visiting each day, you can feel slightly overwhelmed on what to photograph and where to start. Here are a few photographic considerations to take some pressure off and make your visit more enjoyable. 

Hundreds of hot air balloons fill the sky and horizon along with thousands of onlookers at the bottom of the frame.

Wow! SO many balloons and SO many people. What should I shoot? 1/200 • f/8 • 200 at ISO 16mm

1. Seek out the balloons that interest you most. There are WAY too many balloons to try photographing them all, so don’t get caught up racing around just to check each one off your “list”. Think about what shapes, colors, characters, and/or sponsors you care about most. Start by taking a walk from one end of the park and back. If you see something that interests you along the way take some photos of course, but try not to end up in one place for too long. If you’re not feeling jazzed, move along. You could also prepare before the event and go to balloonfiesta.com to check out the layout of the land and some of the past events to see which balloons you like most. Maybe even bring a favorites list and go on your own personal scavenger hunt once you’re at the Fiesta. Here are a few that grabbed my attention. 

Two large hot air balloons on their sides being inflated at dusk. One red and pink and the other rainbow colors

The serene waves of vibrant colors and simple shapes inspired me to capture this scene. The balloons were close to backlit nearing sundown, so my settings were less than ideal with no tripod and required a very steady hand. 1/30 • f/4.5 • ISO 8000 at 16mm

The ultimate standoff! What Star Wars lover wouldn’t want to see these two face-off in the air? Which side would you choose? 1/80 • f/16 • ISO 200 at 70mm

Birds in flight silhouettes on a hot air balloon being inflated at dusk with a red balloon glowing with Canon logo

The “birds in flight” balloon with the glowing Canon balloon is what grabbed my attention. Plus, Canon is one of the main sponsors for the whole Fiesta and a world leader in the photo industry, so of course I’m going to capture their balloon. Again no tripod, so I had to ensure my shutter speed was fast enough to hand-hold. 1/80 • f/6.3 • ISO 8000 at 35mm

 2. Look for visual relationships. When composing your shot, notice how objects can “fit” in just the right places. As opposed to thinking about what the actual objects themselves are, think about them as shapes, lines, textures, colors, etc. Once you have broadened your mind to that idea, you can use design techniques such as framing, leading lines, repetition, rule of thirds, and others to create visually structured and interesting images. Sometimes this means having patience and waiting until the balloon or person moves into the right placement, or it may mean that you must move your position or use a different focal length of lens to line everything up. 

Rainbow Rider branded hot air balloon flying with 4 other colorful balloons creating a visual frame around four sides

“Framing” is a time tested artistic technique used well before photography. Place visual elements around your subject to focus the viewers attention. 1/160 • f/9 • ISO 3200 at 64mm

Hot air balloon pilot looks up at the flame entering his balloon to inflate while bystanders and crew watch

“Line of sight” is a design technique used to move the viewers gaze throughout the image. Notice the pilot looking at the flame and the other spectators are either looking back at the pilot or up towards the balloon. This create a triangular movement throughout the image. 1/3200 • f/5 • ISO 3200 at 19mm

Balance of hot air balloons on right horizon with Sandia mountain ridge on right horizon w balloons in sky

Balance. For this image I wanted to create a somewhat abstract scene showing a part of the Fiesta and the surrounding Sandia Mountains. Notice how the ground level balloons and mountains are in equal parts, none of the balloons in flight “touch”, and the whole composition creates a rough triangle. Patience and a bit of luck is key waiting for the balloons to align. 1/200 • f/11 • ISO 400 at 19mm

3. Talk to the pilots and crew. Most of the people at the event are happy to be there and are eager to share their passion with spectators. Once you have developed a rapport with a balloon crew member or pilot, it’s much easier to ask for permission to get very close to the balloon for those extra special shots. Just remember these people are working hard and concentrating on their tasks at hand! Be aware of the situation, know when to back off, and let them work without hindrance.  

Close up of fire creating hot air to fill up a hot air balloon. Looking up into the balloon with various colors

Getting those close ups of fire and inside the balloon are fun and visually stunning, but make sure you are not bothering the pilots and crew. 1/800 • F8 • 3200 at 64mm

Blue, yellow, red, and orange shapes in a ring of the inside of a hot air balloon being inflated.

The inside view of the balloon being inflated is a great to show off patterns and colors. Asking permission from the pilot is a MUST to show respect and not be a nuisance.

Hundreds of onlookers surround a hot air balloon on the ground being inflated while a photographer points camera inside

I show this image to give you an idea of the amount of people crowding around a balloon at times. Again, talk with the crew well ahead of time to get a close up view. This was opening morning, so a little more crowded than other days.

 4. Shoot some wide, some medium, and some tele. Considering there is such a variety of potential shots, experiment with a variety of focal lengths. If you’re only carrying one lens, say a 24-105mm, then remember to shoot some at 24mm, some around 50-70mm, and some near 105mm. Try shooting the same subject with these different focal lengths and you’ll start to learn how these effect the overall look and style of your images. You’ll also start to discover what focal length you like best. If you’re carrying more than one lens, remember to switch lenses every now and again. It’s a challenge, that’s part of being a photographer!

Child in pink outfit on her dad's shoulders looks across at a pink elephant shaped hot air balloon. ABQ Balloon Fiesta.

Set the scene. Wide angle lenses allow you to get close to a subject and still see a lot of your surroundings. Keep in mind you will get some distortion, more noticeable at the edges of the frame. I wonder if she likes the pink balloon? 1/200 • f/8 • ISO 100 at 16mm

Giant hot air balloons being inflated fill the frame. The sun, moon, starts, and earth are all on different balloons

Engulf. Medium lenses allow you to begin isolating subjects, but still see a lot. Of course your camera-to-subject distance will be a big factor. I was ecstatic to see the Earth, Sun, and stars all represented in one frame and positioned myself with intention to line up the elements. 1/160 • f/9 • ISO 3200 at 70mm

Smokey the Bear shaped hot air balloon flying centers the frame with hundreds of balloon floating around the sky

Get close. Telephoto lenses allow you to isolate subjects and/or get a closer view of far away subjects. In a sky filled with balloons I wanted to get as close as possible to Smokey while still showing him being surround by his “friends”. 1/800 • f/8 • ISO 200 at 200mm

5Don’t forget the peeps! People watching at the AIBF is top notch! Keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready because the opportunities for great people shots are abundant. 

Women with camera to eye point up with hot air balloons framing either side of her. She's dressed warm with white gloves

My friend, Sarah, getting the shot! Notice how I positioned myself to create some space between her and the balloons on the left as well as the camera lens and balloons on the right. The empty or “dead” space creates definition of shape. 1/200 • f/8 • ISO 1600 at 21mm

Mother with camera taking a photo of daughter trying to get a forced perspective photo at ABQ Hot Air Balloon Fiesta

Family fun getting their “forced perspective” photo. Can you imagine what type of shot they were trying to capture? 1/20 • f/5 • ISO 3200 at 21mm (WAY TOO SLOW on the shutter speed! I wasn’t paying close attention b/c I was too focused on capturing a candid moment. Fortunately, they and I were steady.)

Father tosses baby in blue up in the air with a background of hundred of floating hot air balloons at the Balloon Fiesta

Child getting some hang time for a little extra fun at the Fiesta! Remember to keep an eye out for candid moments like these. Unlike the last image, I saw the motion and quickly adjusted to a faster shutter speed to ensure a sharp image. 1/500 • f/11 • ISO 200 at 70mm

Happy family of three at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico

I spoke to the family after capturing their family “hang time” b/c I figured they may want a photo to remember the moment. After talking for a bit, I discovered they were ABQ locals, but the father grew up in my hometown of Hot Springs, AR! What are the odds?!

A quick thought on Photo Basics. You can always use Auto and hope for the best, but that won’t ensure you get the shot you intended. Knowing what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are, how they effect your image, their relationship to each other, and how to adjust them on your camera are all essential skills if you want to be a photographer. This isn’t the place for a lengthy explanation, but all I’ll say for shooting balloons is that there is a lot of movement going on, so make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to ensure sharp photos. Hint hint, going with photo guides will help!


I’m leading a fun and educational photo tour for Bedford Camera & Video to the Balloon Fiesta and surrounding area again this year (Oct 2019)! If you’d like to join, check out more info here

UPDATE: more plans for 2024 coming soon! Contact me if you're interested in joining

You can see more of Alex’s work on website and Instagram.

Originally published on https://bedfordblog.com/2019/07/26/visual-overload/