Don’t race around taking photos

Published 12:11 am Friday, October 14, 2011

If you think the skies will be full this weekend just wait till you see the ground.

For nearly all of the 60 or so balloons that will be floating across the Natchez landscape there will be at least five spectators gazing wide-eyed. Nothing draws a crowd like 803 pounds of nylon, metal and wicker filled with about 65,000 cubic feet of hot air.

Many watching from below will be carrying some type of camera with them. Improvements in cell phone cameras have made it extraordinarily easy to race around like rabbits snapping pictures of balloons from nearly every angle.

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The tortoises will be there too carrying bags filled with multiple lenses, filters and camera accessories. They will be the ones dragging out the tripods and setting up what they hope to be the perfect angle.

While this may be the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race for pilots, it shouldn’t be a marathon for those looking to take good pictures this weekend. Snapping pictures may be easier than ever, but creating lasting images that you might want to hang on your wall requires a little knowledge and planning.

For local professional photographers this weekend is more about having fun than about coming away with the perfect shot. If you haven’t seen it already you might check out page 10 in our special balloon race magazine in today’s paper. There veteran photographers Mark Coffey, Salongo Lee, Bill Beane and Van O’Gwin reveal their secrets to creating balloon race memories. These masters should know because most of them have been photographing the event since the very beginning.

All four agree that the most important trick to getting good photographs is getting in the right spot. This can be one of the trickiest things to do, because no one really knows exactly where the balloons are headed.

With the advent of cell phone and text message alerts, like the ones offered on, knowing where the balloons might be is a little more scientific than sticking your head out the door at 7 a.m. hoping to see a few balloons in the distance.

Here are a few more tips that might make taking balloon-race photos that you might want to keep somewhere other than your cell phone easier this weekend.

Don’t just look up. While it is tempting to keep the camera focused on the skies, sometimes the best photos are found on the ground — especially when aimed at friends and family members with the look of awe on their faces.

Include landmarks. With so many beautiful landmarks in Natchez, it is easy to give your photographs a sense of place. A portion of a building or even the Mississippi River bridge will make your photos shine.

Light it up. With recent advancements in cameras, it is now possible to photograph events like the annual balloon glow without the use of a tripod. Just make sure your camera is set to a high ISO setting and you will be able to shoot like the pros.

Have fun and experiment. Sometimes the most memorable photos come from the most unexpected places. Look for the unusual and try, try, try. With digital cameras these days, the only thing wasted is battery.

Of course, the most important trick is knowing when to put the camera down and spend some time enjoying the balloon race with family and friends, Sometimes it’s those type of memories that last forever.

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at