My Simple Guide to Late Night Photography at Walt Disney World
What Do You Need?
How Do You Actually Do It?
The key to any nighttime photography is keeping the camera perfectly still. I’m not talking “steady hands.” I’m talking set the camera down, step away from it, and let gravity do it’s job. The less you touch the camera the sharper your images will be due to the process required to get tack sharp late night photos. To keep that camera perfectly still, the best way to set up is to either mount your camera on a tripod (yes, Disney does allow them in the parks if they will fit in a backpack – just be sure to be courteous to other guests) or use some other stationary platform to set your camera on. I’ve taken hundreds of photos with my camera flat on the ground. Others I’ve used trashcans as makeshift tripods or even railings or other stationary objects in the parks. The tripod is the easiest option if you’re willing to carry it or an alternative like the platypod or Joby GorillaPod will work quite well. The downside to trashcans is that you are obviously limited in composition by where trashcans are located in the parks. If you’re at all serious about nighttime photography, get a decent collapsible tripod or one of those alternatives mentioned.
To get the shot, set up your tripod, mount your camera to it carefully, and frame up your desired shot with the screen or the viewfinder. Once you have everything set up switch your camera out of any assisted mode and move to aperture priority, shutter priority, or full manual. All of my shooting is done in full manual at night. Every photo person does something a little different but manual works for me. As far as metering modes, I use Nikon’s “matrix metering” for most landscape style lat night shots (it’s a fairly easy setting to find on your camera but the term for it does vary by manufacturer).
On the back of your screen you’ll see three adjustable options no matter what manufacturer camera you have if you are in manual mode. One will be a number ranging from 100 and adjustable up to well over 56,000 in some cases called “iso,” one will be an f-stop number represented by anything from f/1.4 all the way up to f/22 or higher, and one will list a fractional number or whole number called your shutter speed.
In nearly all tripod related nighttime situations where motion of the camera wont be a problem, you want your iso to be set at 100 and locked there. If your camera wants to do it’s own thing and mess with this number go into your settings and turn off “auto-iso.” The lower the iso number, typically the sharper the shot will be in the end result (not always the case but for this example it is true 99% of the time). Set that one and forget about it. All of these settings should be able to be adjusted using a wheel or touch screen interface on your camera. You may have to hold a button near your shutter button (the one you click to take the photo) to get the other values to change, but play around with it for a minute and you’ll find what buttons to hold to get certain values to change.
Moving on to aperture, the f-stop numbers correspond to the amount of light being let into the camera (in a very basic sense). The smaller the f-stop number the larger the little blades inside your lens open to let in more light. It’s basically the opposite of what you would expect. Low numbers like f/1.4 open the lens up wide and higher numbers close out the lens like f/22. You have to kind of think of your camera as an “eye.” Your pupil shrinks and opens to let in more light and that’s essentially what your camera is doing. Replace the receptors on the back of your eye with the camera’s sensor and it’s a pretty spot on illustration. While changes in f-stop do create varying depth of field changes (that creamy “bokeh” or out of focus region so many people love to see in photos), for our purposes in this article you can set it on f/8 or f/11 or something close to that in most situations and get excellent results.
Moving on to shutter speed, this is where the tripod comes into play. At a setting of f/11 which will typically yield incredibly sharp images, the lens is only partially open to gather light. To gather the full amount of light onto the cameras sensor that is needed to make the image you see look like the image your camera captures the shutter has to be open for a very long time. Sometimes one photo can take 30 seconds or more to open, gather enough light, and close in order to get the correct image recorded by the sensor. No human being can hold a camera perfectly still while the shutter is open that long without moving it ever so slightly. That slight movement will create terrible blur in the resulting image so that tripod or tripod alternative is a must have. Another factor to consider is that when you hit the shutter to start the image taking process, you will bump the camera. To avoid that, set a timer or use a remote shutter so you don’t even have to touch the camera as the shutter opens. It sounds petty but makes a big difference.
The kicker to getting the camera settings all right or at least close to right is a little light metering display on your screen or in your viewfinder. At night, it’s far easier to use the screen. The meter should look something like this (+ —.—.—0—.—.— -) with a bar that travels left and right as you adjust your settings. In this case all you should have to do is change your shutter speed to see the bar move left and right. Each increment on the scale, represented by three dots or dashes, represents a stop of light over exposed or a stop of light under exposed but all you need to know is that you adjust that bar that moves until it centers out over the middle and essentially “disappears.” Theoretically that is your perfect exposure shutter speed. Once you find what settings center that meter, use your timer to set off the shutter and wait. It may take upward of 10, 15, or even 30 seconds to take the photo. Don’t touch the camera, don’t touch the shutter button, and when it’s done you’ll hear the shutter close and after your camera carefully processes the image it will pop up on your screen. If you did everything right you should have a tack sharp image. If you bumped the camera you’ll have some blur in the image and you can try it again. Tripods make that aspect of all of this far easier!
Things To Note
This process is something that takes a great deal of effort and patience at times. the best way to practice is to go into a dimly lit room in your house or go outside at night and take photos of your house. Fiddle with your settings and get to know your camera. That way when you arrive at the parks you have a basic understanding of what to do and actually how to do it. It does take a little time to learn but once you “get it” you wont forget it.
Perhaps the most important thing to note in all of this is the fact that composition plays a huge role in any photo. If you’re taking a photo of something and it’s not a creative photo at all, who cares how sharp it is? Capture things that mean something to people and that’s the greatest tip I can give you. No camera is going to make up for poor composition and no fancy gear will make you a better photographer. Photography is a game of diminishing return on the high end. An entry level camera can really up your game when sharing photos, but a $4,000 FX camera will only provide a high level of return on investment to those who really know photography and tend to look for nit picky details. We’re all gear folks and want the latest and greatest thing but in all honesty an entry level camera will really shock you when used properly and effectively.
Also worth noting is that this isn’t for everyone. The vast majority of people have no interest in wandering around the parks late at night taking long exposure photos. It’s a very select audience but those who do really enjoy doing it and it’s created a whole Disney parks photography community.
My last and final thought to share is the fact that no camera will magically remove people. A long shutter speed over 10, 15, or even 30 seconds will “ghost out” and remove a lot of people as long as they keep moving, but if they have a lighted wand or anything like that you’re going to see that trail in your photo because the camera captures the light because it’s essentially brighter that the moving subjects. The only way you really get rid of people is either tedious efforts in photo shop or lightroom or by staying until the bitter end of the park hours as the crowds slowly fade away. Most parks you can wander around in for at least an hour after closing time as guests filter out of attraction queues, and often times you can stay far later as guests finish dining reservations. The key is to be courteous and kind to the cast members. Recognize that they want to get home just like you do at the end of the day when you leave your job.
And last but certainly not least (I know I said the paragraph above would be the end… I was wrong), if you don’t learn anything else from this article, learn this and keep it locked in your brain! If you’re shooting with a DSLR the greatest thing you can do for your photography is to shoot in RAW file format opposed to Jpeg. It’s an easy setting to change in your camera settings but essentially a raw file captures far more information that a Jpeg and offers you the unique freedom to cover over a multitude of errors and necessary changes to the photo when editing in a decent editing software. Adobe Lightroom is my go-to software because it’s super user friendly and runs on most machines (Mac or PC). If you don’t own an editing software that will process raw files, you may want to stick with Jpeg but you’ll be missing out on a whole new world of possibilities. I’ll leave my editing tips for another day or maybe even a video sometime, but let me know what you think and we’ll see if we can make it a reality!
I know this was a bit of an odd post, but nonetheless it’s something I had to share since I keep getting questions about my process. I love answering those questions so feel free to ask anything you have questions about and if you need my help don’t hesitate to shoot me a message!