Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is held at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, NM annually and usually takes place over a 9 day period that includes the first two weekends in October. This is the largest gathering of ballooners in the world and is truly a sight to behold as the spectators are able to walk right through the large field where the balloons take off and land; which is there I find is the best location for shooting photos of the event.
The first weekend consists of Dawn Patrol and a Mass Ascension in the morning and a Balloon Glow and Fireworks in the evening. Dawn Patrol consists of between 4-10 balloons that take off sometime around astronomical dawn. The Mass Ascension starts around sunrise and lasts for about an hour, this is where all the balloons take off. In the evening the Balloon Glow starts just after sunset, lasts for about an hour, and is where all the balloons inflate but don't take off. While sitting on the ground they burn, which creates a really neat glow affect.
The Dawn Patrol and Glow are particularly photogenic and appealing from my perspective.
During the week, Mon-Wed, there is a Dawn Patrol and Mass Ascension followed by a competition. This is where you will have multiple competition balloons trying to navigate toward targets on the field and then landing on the field. This event directly follows the Mass Ascension and is usually over around 10 am.
On Thursday and Friday there is still a Dawn Patrol and Mass Ascension, but the Mass Ascension is call a Special Shapes Rodeo and is where all of the uniquely shaped balloons make an appearance. In the evening on these days there is also a Glow with the Special Shapes.
On the final weekend the schedule is the same as the first weekend with Dawn Patrol and Mass ascension in the morning, with Glows and Fireworks in the evening on Saturday.
This was the third year in a row I shot at the AIBF. My goal was to attend every session that looked to be a go. I ended up attending all but one session that took flight, and a couple three more that ended up being no-go's.
I was able to take one flight, on the first day of fiesta, and shoot from that perspective. While it was a nice experience, it is definitely difficult to come away with a good shot from this perspective as a lot of things are not under your control (positioning of your balloon, positioning of other balloons, etc.)
My favorite events, from a photography perspective, continue to be the Dawn Patrol and the Evening Glow. There is just so much going on with the light at these times it makes for a very dramatic and unique photographic environment. It is too bad that half the glows were cancelled this year due to weather; this severely constrained the amount of time I had to shoot at these times.
When arriving in the morning for a session I recommend arriving at the field by 5am. This will allow you to miss a majority of the traffic headache and ensure you don't miss the Dawn Patrol. I usually found I was done shooting by around 930am for the morning sessions.
When arriving for the evening sessions I recommend arriving in the early afternoon. This has nothing to do with photography, I really just enjoy hanging out on the field with the little ones while they run around and play. There are some hills, greens and sand traps on the west side of the grassy area that are quite entertaining. People often bring kites and picnics as well which makes for a great afternoon prior to the Glow.
The weather is the biggest constraint for this event. Pay close attention to the flag color near the main (East) entrance where all the music events are held. If it is green that's a go, yellow is a hold and red is a no-go. While that may seem simple enough I have seen it go from green to yellow, to red, back to yellow, then green, before finally going back to red. So sometimes patience pays off when watching the flag. A general rule of thumb is when winds are over 10 mph balloons won't take flight, but a lot depends on upper level winds, and those can't be seen or felt from the ground.
Another constraint is your time and stamina. If you are in a situation that allows you to take a nap in the mid-day and attend every session then you are golden. If you aren't able to nap during the mid-day and/or must choose only a couple of sessions to attend then you have some deciding to do. I chose to schedule a ride early on in the fiesta as I figured if it got cancelled due to weather I would have a good chance of scoring another flight later on in fiesta.
I also paid close attention to the weather, and asked pilots what they thought the likelihood of the next session being a go was. The pilots pay attention to the weather and know what to look for. While this isn't full-proof, it is the best indicator I have come up with to try and figure out ahead of time if the following session would be a go.
I will try to limit this to only a few recommendations, but it is difficult as there is so much that is unique to fiesta.
1-Arrive Early. I know it sounds cliche, but it will save you from a big headache.
2-Don't skip the Glow. If I could only attend one event this would be it.
3-When photographing mass ascension don't be afraid to walk around, keep your head up, and try to stay away from the crowd. Talk to the pilots / crew, you never know; you may get an invite to walk in to the balloon or another unique perspective on the event. Be curious and courteous.
4-If you can afford a flight take it. This is a once in a lifetime type experience that offers a unique perspective on the event. Just anticipate difficult shooting conditions.
5-Have a plan in mind. There will be a lot going on so it is easy to get distracted. Have a couple shots, and perhaps a walking path, in mind; but as always remain flexible and keep an eye out for the unplanned as well.