I’ll never forget my first time photographing action sports. I was attending the 30th Annual Steamboat Springs Hot Air Balloon Rodeo with my family. I had just purchased my first SLR camera about a year ago, so I brought it along. What I learned is that great images are created through a combination of proper camera equipment, technical skillset, and the ability to find unique perspectives to capture.
Upon arriving at the festival, I noticed something different than a couple years ago when I had attended my first balloon rodeo here. Ski jumpers were finishing up a special summer practice on their ramp launching into the same lake as the balloon festival. I wanted to somehow capture this new and unique perspective of two drastically different activities occurring at the same time.
As I started to question how to get into the private ski jumping area that was blocked off for a fundraiser with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Foundation, I was reminded of some advice that photographer Mike McMullen had given me recently. Mike said that if you act nice and professional while carrying a large enough camera, you’ll often be let into private areas that perhaps you weren’t officially invited into, sort of under the assumption that you’re with the press or are a hired photographer. And so I decided to employ the old “ask for forgiveness instead of permission” strategy. Thankfully, I easily made my way through the fundraiser entrance without an invitation, although I did leave a donation check for the fundraiser.
I now had a totally different perspective of the entire event. The balloons and crowds of people were off in the background while future Olympians were launching into the lake in the foreground. I started to think about how to turn this perspective into a unique image of an overphotographed event.
A few balloons were already completely aired up and ready to launch. From past events, I knew that they would barely take off, dip into the lake for a basket splash, and then head high into the air for an amazing view of the Yampa Valley. I was on the west side of the event, which meant that both the balloon and skier would be backlit by the morning sun. I took a couple test shots of the balloons and ski jumpers to determine that their exposure was quite different. The balloon’s material and air soaked up the surrounding light to make it brighter than the ski jumper. I decided to expose for the vibrant colors of the balloon and silhouette the skier. Bluebird skies provided consistent lighting, so I went into manual mode to achieve the exact effect desired on every single shot. I used the same manual focus setting for each image since the perspective wouldn’t change and I didn’t want the lens wasting time on autofocusing.
I shot a couple test images and moved around between each attempt before I got the right angle to balance the position of skier George Degrandis and balloon to nab this image. The only digital processing required was a touch of highlights recovery and 1/10th of a stop exposure boost.
My camera wouldn’t have been able to produce this image in auto mode. It would have been overexposed and likely used too slow of a shutter speed to freeze the fast moving skier. I was thankful to have spent several months studying exposure principles and understanding how to tell my camera exactly how to behave in order to capture the image effect that I wanted.
Several years later, I still think about how I went to this event expecting to capture the more traditional wide-angle perspectives with lots of different balloons in the air but instead left with my first action and landscape photo combo. I had never seen this perspective photographed before and haven’t seen it attempted since. This image has been published in two different hot air balloon magazines, used regularly for marketing by the Winter Sports Club Foundation and Steamboat Chamber, and now hangs in my office as a reminder of what can happen when you have a summertime event like this in a town that is literally trademarked as the USA’s “Ski Town.”