How to see balloon fest from new lens

Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 6/27/17

Most Central Jerseyans who have flocked to the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning have eagerly crowded the fence at sunrise and sunset to watch over 300 balloons ascend over Solberg Airport.

However, not many of them have gotten the chance to see the balloons from the sky or from behind that fence in a behind-the-scenes experience at the festival, which is the largest hot air balloon and music festival in North America being held for the 25th year from Friday, July 28 through Sunday, July 30.

But, for those who are handy with a camera, there is a way for them to get a unique view of the colorful balloon ascension — through Fairfield camera and video superstore Unique Photo’s photography workshop being held on each morning of the festival.

“Anyone can go to the balloon festival and take pictures, but we are looking to give people access to the shots that they normally couldn’t get,” said Scott Farestad, vice president of Unique Photo. “We take photos of the balloons ascending and the pilots blasting this inferno into the balloons which makes for some amazing imagery.”

~Courtesy of Unique Photo

There are two offerings for the workshops — an on-the-ground behind-the-scenes session for $99 for 40 people, in which participants can photograph the propane being pumped into the balloons as they are readied for ascension as well as the ascension itself from below, and a session for $299 for 20 people in which participants can go up in a balloon ranging from 15 minutes to one hour depending on the daily winds.

“Most people say after the workshop, ‘I want to go back. I want to do it again,’” said Farestad. “It happens very quickly and you need to be on-point and have a game plan as well as be familiar with your camera and settings.”

Tickets include balloon festival admission, instructional seminar on Wednesday, July 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. and VIP parking, and $299 tickets also include the balloon ride. Participants can select the Friday, Saturday or Sunday 6:30 a.m. launch session and can depart the festival at any time that they choose, but Farestad suggests those who are interested book quickly as the workshops sell out every year.

Both workshops offer a completely different group of shots for photographers, which are led by Michael Downey, head instructor at Unique Photo who has been with the store for the past 10 years.

~Courtesy of Unique Photo

Farestad recommends that workshop participants have a basic knowledge of their cameras and photography. Unique Photo also offers a Understanding Your Camera I: The Basics class for $49, which has two sessions coming up July 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., which Farestad said would be adequate prep for a beginner wanting to take part in the balloon festival workshop.

Balloon Festival participants can use their own cameras, but Unique Photo also has a full rental department if participants would like to upgrade for the class.

Unique Photo has been running the workshop since 2010, which Farestad is their most popular workshop offering among the 500 classes, workshops and excursions that they do each year.

Unique Photo began as a distributor store for smaller camera stores to get their supplies, but as more and more stores closed, Unique realized there was another need for budding photographers that wasn’t being filled — many of them had questions about using their cameras, so Unique began focusing on education as well as sales.

~Courtesy of Unique Photo

“We asked ourselves, ‘What are some of the best places to take some of these really cool images?’” said Farestad. “We then began educating people on how to use their cameras and then we would create unique settings with special access to showcase local hidden gems.”

Many Unique Photo customers strive to be sports or other kinds of specialty photographers, but to do so, they need to have professional images in their portfolios that require special access. So, Unique began offering special access to popular venues such as the Lakota Wolf Preserve and the High Point Solutions Stadium at Rutgers University. The QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning was next in line.

“We were a sponsor of the festival and I remember seeing that spot where all of the photographers hovered next to the fence to see the balloons ascend,” said Farestad. “I thought, ‘What would it take to get behind that fence?’”

~Courtesy of Unique Photo

Unique Photo Balloon Festival workshop

Where: Solberg Airport, 39 Thor-Solberg Road, Whitehouse Station

When: Friday, July 28 through Sunday, July 30, starting at 6:30 a.m. 

Cost: $99 for a ground behind-the-scenes pass and $299 for a behind-the-scenes pass via hot air balloon

Includes: Instructional seminar Wednesday, July 16, VIP parking, balloon festival admission, and balloon ride for $299 tickets 

Registration: Visit uniquephoto.com/event/347

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