Inside this issue
Up, Up and Away!
The Ultimate Christmas Gift for the Landscape Photographer who has Everything!
Non-award winning landscape, travel, architectural photographer and writer based in South Devon.
I used to think that the ultimate photographic accessory was a top of the range, ebony black Land Rover Defender like my good friend Justin’s, but after my recent excursions in Cappadocia, I have to inform you my choice has now changed.
One of the brilliant experiences I had when photographing an often complicated landscape was the chance to shoot a different style of landscapes altogether – to shoot the earth from the air. On the second day, I took my very first balloon ride, sharing a huge basket with seven excited tourists, together on a silent trip towards the clouds and into photographic heaven…. Well that’s what you would think, but it didn’t quite go to plan.
The problem with balloons is that they are not piloted by landscape photographers. The pilot we had was more interested in showing off by stunt gliding impressively close to the rocks, the opposite of our aerial expectations. We wanted to feel what it was like to be a cameraman for BBC Planet Earth, shooting exquisite and unfathomable abstracts, not in the shadow of a huge rock ridge, barely much higher than a step ladder. After finally ‘getting it up’, the wind blew us the wrong way, far across empty farmland with literally nothing to shoot but the odd tin shed.
The Unexpected Bit
Dan and I are still confused as to how we took another three balloon flights after this. Was the balloon company owner a photographer or did he just take pity on us that morning? A hotel to office text conversation goes something like this –
‘So you’re both landscape photographers?’
‘yeah we really love it here.’
‘I don’t think the light was very good this morning, why don’t you come again tomorrow?’
‘because we can’t afford it’
‘oh that’s not a problem, the balloons are not filled, how many days are you here for?
‘then why don’t you come every day?!’
Now that's a conversation that doesn't happen very often. Was this out of season? Over the space of the next four days, Dan and I took another three balloon rides and built a portfolio of different parts of the landscape.
The following two balloon rides were varied, but they weren’t the one to remember. With hardly any wind, the first one was again lacklustre. It just seemed to travel up then down, not so much across the landscape than perpendicular to it. The next flight was far more successful, with the wind carrying us quite some way, but once again we had been victim to a late departure and sat through another slow motion Eddy Kidd at the wheel.
It was the last balloon ride, (the one where Dan and I were giggly and delirious) that became my ultimate aerial photographic experience. We were so sleep deprived after an incredible night of light painting gigantic desert stacks (see the last issue) that neither of us could barely operate a camera. We ascended directly into the soft dawn light, to take images with sublte shapes and blues, purples, pinks with soft yellows. As the sun beams fanned upwards from behind a distant volcano, the other balloons followed us up presenting stunning opportunities to isolate them against distant mist and layers. The shots from that morning were rewarding and unexpected, an array of simplistic compositions, good pictures to work into great pictures.
Cameras Thoughts and Processing
Processing these images was fairly simple, there was not actually that much to do, but all of them need a boost of contrast and that was controlled using luminosity masking. I simply made selections across tonal ranges and varied these independently, a bit like a musician mixing a multi track. It’s a very good way to process, a bit like multiband compression.
The hot air balloon is the ultimate photographic accessory, the floating tripod. Silent and granted it is rather uncontrollable but in a nice way, a way that makes you work hard for your photography as you are presented you with continuous change. It’s all about making fast and skilful decisions, zooming and framing with precision whilst continually monitoring the shutter speed and then riding the ISO. I found myself flipping between Manual and Aperture Priority, photographing the entire shoot with the Canon 6D and a 70-300f4-5.6L, thoroughly exploiting the duets impressive autofocus accuracy. If you don’t already know, the centre focusing spot is very special, especially when handling low contrast scenes and low light, a huge improvement over many older bodies.
It was important to keep the frame count low, not high as you may expect. Find a interesting composition, check your settings, beat yourself up about composition and edges, then take a burst of three. Hit the play button, then sharpness and smile. The silhouette balloon shots were often the most difficult to get right, either because the balloon I was in would turn away from the pre-dawn light, or the spacing between distant balloons looked awkward in the viewfinder. It was all about balance.
So to conclude – get yourself into a balloon, in this country, or especially if you travel to another. My advice to all UK balloon company owners – do special photography flights and target your business towards us in the summer months. Do a deal for a camera club, take a bunch of photographers into the air and make it into their trip of the year. With the right landscape, conditions and pilot, the potential is incredible. My hope is that you experience this for yourself, take pictures like mine home with you, as it is a graceful and absorbing experience that could become the highlight of your photographic year.