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Photography

Shooting a Sunset Wedding on a Hot Air Balloon

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:MediumLanguages:

As a wedding photographer, you only have one chance for every moment. We all have to handle curveballs on the big day from the florist running late to the brides dress ripping. But when the biggest challenge is an extreme location, it is best to be as prepared as possible.


Doing Your Research

Good news! Reading this, you've already started your research and will know what to expect through the whole trip. However, the research you will want to do in addition to this post includes:

  • Flight Path: Find out what scenery will be available
  • Time of Day: Find where the sun will be during the time of day and season you are flying
  • Altitude: Hot air balloon flights range from just above the tree tops to 10 miles. Know what you are getting yourself into. My trip went as high as 3000 feet.
  • Balloon Rules: All flight companies have their own rules. Research their website beforehand so you are in the know.

Hot Air Balloon FAQs for Photographers

Here are a selection of frequently asked questions about ballooning that pertain to our job.

Q What should I wear? Isn't it cold up there?

Surprisingly, no. It's the same temperature as it is on the ground, if not warmer (see photo below). You will be landing in a field somewhere, so wear appropriate shoes, otherwise dress normally for the season.

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Every time the captain turns on the jets, this flame is about a foot from your head. It will get hot. You will spend a lot of time ducking. It is also very loud. You, the officiant, and the couple will be rendered silent whenever it is on.

Q What should I bring?

It is best to leave your gear bag on the ground and only bring the essentials. All the companies will say this: if you drop it, it's gone. No "going back" for it later. My gear included a Canon 5D MkIII, 17-40mm f/4 lens, a camera strap, and 22" 5-in-1 reflector.

It's worth noting that I don't usually wear a strap on my camera, but I felt it was necessary for this occasion. Also, I'm a big off camera flash person, but I would rather lose a $10 reflector over the side of the balloon than a $500 flash unit.

Q Is it safe?

All the reputable ballooning companies will assure you that it is safe. I didn't feel like it was unsafe until I realized what the landing would be like. During landing, stop taking photos, and protect yourself and your gear.


Document the Process

From the beginning they drove us out to the air field and started filling up the balloons. Besides getting formal portraits done, there isn't much you can do except wait. So while you're waiting, be sure to get photos documenting the process. It may not be the spectacular ones they put in the album, but it still creates a good memory.

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Use the Vibrant Colors and Massive Size to Your Advantage

Hot air balloons are almost always beautifully vibrant colors. When the balloon is partially inflated, take advantage of the fun backdrop. Find a section with a cool design or bright colors us it to create a special photo.

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Some of the other balloons in the field were ready first, so I pulled the bride and groom away from the group for a quick snap before the balloons got away.


Don't Forget Friends on the Ground

Our basket only seated eight passengers: bride, groom, photographer, officiant, and four bridal party members. Just because the other guests aren't in the balloon with you, doesn't mean they aren't important to the couple. Be sure to get a picture of them as well.

As the balloon takes off is the best opportunity, because once you get too high, all you have is your wide angle lens, and you won't be able to see them anymore. So it's best to focus on the crowd when you're taking off.

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Shoot the Details Impossible to Shoot Anywhere Else

If you lift your arm straight forward, you can touch the couple. This is a very unique situation that you will never be in at another wedding. Take this chance to get great details shots of the bouquet and the ring exchange that you wouldn't have the same angle on anywhere else. Not everything is about the scenery. Remember the story you're trying to tell on the wedding day and don't forget the details.

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Make Friends with the Captain

Making sure you start off on the right foot with the balloon captain is essential. Introduce yourself to them and let them know you are the photographer, and ask if there's anything you can do to help. Hint: you can't.

Showing them that they are in charge, and you aren't going to try to do anything dangerous or stupid for a photo puts them at ease. They have all kinds of horror stories if you don't believe me.

I kindly asked our captain before we left the ground which way we would be facing, and he said if I ask, I can tell him to face any direction of my choosing. That was essential in getting the photos I needed for the day.

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As we took off, this was the scene I had in front of me. Ugly light and a boring background. Without asking the captain to turn the balloon, this would have been every shot for the next hour.


Use Backlight to Add to Your Images

Learning to shoot into the sun is invaluable. Practice, practice, practice. Sunset is very short, and seems even shorter from up in a hot air balloon. Make sure you can get a good backlit photo before you go up in the air. Know your gear and be able to make the needed adjustments quickly. It can be very tricky for new shooters, but here's how to get the shot.

Change your camera to spot metering. Meter for the exposure on the couple's face. If you leave it on the default (matrix, evaluative, or average, depending on camera manufacturer) then the sun will trick your camera into giving you a terribly underexposed photo. Usually, I will use spot metering on my first photo, then dial those settings in manually adjusting exposure as necessary.

Watch where the flare is. If you want to put the sun in the photo, then make sure it is off to the side. If you want to put the sun directly behind the couple, then make sure it is actually hidden, and not peeking out of their heads. This will create a very distracting photo, and even more importantly, ruin details on their face.

If you want to include the sun, get a little more detail in the sunset, and create something special in your photo, bring in another light source. I used a gold reflector to match the color temperature of the sunset. Underexpose your photo from the spot meter reading you took earlier, then have someone else in the balloon hold your reflector back at the couple. This will brighten them up and give you a much more dynamic photo than letting them fall to black and creating a silhouette. Although, silhouette shots can be cool, too!

The best photo of the day.<br />
17mm, f/8, 1/320sec, ISO 400 with gold reflector.
The best photo of the day.
17mm, f/8, 1/320sec, ISO 400 with gold reflector.

Don't Forget the Scenery

With the excitement of the wedding, and being so close to all the important people in the couple's life, it's easy to forget the bigger story. Finding a way to include them is great, but people don't have to be in all your shots that day.

Getting some simple landscapes gives the couple a variety of imagery. Perhaps they'll print one large and put above the fireplace if they don't want a lot of pictures of themselves. It still tells the story. When else are you going to have a bird's eye view for landscape photos?

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Use Photoshop Magic

Shooting in a hot air balloon has some severe physical limitations. You can't go for high angles or you'll get burnt by the jet. You can't go low or all you see is basket. Even at 17mm on a full frame camera, the most I could see in any single shot was two and a half people. Yes, two and a half people.

I generally used 24mm for all my shots, otherwise at 17mm you would get half a person's face on the side of the frame. I know the couple wants a photo of them all in the balloon, but it just was not physically possible to get that shot in camera. Photoshop to the rescue!

I decided to shoot a set a images I could stitch together into a panorama later. To do this, shoot in manual exposure mode and manual focus. Turn your camera vertically. Overlap each image about 20% with the one before it. Tell your subjects to be very still to save yourself a lot of cloning from a bad stitch.

We have an in-depth tutorial on stitching images together to make panoramics here on Phototuts+. Be sure to check it out.

The final image after the original six photos were stitched together.
The final image after the original six photos were stitched together.

Conclusion

The most important thing to remember when shooting a wedding in an extreme location is to not get fixated on one thing. It would have been easy for me to get obsessed with shooting wide shots of revealing the landscape or shots of the balloon itself.

Remember that you're shooting a wedding. You have to tell the story of the day through details, images of the group, shots of the couple, and pictures of the landscape.

Have you done a shoot from a hot air balloon? Feel free to tell me your experience in the comments!

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