Saturday, September 08, 2007

Lessons Learned: Photographing the 2007 Great Reno Balloon Race

The Great Reno Balloon Race is an annual event that attracts over 100 pilots and their crews to Reno, Nevada each year. I enjoyed attending the Great Reno Balloon Race for the first time this year. My main regret is that I wasn't able to move around much or very quickly due to an ankle sprain, but I'm recording additional thoughts here so I'll remember what I'd like to do at the event next year.

The first thing on my wish list for next year will be to try to go to Friday and Sunday events. I attended Saturday this year and after getting up in Truckee around 2:30am and exploring the Reno/Tahoe area until sunset, I was too tired to make it before dawn again on Sunday. Who knows if I'll have Friday free next year, but anything's fair game on a wish list.

For this year's event I arrived by 4:30am and started taking pictures as the balloons that were to participate in the Glow Show were inflating, with a 30 second exposure. I set the ISO up a bit, and the shot turned out surprisingly well, with the contellation Orion appearing in the shot as a bonus.

The 5am Glow Show only had two or three brief times when all four balloons were lit at once, so you really had to be ready for it. I'd like to get a straight-on and a diagonal side angle, so I'll sprint to a new location after the first all-balloon glow. The rest of the time while they're alternating which balloon burns I'll run in and catch shots of the crew and of the propane flames.

For the Dawn Patrol flight, again there were few times when all balloons were lit at once, so plan for your location and framing for those two shots and catch them quickly while you can. I tried some time exposures hoping to get the balloons all lit over time, but the wind moves them too fast and those shots are blurry.

As the balloons were preparing for the mass ascension, I really liked my position by some modest wetlands northeast of the field towards McCarran Blvd. The rising sun cleared the horizon just as the first balloons were airborne, so it was a great angle to get the warm early morning light hitting the balloons. Next year I'll probably start closer to the balloons and get the pilots walking inside to inspect the canopies, get the flames and the inside of the balloons, and get some detail shots of the colorful balloons crowded together, then head back out to get the whole field of action. The cars parked up on McCarran Blvd. however had my same angle but gained an interesting birds-eye view looking down on the field. Some people scooted under the chain link permimeter fence... maybe it would be worthwhile to wear grubby clothes to gain access to that higher perspective for a shot or two. I guess the only other thing I'd like to get around this time would be a shot or two towards sunrise, so I'll have to weigh shooting from the West side 10 to 5 minutes before the sun rises against wanting to be on the East or Northeast side of the field a few minutes later. If it's a boring clear sky I can probably skip sunrise, or maybe I can try both on different days.

Then as the Mass Ascension got underway the wind carried balloons towards the East. The wet area I was near provided some nice reflection shots, but frankly the lighting was not ideal... the balloons were drifting past my position towards the rising sun, and although it was behind a tree the shady side of the ballons lacks color saturation. (The haze in the sky from the Plumas fire also detracted from the overall color, but I'd rather than err towards realistic color than to unrealistically correct or oversaturate.) Next year one thing I can do to react to this would be to move to the far/east side of the large pond that lies due East of the takeoff field. It was calm and would have offered more sturated colors of balloons lit in full sun, plus their reflections. I'll have to move here early in the Mass Ascension because the balloons quickly drift overhead and continue Eastward.

Next the ballons started playing various games and contests, with the key weather change being a change in drift direction westward, so the balloons come back over the field. I can stay down by the pond or continue around the field clockwise, as I see from other pictures that there was a small decorative pond or fountain to the south of the field that might offer yet another reflection site and the sun moves towards the south, following it around and shooting northward can keep the balloons well lit.

One thing I forgot to do after the Glow Show and Dawn Patrol was to set my ISO back down, so my shot from the 6:30am Mass Ascension on are slightly grainy. I did determine some time ago that for hot air balloon photos turning a polarizer to cut glare on the shiny fabric can be critical to getting a proper exposure, increasing color accuracy and saturation, and cutting haze in the sky. The benefit didn't seem as noticeable as usual in the smoke-filled sky on Saturday. I also held a graduated neutral density filter in front of my lens for the reflection shots to bring the exposures of the direct and reflected areas of the scene into balance.

I guess the last thing I'll do in the future is not head down to Virginia City for the International Camel Races, and to take it easy during the day so maybe I can return for the next day's balloon flights.

I had been thinking of heading to Albuquerque for the International Balloon Fiesta Oct 6-14, but I think I may try to return to Reno's event next year instead!

From Virginia City I headed back to Truckee via Lake Tahoe so I could catch sunset from the Sand Harbor area. I arrived back in Truckee around 8:30pm. After being on the move since 2:30am, I was ready for a break.