The Canberra Balloon Spectacular
The Camera Club I belong to often organises a few weekends away so we can immerse ourselves in photography while enjoying some time away together. Earlier this year we visited the Canberra Balloon Spectacular which coincided this year with the Enlighten Festival. It was a heady mix of early mornings, new discoveries and photographic opportunities all rolled into one with a chance to escape the routine of life in Sydney over a weekend. I hear the festival had its inception in 1986 and is now one of the top ballooning events in the world.
The Balloon Spectacular is held over nine days and if the weather co-operates you can watch this spectacle from various vantage points in Canberra. Daily announcements are made around 6.15 in the morning as to whether the balloons will launch or not. About 25 balloons are set aloft around 7am so if you are not a morning person, this will be a challenge for you. It is an incredible spectacle to watch as the dawn breaks and the golden light casts its glow, lighting up the skyline with a feast for the eyes. I’ve chosen to watch it from the Patrick White Lawns where the process of inflating and firing them begin around 6am. There are great views from around the lake as well as from the Arboretum, so you need to decide your vantage point as there isn’t time to move once the action commences. I’ve read that some of the unusual balloons that have participated in the festival over the years include a pair of dancing honeybees, Vincent Van Gogh’s head, a windmill, a tropical tree, and a turtle. One of the main attractions this year is Tico—a 33.5m high sloth shaped balloon from New York, a first at the festival.
As I sip my morning coffee and walk around, I am amazed at the thousands of onlookers who have gathered on the lawns. I think being locked down with Covid restrictions has certainly motivated a lot of people to take the time to enjoy these festivals this year. There’s the added bonus of not having to wear a mask as we are outdoors.
Festivals are great opportunities for street photography. I don’t like carrying a lot of gear with me when I am moving around so the first challenge in my preparation for the event was to choose which lenses I would take with me. I chose my 16-35mm lens and my 24-105mm lens which would give me the chance to both zoom in for some close ups and zoom out for some of the wider landscape shots. While taking photos in public places is allowed in Australia, these lenses are also less intimidating and threatening for the public, in a street photography situation.
While Aperture priority would suit street photography, due to the changing light this early in the morning, I choose to shoot on manual. While my early morning shots were taken with a high ISO initially (~ISO 2500) it came down as low as ~ISO100 once the sun was up. I chose an Aperture of f/8 for many of the shots as I wanted a significant depth of field. If you are unsure about the relationship between aperture and depth of field, the application PhotoPills has some wonderful tables that will help you decide. Given I am shooting with a mirrorless Canon R6 and a wide-angle lens, I choose a shutter speed of 1/100 sec. I usually set my ISO on Auto when I am shooting on Manual, letting my camera decide the ISO based on the Aperture and the Shutter Speed that I want. As I don’t want my shots to be too grainy, I also set a range for me Auto ISO.
Choosing your location is an important component of shooting this festival. I chose to be where the initial action was but some of my club mates chose to be around the lake, so they could get images as the balloons floated away. If i came back to this festival, I would choose different locations each day as I think that would give me a nice portfolio of images. Being at the Patrick White Lawns enabled me to also get closeups and emotive images of the people and hear some of the stories about those engaged in this sport. People are often really relaxed at festivals and as just about everyone is engaged in recording this event at least a smart phone, there are no issues with taking photographs of the people here.
Accommodation can be an issue with festivals like these. As we were coming in our motorhome, I didn’t bother to book accommodation till the last minute. To my dismay, I found that all the caravan parks in Canberra were also booked out. Fortunately, for me there was a wonderful hipcamp property that turned out to be just perfect for us. Situated on the outskirts of Canberra, it was less than 30 minutes away from where we needed to be.
If you find street photography to be a challenge, then going to a festival is a great way to kick start your foray into this genre. Give it a go. Challenging ourselves in genres that are a little outside our comfort zone is a wonderful way to grow as an image maker.