What a great Christmas present! According to Alph Leydon, winner of the Exotic Travel category, this was taken on the morning of 25 December 2014, shortly after sunrise. "We had booked a balloon ride over the Serengeti, months earlier as a feature of a ten day African safari in Tanzania.
"We rose at 3:30 a.m. for a quick breakfast before an hour plus drive to the launch site. We arrived before dawn and in the early glimmer we could just make out the massive, partially inflated hulks of four balloons lying on their sides. As the sky brightened our pilots instructed us on boarding and safety procedures.
"We boarded the sixteen person baskets, slotting in sideways while they lay horizontal. Once aboard, the powerful gas burners were ignited and twenty foot flames entered the mouth of our still horizontal balloon. However, it was not long before the balloon started to rise and tower over us. Then slowly our basket was pulled upright as the balloon continued to inflate.
"The roar and heat from the burners ensured that it would not be long until lift-off. In fact, we left the ground as the sun cracked the horizon. A wave of excitement and emotion poured over us and everyone aboard spontaneously cheered. Four massive airships, striped green and yellow, rising in unison into a perfect dawn.
"Clear cool air, excellent visibility, ideal wind speed. Our captain said it does not get any better. As the sun rose, we rose. We drifted with the wind in silence, save for the occasional blast from the burners. The balloons change altitude in relation to one another, up and down, skimming trees, traversing a pond. A baby hippo honks. We rise as a heard of zebra and wildebeest scatter at the shriek of our burners. We float silently in awe as a small family of elephant amble by, almost close enough to touch.
"The land is streaked with light and shadow as it stretches to the horizon. This is Africa; this is the Serengeti. The experience is soulful and intimate. We are at one with nature. A Christmas Day never to be forgotten."
According to Alph, he was looking to capture the essence of the experience, to communicate to the viewer a little of what it felt like to be there. He used a Nikon D800 with a 24-120mm f/4 lens, 1/80 second at f4.5, ISO 100.
"I use Lightroom for cataloguing and most of my general editing. Then there's Photoshop for power features such as its ‘content aware’ technology and compositing; and Nik ColorEfex Pro for some of its more specialised features.
"The balloons in this image are in an excellent position in relation to the trees and the landscape, so I chose it as the primary image. The elephants were extracted from a second image and added in Photoshop. I made the majority of my overall and local adjustments to both images, such as exposure, contrast, vibrance, tone, dodging and burning in Lightroom. Then both images were brought together in Photoshop, inserting the elephants into the landscape. I finished by removing several small distracting elements in Photoshop.
"I strive to communicate to the viewer a sense of what I saw and what it felt like to be there - to in some way create an emotional connection to the experience. It's not an easy task in a flat, two-dimensional medium.
When asked why he entered photo competitions, Alph replied, "Entering competitions gives me a focus, a goal, a challenge and provides me with a sense of where my images stand when compared to other photographers. Competitions also provide me with feedback as to what different judges think. And of course it is a wonderful positive feeling and a sense of accomplishment when my images do well.
"However, if I expected to win every time I entered, I’d be disappointed. The goal is to achieve Silver and Gold level scores consistently and to hopefully achieve some wins along the way.
"The judges remarks and comments are most helpful and the exposure to other contestants work is inspiring. It’s always helpful to see the images that do place and win. The very act of competing helps to focus me, regardless of whether I achieve a win or not."