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I’m a amateur, trying-very-hard photographer, trying very hard to capture some great images of Canberra’s wonderful Balloon Spectacular. It’s more difficult than one might think. I am in awe of those stunning postcard shots on official websites and splattered elsewhere in cyber land, with perfect lighting and framing and timing. Those beautiful images are way harder to capture than I’d imagined, and can be downright elusive.

But if you’re keen to photograph this wonderful morning awakening on a just-chilled Canberra morning as the balloons float across the dawn skies in a graceful flotilla, here are some tips to help you score some great shots.

Allow for the weather

Rule number 1 – balloon flying is dependent on the weather. Rain, too much wind, not enough wind, rain … the balloons don’t go up. Forewarn the kids the night before if you’re taking them to allay potential disappointment, and check on the weather before you set out. You can call Canberra Connect on 13 22 81 or follow the Balloon Spectacular or EventsACT on Facebook or Twitter, or listen to your local radio station.

If you just turn up hoping and the balloons don’t fly, make the most of the morning anyway to witness the city coming to life as the light comes up over the lake, the rowers and the cyclists appear. Or stay for breakfast in the tents on the lawns.

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Get there early

If you want to witness the crews at work and the balloons emerging from the ground and rising, get there around 6am to scout locations and find the action. The balloons start filling just after 6am, start taking off around 6.15am and most are in the air by 7am. The whoosh of the fiery shots into the balloon and the revelation of the balloon shapes are not to be missed.

Even if you are late, when the sun is up and the balloons are on their way, it’s still a spectacle to watch the balloons on their cruise around the city skies, drifting close to Parliament House or hovering above the water.

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Pay attention to the light

The light changes quickly so if you are using an SLR camera you will have to adapt accordingly. Start with a higher ISO in the early morning and drop this as more light appears. Keep an eye on your light metre to guide you. Turn off your flash in the early morning if you’re using a point and shoot or a phone – the automatic function will perceive it as being too dark and will want to flash – only useful to light up a couple of metres in front of you which is probably not what you are aiming to shoot. Avoid shots where there is part shade and part sun.

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Check your equipment

Make sure you have an extra card and battery, just in case, and a different lens for options if you have one. Or spare film if you use – does anyone use it anymore?? And perhaps a tripod in the car just in case the balloons don’t fly and you want to concentrate on the dawn lights, or you want to be extra steady.

Try different angles

Look for something a bit different. Get down low, or stand on something to give you more height. Try taking shots directly upwards, or downwards, from different angles. A sea of spotted balloons across a sweeping sky is impressive, but so is a close up of just one or two.

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Find your vantage point

If you want to start with the excitement of the balloons filling and lifting, you will need to be at the lawns in front of Old Parliament House. As the balloons move on, you can change location to give you a different perspective. Try crossing Commonwealth Bridge and parking next to the lake overlooking the Museum and Black Mountain, or under Commonwealth Bridge, on top of Kings Avenue Bridge, near Regatta Point, on a boat on the lake to get up super close – there are lots of options. From the lake at the end of Anzac Parade or near the Carillion you’ll get a lovely wide shot vista of the lake with Library, bridge and Black Mountain in the background as the balloons drift away, sun behind you.

If the balloons take off from near the Arboretum due to weather, watching from around Scrivener Dam is a good option.

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Look for different subjects

It’s all about the balloons, but pay attention to what else is around. Of course, the lake and Canberra’s iconic landmarks, but look out for the birds, the rowers, the foreground, and the crowds. Fellow spectators can also be great subjects.

Watch around you. The scenes and skies are constantly changing. A great shot might be right behind you. Watching out for balloons landing is another option.

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Take your time

The Balloon Spectacular is a moving feast with a constantly changing canvas. Watch for patterns of balloons in the sky or interesting positions, and wait until balloons move into a favourable position before you press the shutter.

Try to anticipate what’s coming up and wait for the right second to press the shutter. For example, wait until the fire is released into the balloon for a shot of light, or wait till the animal balloon faces are nearly touching so it looks like they’re kissing. Pay attention to what’s in the background.

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Watch out for cyclists

If you’re taking photos around the lake near cycle paths, spare a thought to cyclists. Don’t stand on the paths to get a great photo, oblivious to users. I’ve seen a number of cyclists having to evade unaware spectators, or their protruding tripods.

Be persistent

Keep trying. If you want really great shots, you may have to put the time in to get all the conditions right – cloud, colour in the sky, balloon formation, vantage point, timing, control of your camera, etc.

And if you don’t get great shots this time, there’s always next year.

Have you got any other tips? I’d love to hear them.

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