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Photographing Sky Lantern Festivals

Updated on September 26, 2013

On one occasion during a recent New Years celebration I was fortunate enough to witness first hand and even participated in the launching of several sky lanterns.

"Sky lanterns, also known as Kongming Lantern or Chinese lanterns are airborne paper lanterns that are best known as a tradition found in some Asian cultures. They are constructed from oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame, and contain a small candle or fuel cell composed of a waxy flammable material. When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern, thus lowering its density causing the lantern to rise into the air. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern sinks back to the ground." Wikipedia

At first I thought that these fragile paper lanterns would not do as it was intended and rise up into the night sky effortlessly sharing their luminescent qualities with anyone fortunate enough to look up into the night.

Soon however, I discovered that not only did they easily rose up but their glow imparted by a single small colored candle made them look like wonderful creations bent on giving "hope" to the world because of the small bits of paper in whose confined interiors were being carried messages or hope and personal prayers.

Quickly afterwards I discovered that this is a very old and time honored traditional once a year event in several Asian countries as well as in several Latin American nations as well.

From that moment on I decided that this would have the makings of an excellent photographic project albeit it would be best to conduct it during a similar celebration as finding these Sky or better known as Kongming lanterns would be easier during such proximity to a holiday.

Thus when the following New Years eve approached I secured several of these lanterns and several more were brought in by friends and neighbors who not only wanted to be part of an event featuring many of them but were just looking forward to the spectacle.

In unison all were held in place by a volunteer for each lantern, while the small candles which would provide the need "fuel" that enables these lanterns to rise up were lit and up they went, to be admire and never to be seen again.

Fortunately and with safety in mind this was done on a stretch of beach and the majority of these "night creatures" fell in quiet harmlessness into the ocean. It was also understood that the material composing such creations would rapidly biodegrade into safe compounds.

The idea is to have many lanterns go up at once. They can be in various colors or be made of white almost translucent waxy paper with a colored candle, but the problem with the colored candle variation is that the candle itself is not really colored, a very thin material needs to be over the flame and needs to be colored much like a globe.

This can get expensive if using many such lanterns. Much better is just to have the lanterns be made from a colored paper or you can glue colored cellophane to the exterior of each side. Just be aware that it does not take much added weight to make it really hard for them to rise up properly.

To do the project justice this should be done when there is little to no breeze to allow them to rise up straight while you capture their images from right below and as they float away into the distance.

Be sure to capture several images of the people involved in the launch. Most of them will reflect as silhouettes but this is as much part of the theme and the charm as the lanterns themselves.

You will need a tripod and be familiar with night photographic techniques and be very familiar with your equipment as well.

A good zoom will be very helpful as it will allow you to "keep" in touch with your Kongmings for a longer time span.

Focus on several individual subjects very quickly and then your concentration shifts to capturing the entire scene. This is very similar to how one would capture images of a large hot air balloon race.


Have fun, plan ahead, check the weather reports, involve many friends, relatives and volunteers, avoid using flash and ask others not to use it either.

Explain the night photography technique so that others understand the need to avoid using any other light source and do not be upset if everything does not go according to plan.

Keep in mind that when you have this many subjects which are to be released in one coordinated hit or miss opportunity some things will go wrong.

Since you really can't repeat it again until at least next year, remember that there are going to be some lanterns or candles than don't light up, go astray, burn up, are prematurely released or get damaged.

Be patient and make the best of it. Enjoy the fruits of your planning and efforts and devote your concentration on capturing the best images that you can possibly record as quickly as you can since before you realize it many will be out of range.

A good tip is to pre-focus on specific areas ahead of time or set the camera to continuous auto-focus if your gear is good enough and capable of fast actions.

However, do not rely too much on automatic sensors and auto-focus if at all possible. The light is dim enough to fool most sensors other than the best of them. Better yet is to practice doing everything manually.

© 2012 Luis E Gonzalez


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    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Angela Brummer: thanks, try to get to one if you can. The sight is quite marvelous

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 5 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      This is so cool! I woud love to see this in person. I had seen it on telivison but, I can't recall the show.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Thanks Lynn, glad you liked it

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 5 years ago

      Good tips. I have issues with light against dark. Beautiful samples.

    • LuisEGonzalez profile image

      Luis E Gonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida

      Suelynn: Thank you very much

    • Suelynn profile image

      Suelynn 5 years ago from Manitoba, Canada

      Fabulous hub, Luis! You have certainly educated me and I just love the photos - I'm new on Pinterest and have pinned them there. Voted up, awesome, beautiful and interesting.