How To Take Quality Empty Parks Photos at Disney – From a Photography Perspective
I’ve debated writing this post for weeks. At first I wasn’t sure if it fit with the theming of the site and then it hit me earlier tonight that photography, no matter if it’s with your iPhone or a $1,000 DSLR, is a huge part of vacations in this day and age. It’s a part of the experience we didn’t necessarily have the luxury of capturing years ago and for so many guests, taking photos is just as enjoyable for them as riding an attraction or even eating at their favorite meal. As a result, I decided not to pass by this article idea and instead wanted to share a few technical details and tips so that you can make the most of your photos in the parks.
If you’ve seen my photos on Instagram or even possibly on Facebook, you may have noticed that I’m a fairly architectural and landscape focused photographer, rather that a “people” photographer. One isn’t necessarily better that the other but it’s a different approach to capturing the moment nonetheless. I will readily admit that at this point, photographing people is not my strong point, but I will say I have managed to figure out at least a portion of the nighttime theme park photography realm. To capture similar photos to what you find in this article, keep reading and I’ll share as much info as I can in the simplest of descriptions possible.
Stay Late and Be Patient
In many ways, taking photos in the parks at night is a waiting game. If you want that coveted empty Main Street photo, prepare to stay upwards of two hours after the park officially closes for the night. I know at first glance that entire sentence seems like an impossibility, but Disney’s closing procedure is like a restaurant. The attraction lines are first blocked off, and then as the final guests leave each land the land is carefully and subtly closed off to guests. After each land is closed, the castle, hub, and Main Street remain open top guests for quite some time. The exact timeframe varies from night to night and truthfully the friendliness of the closing cast members can vary from night to night (for any number of reasons).
Once you’re headed to Main Street, it’s a waiting game from that point on. The photo you see below was taken roughly an hour or so after official closing time. What’s not necessarily noticeable is that people were walking right past me during this shot. The park wasn’t completely empty but there’s a way to overcome that (which we’ll get to next). The quiet nature of the park as the final guests trickle out is one of the most amazing experiences you can ever witness in a Disney park. There’s an unexplainable silence coupled with the music and the periodic “Kiss Goodnight” show that amazes me each and every time we stay late. Even if you’re not a photographer, it’s worth hanging around just to close out the park.
Use a Long Shutter Speed
The key to nighttime photography at Disney is shutter speed and an understanding of the light gathering capabilities of your camera. If you’re using an iPhone, unfortunately this tip doesn’t necessarily apply to you. If you’re a DSLR user, no matter what brand or age of the camera you use, you’re going to likely have a manual mode, a shutter priority mode, and aperture priority mode. Manual mode puts you in complete control of your camera. The device simply takes the photo, you make all the adjustments and develop all of the settings before the shutter is “pressed.” The user controls the F-stop number (typically anywhere from F/1.8 – F/22), the shutter speed (anywhere from 1/4000 of a second to 30+ seconds), and the iso value. In the most fundamental of explanations, the shutter speed is the amount of time the camera has to gather light, the F-stop dictates how how open the lens is and how much light it is letting in, and the iso value is an “artificial” light that the camera creates to brighten the image artificially.
For the cleanest of results, a great goal is to set your iso to 100, your F-stop to anywhere between F/8 and F/11, and your shutter speed to whatever value centers your light meter. The light meter looks like a ruler on your display screen or through your viewfinder. In essence it looks like this: (-…..|…..|…..0…..|…..|…..+). As you adjust your settings a series of blinking bars and an arrow will move back and forth across the meter display. Your goal is to plant that moving bar directly under the “0” in most cases. As you start to understand more about photography you can play with that more and more but centered at zero will give you what the camera sees as the “perfect exposure.” If you adjust your F-stop number you’ll get more in focus across the image as you go up in number and less in focus as you moving down in numbers. Both are great for select scenarios like blurring out a background to create subject isolation, but starting out at F/11 is a good place to plant that F-stop as you learn to find that sweet spot of your shutter speed for each image. Your shutter speed will likely need to change for each different shot you want to capture and as you learn more, you’re F-stop will likely vary as well. If you don’t know how to change these setting on your camera, switch the dial on the top of your camera to “M” and start fooling around with the dials to watch and see what changes. Each camera is a little different, but you’ll figure it out rather quickly.
I titled this section “use a long shutter speed for a reason.” As mentioned above, you can eliminate the random guests walking through your photo by using a long shutter speed late at night. If the shutter is open for seconds on end, the camera rarely captures the moving subject unless they are wearing a light up necklace or have the screen on their phone lit as it passes in front of the camera. It sounds like a crazy concept but many photographers call this “ghosting” out people. They simply disappear at times. In the photo below, I had my tripod set up in Pandora and a guest thought I was a Photopass photographer (it happens more that you may think lol) and lingered in the shot for about 10 seconds as I briefly explained that I wasn’t who they thought I was at that moment. As usual, I offered to take their photo moments later but the shutter on the camera stayed open the entire time. This was the resulting photo (below). I wont lie and say these are the results every time and sometimes you get weird blurred out people that pop up, but it is possible to get a near perfectly clean photo as people walk right through your shot! (my site does compress these photos so be sure to check us out on Facebook for higher quality images)
Keep Your Camera Stable
This point by itself tends to be what turns off so many guests to photography in the parks, but it doesn’t have to. If you want to capture photos in precise detail, you have to keep your camera perfectly still. Oftentimes that means using a tripod in my case. You can capture some reasonably sharp photos hand held, but with a shutter open and capturing light for seconds on end it’s incredibly difficult to keep the camera still the entire time without a better knowledge of more advanced settings. If you use a tripod, or a trashcan (it serves the same function), you can set a timer on your camera, step back and not even touch the camera until the photo is finished. There are ways around this but many of theme are far more complicated that I could do justice to in this article alone. Again, if you have an iPhone, you’re not necessarily going to benefit from this point but you will from the next one!
When you open your Instagram account, what do you see? If your feed is anything like the people posting in mine (minus a select few) you’re seeing the same variation of five different pictures with different people in the photo. You’ve got the family standing in a perfect line, you’ve got that random picture of someone standing pointing at a sign, and perhaps my favorite… a random picture of something you can’t even make out what it’s suppose do be. Granted, I’m not knocking any of those photos… ok I may be making fun of the last one a little bit. At the same time, try something you’ve never seen done. Instead of planting yourself half way down Main Street turning around and taking a photo, take a short walk over to the side of the castle or behind the castle and surround yourself with a new context. Not only will it set your photos apart, but often times it makes taking the photo that much more enjoyable for everyone involved. Try something new and you may be surprised at what you can come up with.
Find an Editing Software
Despite popular belief in many cases, editing photos isn’t a crime when done subtly. At the same time, editing needs to be done in moderation and in my opinion with the goal in mind of perfecting your photo, not changing your photo. An edit to create a near impossible photo is fun every once in a while but over accentuated colors and crazy HDR photo softwares aren’t what we’re looking for most to the time. Personally, I use Lightroom and Affinity photo for my more “professional” edits, but I have been known to use the simple and free Snapseed application for a quick edit on the go. In my own situation, Lightroom is where I process 95% of my photos. I find the software incredibly easy to use, and it does not directly modify your original image. You always have a backup if you don’t end up liking the changes you’ve made.
If you liked this article and want to see more like it, please tell me about it in the comments or shoot me a message on your favorite social media platform. I really enjoy sharing info about photography and I’d be happy to share more of this in the future. Obviously, it’s not the focus of this site and honestly the views tend to reflect that, but if I can help one person better understand their camera, it’s all worth it. Once you capture that tone tac sharp nighttime photo you’ll be hooked in a way that’s hard to explain. If you’re just looking to get started in photographing the parks, be sure to check out Our Photography Guide for Walt Disney World. If you enjoyed this post, please SHARE it with friends!
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As always, if you have thoughts, concerns, questions, or even some tips of your own to share, don’t hesitate to reach out to us on Facebook or your favorite social media platform. Give us a follow while you’re there, and we’ll keep the conversation going in the future. We’re not the largest Disney community, but we’re one that’s there and one that listens. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful day wherever you are!
Need My Help?
Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, or free-lance work at Guide4WDW@gmail.com. If you need a landscape or theme park photographer, feel free contact me with photo requests or contracts. All theme park writing and photos will be assessed on a case by case basis.
For anyone else looking to give me a shout or to have their questions answered by me, feel free to contact me anytime via that same email address! I never charge anyone to answer a question and I do answer all of my emails personally.
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A few short years ago, I was sitting in a college apartment trying to figure out what was "next" and came up with this idea to share my accumulated knowledge of the Disney Parks and Resorts with others. The end goal was to help others make the most of their Disney experience and it's been quite the journey!