Each year during the first week in October something special happens in the skies above Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m not referring to the glowing fall aspens or the fiery sunsets over the Sangre de Christo Mountains, but a sea of giant orbs floating gently over the landscape the likes of which you’ll see nowhere else on earth. It’s the International Balloon Fiesta where over 600 aviators from 20 countries around the world bring their brightly colored and uniquely shaped envelopes to sample what is known as the Albuquerque Box – a unique set of wind currents that will carry a balloon in any direction depending on its elevation.
For spectators and photographers in particular, watching a mass ascension at dawn is breathtaking. Silent except for the murmur of the crowd and the occasional jet burst from the burners, the balloons slowly fill and lift into the morning sky gently “kissing” each other as they jostle for air space. This is one location where you can leave the tripod behind as the sheer volume of people and balloons covering the enormous grounds and the constant activity makes it a hazard. In years past shooting film was a challenge, but today’s digital cameras with low-noise sensors are perfect for the constantly changing light as the sun rises.
In addition to mass ascensions that usually occur on the weekends, the balloon glow is another spectacular event held in the evenings. The balloons are tethered to the ground and kept inflated with their burners, which cause the envelopes to glow like the famed luminarias of the region. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest gathering of hot air balloons in the world and is something everyone should experience at least once.