Hot Air Balloon Festival in New Jersey

Hot Air Balloons

Hot air balloons lifting off over New Jersey

Photographing the 29th Annual QuickCheck New Jersey Festival of Ballooning;  July 29-31, 2011;  located at the Solberg Airport in Whitehouse Station, NJ (about an hour from New York City)

 

I’ve never been all that interested in hot air balloons.  Sure, they’re pretty to see floating over the countryside, but as a sport, it’s kind of slow motion for my tastes.  Besides, “everyone knows” most hot air ballooning is done out West, so as an East-coaster I just never gave it any thought.  As it turns out, my knowledge of ballooning was a bit… well, light.

My preconceptions lifted and my interest soared (okay, okay, I’ll stop!) after I received an email from Canon noting the upcoming balloon festival being held in New Jersey about an hour from my New York City home.  For starters, “29th annual” suggests there is more ballooning going on here than I knew.  Also, as I thought more about what I assumed was a dull sport – at least as a spectator, I realized that photographing the “launch” phase of the balloon festival could be fun.  The vibrant colors, creative patterns and interesting shapes of the hot air balloons provided color, texture and humor, and the bursts of flame from burners filling the balloons, crews struggling to maintain control as gusts of wind push the huge balloons around, and the spectacle of great numbers of balloons soaring into the sky brought drama.  This was starting to sound like a good event for photography, so I resolved to attend the dawn launch on Saturday.

When Saturday morning rolled around, we easily arrived by the 6:00 a.m. opening of the festival gates and joined a small but growing crowd in making our way to the fenced off boundary of the balloon launch area.  By 6:30 a.m. there were hundred of people lining the fence, everyone from large families spread out on blankets and portable chairs to solitary photographers loaded with tripods and camera gear.  I was a little surprised just how many people had come this early, and we had some trouble finding a good place to stand.  A few lucky photographers were allowed inside the area with the balloons, but we – in no small part due to a total lack of foresight and planning – would have to do our shooting from outside the fence.

At 6:30 a.m., with their weather briefing completed, the balloon crews spread out over the field and started to unpack their balloon gear.  Within a matter of a half hour, what had been an empty field was transformed into one literally bustling with activity as crews unpacked and unrolled their balloons, rigged their baskets to the balloons, and rapidly filled their balloons with hot air from burners attached to the baskets.  By 7:30 a.m., the first balloons were lifting into the sky, and by 8:30, it was over – all the balloons able to fly had launched and floated away!

All in all, it took less than two hours for the event to play out, during which time the photography was fast and furious as we worked to capture strong images of color, action and patterns.  We’d initially lamented not being able to get into the area with the balloons, but it ended up not mattering so much.  As a first timer at a balloon festival, I definitely enjoyed the event and got some good photos from the sidelines.  It had been an early morning, but it was a lot of fun and worth the effort to attend.

I used the following photo equipment:  A Canon 5D Mark II camera with a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens and a Canon 1D Mark IV camera with a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II lens.  I’d brought other lenses, but it turned out these two did a great job covering the focal lengths I needed, so I never used the others I’d packed along.  I also brought a tripod, but I didn’t  end up using it, either, since it was quite light out by the time things got going and the tripod would have made it hard to move about and capture what was actually a fairly fast paced event.

Take a look at the photos at www.williamlee.com.  You can enjoy a slideshow there, and some photos are available for sale as prints or licensing.

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