Tongue of Fire

Tongue of Fire

The 2010 Citrus Classic Balloon Festival was held this past weekend in Santa Paula, California home of vast citrus groves in Ventura County. I missed the event the past two years, once due to poor planning and the other due to a shoulder injury. Having seen the images my friends have flaunted, I wasn’t about to miss it this year. It is always interesting to read the local coverage of these events to get the full flavor of the event.

The event is organized around carnival events during the day and the Balloon Glow events in the evening. During the Balloon Glow, they fill 10-12 hot-air balloons and for about an hour or so they intermittently pump them with hot air using their large propane burners.

Continuing to practice the “vision-driven photography” approach which I recently learned from David duChemin’s CreativeLIVE webcast, I began making my mental lists. There were actually two distinct atmospheres at the festival. The time before sundown was characterized by a festival atmosphere with children playing in their painted faces, carnival foods, stunt planes, and family fun. But after the sun went down and the balloons started to go up, all focus turned to the rush of heat, contrast of light, enormity of the balloons, bright colors, and the chaos of hundreds of people running around getting their shots with everything from cell-phones to professional dSRLs. So that is my list. Mentally I shot two completely different events.

I’ve not really had chance to carefully edit my pictures, but in a quick look I spied this one, from the Balloon Glow event, which I knew was a keeper. Here is what I was thinking during the three stages of making this image: the Frame, the Capture, and the Process.

The Frame:

  • When the flame was on, some of the balloons lit up like stained glass windows while others were more opaque. I concentrated only on the transparent ones.
  • I wanted to capture the excitement of people as they look at the balloon and the flame so I should try to include both in my images.
  • The balloons are enormous, capture their size by juxtaposing them with other smaller objects.

The Capture

  • Use a wide-angle lens to get both people and balloon in the image
  • The flames create a very large amount of light, but I had little warning of when they would be lit or for how long the pilots would keep them lit. Be ready and have the focus set. Take a burst of images to get the right timing.
  • Since people were all over the place, I needed a combination of preparation and repetition to get a “lucky” formation of people and expressions.

The Process

  • I wanted to maintain the excitement, contrast, and mystery. Keep a lot of the darkness of the image.
  • The balloon needed to show its beautiful stained glass effect, add just a touch of dodging to the center of the balloon.
  • To achieve the stained glass look, I didn’t want the noise produced by ISO 1600 so I used the noise reduction in LR3 to bring back the smooth look to the balloon itself.

Many folks who have commented on the image have mentioned how I “got the exposure just right”. To be honest I let the camera do all the work shooting in AV-mode with evaluative metering. I just love the modern dSLRs, don’t you?

Post-script: I was quite surprised to find, after the fact, that I was shooting at f/2.8 – what was I thinking (or not thinking would be more like it). I was however pleased that due to good focus, wide angle, and distance from the subject, I got the sharpness that I needed.

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