Photo Event: Big Bay Balloon Parade

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on December 31, 2008

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA. On December 29th, the 2008 Big Bay Balloon Parade marched, floated, and rolled its way along the San Diego waterfront.

Formerly named the Holiday Bowl Parade, The Big Bay Balloon Parade is billed as the largest balloon parade west of Manhattan’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

This year’s theme was “It’s Good To Be Green.” Leading the parade was our favorite pint-sized amphibian and parade Grand Marshall, Kermit the Frog, waving and talking to the crowd from the back of a convertible.

The parade included 18 bands and drill teams, 22 large balloons, and a variety of other entries.

Admission to the parade is free except for a small section of bleachers making up the grandstand. Tickets for the grandstand are $15 each if ordered in advance.


The Big Bay Balloon Parade is held every December at the San Diego harbor in conjunction with the Holiday Bowl football game which is usually played the following day at Qualcomm Stadium.f1229a5654

The festivities began, as usual, with the “Wienerschnitzel Wiener Nationals” dachshund race near the grandstands at 8:30 a.m.

At 8:45, hundreds of runners participating in the “Bumble Bee Foods 5K Run” raced down Harbor Drive. The parade kicked off at 9:00 a.m. – an hour earlier than past parades – from Harbor Drive in front of the County Administration Building just south of Grape Street.


There are plenty of opportunities for photos prior to the start of the parade.The balloons and bands assemble just north of the County Administration building on both sides of Grape Street at the corner of Harbor Drive. Floats and other entries assemble along both sides of Harbor Drive near Grape, along Grape Street, and south on Pacific Highway.

Take this opportunity to photograph the balloons being inflated, groups of costumed balloon handlers relaxing or practicing their balloon handling technique, and marching bands warming up. You’ll also be able to get up close to the floats and specialty entries to get photos that will be very different from those taken during the parade.


When choosing a place to sit, you’ll need to consider lighting, background, and vantage point.

To get the most interesting photos, sit on the curb along Harbor Drive.h1227a1636 You’ll be so close to the action that you may need to move your feet to avoid having them run over by one of the marching bands. You want to be right up front, otherwise there will be spectators blocking your view – and getting in all of your photos.

You’ll need to arrive early to get a good seat on the curb. Beware of kids arriving late and pushing their way through the crowd to sit next to you and block your view. You might want to place you camera bag or a blanket strategically to claim as much ground for yourself as possible.

For the cleanest background – nothing but sky if you shoot from a low angle – sit on the curb in front of the County Administration Building. Normally, there are no boats tied up along this stretch of the harbor. Sometimes, there will be a large yacht moored here which you’ll need to keep out of the background of your photos

Since the sun will be coming from the southeast, be sure to sit on the east side of the street. By the end of the parade, the sun will have moved a bit to the west, but not enough to make sitting on the west side of Harbor a good idea.

Because this location is near the beginning of the parade, most of the marching bands will be playing as they pass you. You’ll get much better photos if they are playing rather than merely holding their instruments and marching.

Once you’ve taken your fill of photos from the curb, your best bet may be to get on the move. Once you give up your curbside seat, you’ll never get it back – there are 100,000 spectators just waiting to claim such prime real estate – but if you’re tall enough to shoot over the crowds or pushy enough to work your way toward the front, you’ll get some different angles and backgrounds.

Photograph of Underdog balloon at the Big Bay Balloon Parade, San Diego, California.

Near the end of the parade route, Harbor Drive curves to the east. If you stand on the grassy knoll at the curve, you’ll be able to point your camera due north and photograph the parade head on. There are some large trees and buildings that create shadows across the road, so wait for the action to cross a well lit area.

The grandstand and media area are on Harbor just south of Ash Street. The media area provides excellent photo ops, but it is cordoned off for use by credentialed media only. However, if you don’t have credentials, you may be able to infiltrate the media corral. The key is to look like a pro. A couple of cameras slung over your shoulders and maybe a photo vest and backwards baseball cap ought to do the trick. If you act professionally and keep a low profile, you might get away with it. Otherwise, avoid this area since you’ll never be able to get close enough to the action to get good photo.

The parade disbands once it turns the corner from Harbor Drive to head north on Pacific Highway. You might be able to get some candid photos of the weary participants if you hang around the band buses and watch for balloons being deflated. It’s difficult to photograph the parade in action as it turns the corner because of the light. The sun will be illuminating their backs instead of their faces as they make the turn.


There are several parking lots available near the parade route. Expect to pay premium prices or park farther away. Street parking is all metered with a 2-hour limit. Another option is the San Diego trolley.

Regardless of how you get there, get there early. I recommend arriving no later than 90 minutes prior to the start of the parade. See the official parade website for more transportation and parking information.


e1230a0144Forget about using a tripod. It’s simply too crowded to set it up unless you plan to be behind the crowd where your creativity will be limited. Even a monopod restricts your movement too much. So, unless you’re shooting video, this parade calls for handholding your camera.

Bring two cameras if you have them, one with a long lens like a Nikon 70-200mm and another with a wide-angle zoom such as the Nikon 18-70mm. If you only have one body, go with the wide-angle zoom but keep the long lens handy so you can change lenses as necessary.

f1229b5721Even if you’re sitting on the curb where you’re close to the action, there will be gaps between the parade entries where you can switch to your long glass to jump out into the street and shoot the next balloon or band head-on before it reaches you.

Use fill flash to avoid shadows and to make colors pop. The parade is a colorful event, so it would be a shame not to capture that.

You can use a pop-up flash in a pinch (set the flash compensation at -.7 or -1 EV), but an external flash such as the Nikon SB-800 will give you much more flexibility. Set them to the balanced fill-flash (TTL BL) mode to get automatically controlled fill.

Use a polarizer to get better color saturation.

Try some low angle shots. f1229a5669Mount a wide-angle lens, set your camera to manual-focus mode and pre-focus on a spot in the street. Adjust the polarizer as necessary. Then set your camera on the street in front of you pointed up slightly. As the parade passes, snap away.

Unless your camera has an articulating LCD screen, you won’t be able to see your composition until after the fact, but by using a wide-angle lens, moving it around slightly as it sits on the ground, and taking lots of photos, you’re bound to get some interesting photos.

Try some high-angle shots where you hold the camera above your head and shoot down. This is especially effective if you’re stuck in back of the crowd.

Even though the parade moves at a relatively slow pace and the sun is usually bright, it’s still possible to get motion blur and panning shots. Try to get a slow shutter speed of around a 1/4 or 1/8 of a second. To do this you can set your aperture to f/22 or smaller, set your ISO as low as it will go. On the Nikon D300, that is equivalent to ISO 100 when ISO is set to what Nikon calls low 1.You can also use a polarizer or neutral-density filter to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor.

A lens with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction helps as it will detect panning and affect only unwanted up and down motion while allowing you to pan horizontally.

If you have a lens with a large maximum aperture such as the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D or Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G, you can get some nice selective focus shots where you can shoot wide-open and isolate just a single musician while his band mates are out of focus. I don’t own one, but a Lensbaby would probably give you some interesting variations too.

h1227a1734Don’t ignore the crowd. Photos of children waving at the parade or sitting on daddy’s shoulders as it passes can be quite evocative.

If you want to keep track of the names of the parade entries and bands, don’t forget to photograph the banners identifying each entry. Combined with a copy of the free parade program, they’ll give you a wealth of information to add to captions and keywords.


The parade runs about 90 minutes. If you arrive really early, you can spend some of your time photographing the many tourist attractions along the harbor.

h1227a1645The San Diego Maritime Museum includes the tall ship, the Star of India as well as five other smaller vessels. Other possibilities are the USS Midway Museum, fishing boats in Tuna Harbor, and dozens of colorful artworks comprising the Urban Trees public art project installed at intervals along the harbor.

(NOTE: Photos in this article are from several different years of the parade.)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: