Early in September 2017 the International Hot Air Ballooning Championships where held in Northam, Western Australia, around an hour’s drive from where I live in Perth Western Australia’s Swan Valley.
This is the 3rd time that this event has been hosted by Northam and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend all 3.
The 1st time was way back in 1984, when I was in the infancy of my photographic journey, there were no digital cameras and I shot on KR 64 slide film.
I enjoyed that event so much that I even followed a group of Balloonist all the way out to Morawa in the WA wheatbelt, driving through the night for a dawn launch.
I followed my experiences up with an illustrated article in a well known Australian Photography Magazine, which I entitled “The Balloonatics”, so named; as you really have to be a little crazy to do this sport. You also have to be very keen to follow it, as the early mornings can be a real killer. Particularly so this year I was driving up & back each day of the competition, starting off at 4 am.
I liken balloon chasing to storm chasing, something else that I also like to do, but without the danger of some really bad weather. I don’t think that a photographer has ever been killed or injured by a balloon falling on them.
I feel that I have a somewhat unique perspective of the sport having attended every event here in WA. All 3 WA championship events; in 1984, 2015 & 2017, as well as the Morawa launch which was also back in 84. I also attended the launch of the successful round the world attempt by Russian balloonist Fedor Konyukhov in July 2016. Following the balloon until it became a mere dot on the horizon.
Aside from the size that the 2017 event had grown to, even from the previous one in 2015, the major difference that I’ve noticed is with the Health & safety aspect.
In 1984 I was able to mingle with the contestants, stand beside the baskets during inflation & get some spectacular shots of the burners from just a meter or so away. I even got a couple of wide angle shots inside the balloon envelope as they began to inflate.
No one minded, it was great fun & it was all done with the upmost respect for the participants & our own safety.
How things have changed, perhaps for the better given the crowds, but perhaps not so for a pro photographer who would really have liked to have gotten similar results to those from 1984, with modern digital equipment, but 2017 is more Orwellian than ever was 1984, so it was never going to happen.
With the nanny state having taken over and therefore knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to achieve the sort of shots I would have liked, and also the fact that I’m really not big on crowds, I decided on a different approach at the last event.
Whilst almost everyone was clamoring to get in as close as possible come inflation time, once I knew where the launch was to be, I headed well away from it and the crowds to find a vantage point that would give me the best results of placing the balloons in the landscape, as they flew towards & past me.
My inspiration for this approach was that in 2015, on the first day of competition, I was running late for the predawn briefing & had no idea of where the launch was from, just a general direction. I had to be satisfied to watched it all from a distance; as they launched before I could get there. This was a happy mischance as it turned out.
Looking like huge soap bubbles came the balloons rising over the horizon. I was over the moon at the effect & my proximity also giving me the time to compose & shoot some quite passable multi shot stitched panoramas, whilst still maintaining the integrity of many of the individual frames. My followers on Facebook also seemed to like my approach of having the spectacle of hot air balloons set in the Australian rural landscape, rather than just a bunch of balloons in a paddock, up close & personal. I’ll let you be the judge of the results.
In 2017, on the last day that I was able to attend, the penultimate day of competition, I did relent & attended the Balloon launch proper, but still maintained at least some distance from the main crowd, albeit only 100 meters or so. That was until a few others noticed my vantage point & joined me. Even that was a pleasant encounter as everyone respected one an other’s space & no one got in anyone’s way, it was all very civilized, or so I found. I also met a couple of people who follow me on FB, again a good experience.
Because I had packed a couple of serious longer lenses, I was again able to take a different slant on things & grabbed a couple of shots at take off that I’m quite happy with, but I eventually broke with the pack and went exploring the environment to get away from the crowds. It was quite serene out there in the quite of early morning, watching huge and colorful balloons drift silently by, punctuated with the occasional muffled roar of a gas burner.
Rumor has it that this could be the last time the event is held here, which I really hope is not the case as it is so well organized & a great event to follow, even for someone who is purely an observer. Next time I’m hoping to get a ride, but somehow doubt it will be long before I make the investment in the experience, as long as I can take a couple of bodies and lenses along I’ll be a very happy man.
UPDATE – AUGUST 2021
With much of the planet engulfed in the Covid 19 pandemic, the 2020 Ballooning Championships planned for Northam, had to be cancelled.
I am however glad to report that the Ballooning championships are now planned to go ahead in Northam once again for 2021. With Western Australia being very much the safest place on Earth, with respect to Covid, having weathered the pandemic amazingly well. So I’m looking forward to attending the event once again later this month. I’m assuming that with the WA borders closed to the majority of the country, and overseas travel restrictions heavily limited, that it may be a smaller field of contestants, unless they have prepared well ahead & quarantined for two weeks prior. Non the less, I plan on being there to capture what I can of the event & hopefully some more special images of what is to me, is by far the most beautiful spectator sport.