Behind The Shot: Balloons Over Bagan

Bagan, Burma
Behind The Shot: Balloons Over Bagan
Photo By Scott Stulberg

There are few places around the globe that arouse the senses as much as the country of Burma. It’s the kind of place where it seems almost sinful to not bring a camera when visiting. It feels as though you’ve gone back in time to a place where life was much simpler but beauty had no boundaries. As Rudyard Kipling said, “It is quite unlike any land you know…”

After traveling frequently to Burma since 2001, I’ve seen this magical place become overwhelmed by tourism. But, long ago, I had so much of this country to myself. My guide and I would see almost no foreigners, and it was just what you dream of. On this particular morning in Bagan, I was alone with my guide at my favorite temple, hoping to capture the hot air balloons floating across the sky in a perfect design. We climbed to a good vantage point in total darkness, where I set my tripod and camera and waited until dawn for the hot air balloons to start their incredible journey.

As a photographer, you're always hoping for great clouds to help make great photos, and this day was no different. We were so lucky to have the beautiful sky that made the ideal backdrop on this absolutely perfect morning.

As the balloons started to sweep across the sky, I realized that three was the magic number. Within minutes of their ascent, three balloons formed the most perfect pattern and, with my camera set at 1/500th of a second at ƒ/11, I knew movement would be stopped and the depth of field would still be good. I kept shooting all morning, as this is one of the most gorgeous spots on earth with or without hot air balloons flying above it, but that one moment was one I’ll never forget. The clouds, mist, amazing temples that stretch in every direction and these balloons gave me just what I had envisioned.

I used Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 for the final touch to give me the ancient and ethereal look I was after. This photo became the cover of my book, Passage to Burma (Skyhorse Publishing), as it really portrays what this country means to me. Burma was Kipling's mythical landscape, and for me, the jewel of Southeast Asia. Whether on my own or taking a group, I’ve been to few places like this on this earth that make you realize how incredibly lucky you are to be a photographer.

To see more of Scott Stulberg’s work and to learn more about his photo workshops in the U.S. and abroad, visit

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L, Benro carbon fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-40 LR ballhead. Exposure: 1/500th sec., ƒ/11, ISO 200.


    I fully agree with you about Burma. It is a fascinating place and stands out as one of the most memorable places I have visited. I had the opportunity to be there in late December 2004 / early January 2005 for about 10 days. Bagan was one of the highlights. At that time there wasn’t a lot of tourism but there were definitely signs of it coming (a Christmas tree at the hotel in Inle Lake stood out as being out of place). Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories (and throwing in a note on how you achieved a great shot at the same time). My takeaway is that the key to a great shot is not equipment or even the location (although having biked around the Bagan plain, this is an amazing location) but in knowing the location, knowing what to expect, and planning for it. And Kipling was right.

    Hey Brian,
    You got to experience Burma like I have…before the tourists have taken over. But it is still amazing almost everywhere and one fantastic adventure for just about anyone who likes to venture out. My favorite part are the monks and the children. Never get enough of them.
    Thanx for writing Brian,


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