Better Than a Lead Balloon: Aerial Balloon Photography

balloon aerial photography

On July 2, 1982, “Lawnchair Larry” Walters strapped himself into a lawnchair tied to 45 helium-filled weather balloons, and floated away into the sky.

14 hours later, after disrupting flight paths at LAX and blacking out a Long Beach neighborhood by floating into some power lines, he shot the balloons with a pellet gun and returned unharmed to terra firma.

Don’t do what Larry did.

If you really want to see the view from on high, do what David Trawin did instead: hang a camera from a bunch of balloons and send it aloft to take pictures for you.

Read on for full instructions on how to make an aerial balloon camera rig, in Part Three of our continuing quest to get our cameras higher and higher into the air.*

David Trawin’s Aerial Balloon Camera

*What will be next? Dirigibles? Trained eagles? Sending candygrams to the Air Force until they let us borrow a fighter jet?

p.s. Don’t miss Part One: Kite Photography and Part Two: Camera-on-a-Stick!

Why’s It Cool?

The view from the sky lets you see everything from a new perspective.

Plus, helium balloons are cheap and readily available, and you can use them pretty much anywhere. Unlike a kite, you don’t need any particular wind conditions or a place to get a running start.

Of course, the best thing of all is that any passerby who looks up at the moment your camera takes a picture is sure to be smiling at all those balloons.

What You’ll Need

ingredientsFoamcore or presentation board

  • Spray mount
  • Ruler
  • X-acto or utility knife
  • Ordinary household string
  • Rubber bands
  • Kite reel and heavy-duty string (Cobra Kites has a variety of kite reels ranging in price and sophistication as well as the heavy-duty string you’ll need for your flight. The 150# kite string will do just fine–it comes in rolls of 500ft.)
  • Helium-filled balloons

Step 1: Make The Template

templateDownload this PDF and print it out to use as a template to make the platform that will hold your camera. Use a copier to enlarge it 170% onto legal-size paper.

Mount the template to your presentation board with spray mount.

Step 2: Cut Out the Platform

 cut out templateCut along the black lines using an X-acto knife and fold along the dotted lines.

(Hint: When folding is required, you get a smoother seam when you score the presentation board first.)

Step 3: Attach String to the Platform

attach stringOnce you’ve got the platform cut out and folded in the proper places, attach the camera shelf to the main frame of the mount using string. Page 2 of the PDF has an illustration of how this should look.

Also attach string to the top and bottom of the platform.

Step 4: Hacking Your Point And Shoot Camera

Plan A: If you have a Canon camera, check the CHDK Main Page to see if your camera is on the list of hackable cameras.

If your camera is on the list, follow the instructions for uploading the script to your memory card. Once you’ve added the basic script, upload this script to allow you to fine tune your camera’s time-lapse capabilities. Set your time-lapse interval to 5 seconds for your first test- you can adjust it later if you choose.

Of course, you’ll need to do some reading on the CHDK website to learn the navigation menu and features it provides as all cameras differ in functionality.

Plan B: If you don’t have a Canon, or if you have one that isn’t on the CHDK list, you’ll have to find another method of taking pictures whilst your camera is aloft.

A remote release will work (up to a certain distance), or you can simply set your camera to video mode and let it run.

You can also buy an intervalometer that will allow you to take time-lapse pictures (see our tutorial for more info). If you’re handy with the electronics, you can also make your own intervalometer from a TI calculator or an Arduino.

Step 5: Time To Fly

time to flyNow comes the most important part: you’re gonna need a bunch of helium filled balloons.

Depending on the weight of your camera, you may have to test the number of balloons it requires to give you enough upward pull–any combination and style of balloon will work.

We started with two 3-foot balloons but it wasn’t until we bought the extra dozen regular sized balloons did it work to tip the scale toward sending the camera upward hundreds of feet in the air.

Fasten your balloons to the string attached to the top of your platform, and tie the heavy-duty string from your kite reel to the string already attached to the bottom of the platform (See the PDF for an illustrated example).

Once you have these tightly tied, put your camera in the platform and secure it to the camera shelf with rubber bands, so it doesn’t fall out with a gust of wind.

Now, set your camera to start capturing and send it into the air. Just make sure you have a tight grip on your kite reel!

Reel the camera back in when you’re done and check out the view from above.

Results, Extras and Bloopers

skaters from aboveDavid first tested this out in New York City. Here is the full photo set of the test flight.

To see David’s own report of trials, errors, and innovations check out PROCESS.