The Balloonatics…

Early in September the International Hot Air Ballooning Championships where held in Northam, Western Australia, about an hour’s drive from where I live in Perth’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 in 1984 when I was in the infancy of my photographic journey, there were no digital cameras and I shot on slide film, KR64 I think.
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 half the night for a dawn launch.
I then followed it 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 killer, particularly as this year I was driving up & back each day, starting off at 4 am.
I liken it to storm chasing, which I also 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.

Having attended all 3 WA championships; in 1984, 2015 & 2017, the Morawa launch also back in 84, and more recently the successful round the world attempt launch by Russian balloonist Fedor Konyukhov in July 2016, has I feel given me a somewhat unique perspective.

Aside from the size that the 2017 event has grown to, even from the previous one in 2015, the major difference that I’ve noticed was the OC Health & safety aspect.
In 84 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 it 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, perhaps not so for a pro photographer who would really have liked to have gotten similar results; but with modern digital equipment, to those I attained in 1984, 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 given the fact that I’m really not big on crowds, I decided on a different approach this year.
So whilst most everyone was clamouring 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 crowd to find a vantage point that would give me the best results of placing the balloons in the landscape, which is pretty beautiful at this time of year, as the balloons flew towards & past me.
My inspiration for this approach was that in 2015 I was running late for the first days predawn briefing & had to be satisfied to watched it all from a distance; as they launched before I could get there. A happy mischance as it turned out.
I was over the moon with the effect, like huge soap bubbles rising over the horizon. 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.

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 mtrs 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 others space & no one got in anyone’s way, it was all very civilised, or so I found. I also met a couple of people who follow me on FB, again a good experience.

Because I was packing a couple of serious longer lenses, including my Pentax 150-450 f4.5 a lens which always impresses me and which I bought with the K1, 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.

Rumour 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 organised & 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.

The whole exercise of writing this has been to alert my followers that there are going to be quite a number of new images going up on this site over the next little while, many of them ballooning shots. If you want something unique, a little different and colourful for your home or to brighten your office environment, then please have a look through both the Landscape & Panorama galleries.

Happy viewing & shopping.


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