Though it sounds like two full days of shooting, it was really only a few hours with balloons and lenses, with photo opportunities starting at 5:00 am and ending at about 8:30 am, when the morning breezes kicked up and the balloons began to drop from the sky into the surrounding area. Because the Balloon Fiesta launch area is the size of 54 football fields, once I set out with a lens I knew I wasn't going to make it back until several hours later, so I didn't get time with as many lenses as I'd have liked. But I really got to know two lenses in particular fairly well: the new 16-35mm f/4, which I used on the Nikon D3100 and the 24mm f/1.4, which realized its potential better on the Nikon D700.
The AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G ED VR lens was a little long on the diminutive Nikon D3100, but the focal length range they offered was ideal for a day of shooting in a vast field of massive hot air balloons. Equivalent to a 24-52.5mm lens on a 35mm camera, it was not a compromise in utility to use it on a DX camera. Well, perhaps the fact that it retails for more than twice the cost of the D3100, it would have been better placed on a full-frame camera, but it was still quite usable for this subject. I can't say a whole lot about chromatic aberration or other major factors we'd normally discuss, because the Sun rose so swiftly I didn't think to change the ISO from 1,600 so that I could see the finer points of the lens, but on a DX camera, you're less likely to see most of these defects anyway.
A closer look at the images in the galleries for each lens will show you how well the Nikon D3100 does at higher ISO settings, to be sure. I've included links for each full-size image at the top and bottom of each image.
Later that morning, I opted for the Nikon D700 and the very long AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens. It was good I went for the full-frame camera, as we in the Nikon tent were close enough to the field that most of my shots were made at 200mm. Such a long lens is a little awkward to use shooting into the sky, and I kept trying to think how I could get a little further away and still shoot over the tents and people. One of my companions, Ellis Vener, quietly answered that question when he sought higher ground a little further back on top of the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.
24mm is a comfortable focal length for me, because it captures more of what my mind sees. Here one of the El Pinto owners talks about their sustainable farming strategies in the cool room that houses the company's composting operation. (Click here or on the image for the 24mm Gallery)
That afternoon we visited the El Pinto restaurant in Albuquerque, a true New Mexican restaurant, festooned with bundles of dried Anaheim chili peppers. (A quick review of their food: The Green chili enchiladas were an explosion of flavor, and I've never sampled a more honest guacamole outside my own home. Highly recommended.) After enjoying their cuisine, we were privileged to meet the owners of the restaurant and tour their adjacent salsa manufacturing and canning facility. John and Jim Thomas, the twin brothers who've taken over operation of the family business, emphasized the company's low-impact approach to manufacturing and farming the raw materials for their salsa and chili crop. From the factory hardware they've purchased second-hand and rebuilt to serve their purposes to their use of sustainable farming practices, the company prides itself on taking care of the environment and its employees while producing a quality product. They even showed us their composting operation, where select restaurant and factory scraps are processed into mulch for their chili farming operation.
Needless to say, it was another opportunity to try out the new Nikon glass, and I employed AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED prime lens, which I enjoyed enough that I also used it the following morning back in the balloon fields.
I like working with one focal length, as it forces me to innovate. With my feet hurting from the day before, though, I'm afraid I didn't do as much zooming with my feet as I normally do. Instead I tried capturing sequences of balloons rising and ascending into the air. Having no tripod, though, I wasn't happy with the results, so I've mostly posted shots from the ground as the Special Shapes balloons rose, because it gave a great view of all the other balloons in the sky, while still emphasizing the size of these flying works of art.
For the flying competition that followed the Special Shapes Rodeo, I grabbed the venerable yet still new AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. With the full-frame sensor in the D700, this lens was perfect for a balloon event, especially the Prize Grab Flying Competition. The peculiarity of Albuquerque's position in the New Mexico landscape lends itself to something that wouldn't be able to happen in normal terrain: The balloonists are able to return to the field after flying away. Called the Albuquerque Box, the phenomenon is driven by low winds forced to come in from the north, which push the balloons south of the field upon initial launch. Once they've reached a certain altitude, high winds from the south begin to push the balloons back north again, where they can descend into the low winds for a another push south. Perfectly demonstrating this phenomenon, the balloonists descended onto the field, sometimes in big groups, in an effort to grab $2,000 prize packages that sat atop five 20-foot poles spread out on the field. Though I was distracted by our effort to get to the chainsaw carving event that wouldn't actually start until after we'd left for the day, I did manage to get a shot of what I'd sought since the event began: a unique and pleasing pattern of a group of balloons printed against a blue sky.
Also sponsored by LowePro, SanDisk, and Manfrotto, the event was a great demonstration of Nikon's new lenses. I regret that I didn't shoot with more of the 14 total new lenses on offer, but one can only do so much when limited to one lens in a 78-acre field. One surprise I found while walking around the event was the dominance of Nikon digital SLRs among the wide array of fellow Balloon Fiesta visitors. I'm always taking an unofficial tally of SLRs to see what's trending in the market, and I've never seen such a marked shift to Nikon anywhere. I began to hunt for other brands, and only came up with a handful to my astonishment. Albuquerque's balloon fields seemed at least 85 percent Nikon.
Please check out the galleries for a better demonstration of what these four lenses can do. It's nice to see Nikon cranking out such quality glass, matching the capability of today's high-res sensors so well. When in Albuquerque, check out El Pinto Restaurant and Cantina too, and see about getting a balloon ride, as they seem to be available year-round.
Also see Ellis Vener's gallery of the Special Shapes balloons for another look at what the 200-400mm lens can do, as well as some of the other lenses he tested.
Story and photos by Shawn Barnett