Ballhaus was born in Baden-Baden, Germany, the son of Helga Mavia Betten and noted German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. At the age of 17, he moved to the U.S. with his family, when his father began working on American films such as After Hours. He began working as a second cinematographer's assistant and then later as a camera assistant and operator. He returned to Germany in his adulthood to make his own name in his father's profession, debuting in episodes of the television show, Alles außer Mord, then in 1996 with Sandman. He returned to the U.S. seven years later to shoot episodes of Sex and the City.