Looking for the best camera, lens, or other photography equipment to take great photos or improve your photography skills? This photography guide offers tutorials to take better photos in a variety of scenes at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and beyond! The guide also provides helpful “real world” photography equipment reviews from an actual photographer (take a look at my photo galleries to see my work), with information current as of September 30, 2016.
These tips are key, and the first thing you should buy with any camera is a copy of Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, which is a great book for learning the basics of photography. After this, we highly recommend other photography books, our photography posts, and other online resources to help you improve your photography. The starting point is always the same, though, and that’s Understanding Exposure. Seriously, just get it. All of the expensive equipment in the world won’t help you if you haven’t learned the basics, and that book is the best way to learn the basics. A book is a lot cheaper than a new lens, and if you’re a beginner, that book will improve your photography more than a new lens.
Along those lines, it’s important to realize that no camera “takes good pictures.” Some cameras can help an adept photographer more than others, but if the person taking the photos doesn’t do things right, photos taken with a $2,000 camera can look worse than photos taken with an iPhone. Likewise, many experienced photographers can take better photos with an iPhone than inexperienced photographers can with expensive DSLRs on Auto Mode.
This guide will help you choose the right camera for you, and then provide you with resources for learning more about photography, so you can really take your photos to the next level. While I love gadgets, I aim to make recommendations so you’re spending as little money as possible. I recommend starting cheap because knowledge is so much more important than equipment, and armed with a bit of knowledge, you might realize you don’t need to waste additional money on more equipment!
With that said, I think the best place to start is with a few of my favorite photography books…
Understanding Exposure – This is the newest edition of the book I used to learn photography. If not for this, I might still be using automatic mode. I’m not alone, as countless (seriously, probably millions) have used this to learn photography. It is the definitive photography textbook, but written in a way that is accessible for everyone, without being dry and overly technical. It’s a wealth of information, from the basics to some more advanced techniques, this book is the perfect jumping off point.
The Photographer’s Eye – Great composition is paramount to a great photo, but unfortunately it’s one of those things that’s difficult to learn. This book helps any aspiring photographer really learn composition. This is a book to read over and over again.
Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Boxed Set, Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4 – A four part series of beginner and intermediate books with plenty of useful tips for veteran photographers, too. The information in these books really runs the gamut, and if ever there were to be a single (or 3 book) series for mastering the craft/business of all types of photography, this would be it.
***Click here for our full list of Photography book recommendations***
The first thing you need to do is determine which type of camera is right for you. Over the past 5 years, I’ve tested 20+ cameras and talked with hundreds of beginners who wondered which camera to buy. From that, I’ve learned that the “right” camera for a beginner is almost entirely a matter of personal preference and goals.
When thinking about which camera to buy, you have to think about your intent. Are you primarily interested in capturing quality photos of your family’s memorable moments on vacation? Consider a nice point & shoot. Concerned about camera size and weight? Go point & shoot. Want an starter camera that will make learning easier? Again, think point & shoot.
On the other end of the spectrum… Are you serious about taking high-quality landscape photos of the parks at night like mine on this blog? Consider a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Are you willing to carry a heavier camera bag? Consider going with a full frame DSLR and nice lenses. Want something lighter while still retaining quality (albeit at a cost)? Think mirrorless.
Personally, I have cameras for all occasions. I use a Sony RX100 when I want something I can fit in my pocket. I have a Nikon D750 DSLR and pro-grade lenses when I don’t mind carrying a heavy camera bag and doing “serious” shooting. I also have a Sony a7 RII when I want quality, but not as much weight.
You can see what’s currently in my camera bag here, and my recommendations for each tier below…
Point & Shoot Cameras
Sony RX100 – This point and shoot has been described by just about everyone who has reviewed it as a game changer. I was skeptical at first, but I drank the Kool Aid, and am loving it. This point and shoot somehow combines a large sensor and a great f/1.8 lens into a compact package. We carry this camera just about everywhere, and prefer it to the RX100 III and IV models due to the lower price of the original RX100. (Read Our Full Review w/ Photo Samples)
We think the Sony RX100 is the best starter camera for 90% of people reading this post. The other 10% should consider an entry level DSLR (8%) or a higher-end camera that they can grow into (2%). Most people should start with the RX100, use it to learn the basics of photography, and upgrade if and when necessary. Many people will never need to upgrade, because the Sony RX100 will be everything they need–and will fit into their pocket!
This is our top recommendation for point and shoot cameras. On the cheaper end, the gap between lower quality point & shoot cameras and smart phone cameras is closing, so I think anyone with a smartphone is wasting their money by purchasing a cheaper point & shoot. On the other end, once you start looking at larger, more expensive point & shoots, you might as well just consider cheap DSLRs instead.
In July 2016, we also purchased the newly-released Canon G7x II point & shoot camera. Our motivation for getting this was to take better videos, including vlogs. The Canon G7X II is a great camera for photos, but not quite as good as the Sony RX100 series. However, it is better for video, and arguably a more well-rounded camera, particularly for beginners. If you are only want a camera for still photos, get the Sony RX100. If you want to do video, too, the Canon G7X II is a better option.
Regardless of which point & shoot you use, I highly recommend you read our How to Take Great Photos with Your Point & Shoot Camera post to really get the most out of your camera. In fact, look at that post before you buy to see the excellent quality of photos you can take with the Sony RX100 (all of the photos in that post were taken with an RX100).
Nikon D3300 DSLR – This is the perfect entry level DSLR for beginners, offering great bang for your buck in a small size. It has solid image quality when compared to higher level cameras, and only lacks some of the features–definitely a great value, especially for the 2 lens bundle package.
Nikon D7200 DSLR Camera – If you’re upgrading or are more serious about photography, go straight to the Nikon D7200. The benefits of the D7200 over the lower models are improved dynamic range & high ISO performance, better build quality, better HD video capabilities, and more.
Nikon D750 DSLR Camera – This is my main camera for photographing Disney, and offers great bang for buck (for what it is). Awesome autofocus, excellent high ISO performance, and amazing image quality. The controls and functionality are great, making this a really versatile camera. The Nikon D810 is another great option, but it’s unnecessary unless you are serious about landscape photography.
Ultimately, which of these DSLRs you buy depends upon how serious you are about photography. If you’re just getting started, no matter how excited you are about photography, I don’t recommend buying anything above an entry level model, no matter how large your budget. Trying to learn photography on a full frame DSLR like the Nikon D750 is like trying to learn to ride a bicycle by purchasing a Harley. Start with the Nikon D3300 and learn on it, and then upgrade as necessary.
For more experienced photographers looking to make an upgrade, both the D7200 and D750 are solid options depending upon your budget. The Nikon D750, especially, is an amazing camera. I consider it the best DSLR I’ve ever used, and the best camera for Disney photography. But, you need to know how to take good photos before you use it.
Sony a7R II – I shot mirrorless with this camera for the first half of 2016, and ultimately realized it was not for me. While I was really reluctant to do so since I love a lot of its features, I ultimately sold the Sony a7R II. With that said, it has some amazing upside: size, performance, and functionality. (But also some downsides: price and lens options.)
I have two stand-alone articles about my adventures in mirrorless photography. The first is titled “Why I’m Going Mirrorless: Volume I” discussing my initial excitement and enjoyment of the Sony a7R II. The second is titled “Why I’m (NOT) Going Mirrorless: Volume II.” You should read both if you’re considering going mirrorless.
There’s a lot of hype about mirrorless cameras right now, but they aren’t for everyone. If you’re just getting started in serious photography, thinking hard about mirrorless before investing in a lot of lenses is probably a good idea. There is a lot of potential in mirrorless cameras in the future.
If you are serious about photography and opt to purchase a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you’ll also want to think about lenses. We have used a lot of lenses over the past few years, and we have reviewed many of these lenses on the blog. So many, in fact, that considering which to buy when your first upgrading your camera gear can be a bit intimidating.
Fortunately, we’ve put together our Top 10 Lenses for Disney Photography List that offers ideas for the best upgrade options at the beginner and intermediate level. There’s a variety of lenses on this list, from prime lenses that are great for portraits and dark rides to fisheye lenses good for fun, creative shots.
The majority of my photos are shot with ultra-wide angle lenses. I love the wide panorama look, and also using these lenses to my advantage to intentionally distort a scene. If you’re considering going wide, read my Ultra Wide Angle Lens Guide. It’ll help choose the right one.
Some of my favorite lenses include the Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye Lens, Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 Lens, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 Ultra-wide Angle Lens for Nikon, and Sigma 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM Lens for Nikon. You can read about all of these lenses, and our other top picks, on that top 10 list.
For reviews of other lenses–including high-end lenses and specialty options–check out our lens review page (link below).
***We have a lot more reviews on our Lens Reviews Page. Read that to decide what’s right for you***
A lot of beginners make the mistake of only budgeting for a camera and lens when starting out, only to find out they need other accessories. These things quickly add up and can cost far more than expected.
Some of these things are gadgets and trinkets that can real help out in certain situations, but aren’t universally applicable. I’ve put together a post of the Top 10 Photography Accessories for Disney Photography that are items that will really help with taking photos in the parks (in my experience, a lot of these are useful elsewhere, as well).
Other things are a must for everyone. These include memory cards and a camera bag; I’d also strongly recommend everyone buy a tripod. We’ll cover these below in detail…
I recommend that you learn from our mistakes and purchase a camera bag you can “grow into” as you buy your gear. I’ve gone through far too many bags as my gear “collection” has grown.
Lowepro SlingShot 102 AW – This bag provides great bang for your buck, and can store your camera with a lens mounted, plus two additional lenses. It’s possible to cram three additional lenses into this in a pinch by using the top pouch for the 50mm f/1.8 or another small lens. It’s much better than the 100AW that it replaced, because you can carry a tripod on the side of it!
Lowepro Flipside Sport 20L AW – This is my current camera bag. The “Sport” makes it a much better option than traditional camera bags when hiking or, coincidentally, in the humid environments of the Disney Parks. While not perfect, I’ve gone as far as calling it the Best Camera Bag for Disney.
***Visit our “Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel” post for more info!***
There are a lot of differing opinions on this one, but for the purpose of vacationing to Walt Disney World or Disneyland, a lightweight travel tripod is best. We use the Velbon line of tripods, specifically the Velbon Luxi-L III. This is a GREAT tripod: incredible value, height, and it collapses to a small size!
Since tripods are such an incredibly important (yet often overlooked) element of capturing great photos, I’ve put together a thorough guide for choosing the right one.
***Visit our “Choosing the Best Travel Tripod” page for more information.***
If you like taking photos of your family & friends, an external flash is a must. The little on camera flash just washes people out and doesn’t do nearly as good of a job as an external flash. External flashes are fairly cheap, too.
Nikon SB-400 flash – great entry level flash that’s small, cheap, and has an adjustable head for bouncing. This is the flash Sarah uses.
Nikon SB-700 flash – mid-range Nikon flash that has a lot more features than the SB-400, is larger, and a bit more expensive than the SB-400. Unless size is an issue, this is the flash you should target. Its features make it much more compelling than the SB-400. I use the last generation (SB-600) of this flash.
Unlike in the days of film, most filters nowadays can be achieved via post processing. For that reason, we don’t recommend many filters. We also don’t recommend UV filters for protection (use a lens hood instead) as they slightly degrade image quality, especially if shooting into bright lights. Here are the filters we do recommend:
Tiffen 77mm Circular Polarizer – A great option for deeply saturated blue skies, but is by no means a necessity. It also acts as a neutral density filter, of sorts. Be careful using polarizers on wide angle lenses. You may not like the uneven results.
B+W 77mm Neutral Density 1.8-64x Filter #106 – Neutral Density filters are great for long exposure fireworks shots and long exposure daytime shots. There are cheaper options, but this is really the filter that will be most versatile. If you’re considering purchasing one, read the link below to make a better-informed decision.
***Visit our full list of Neutral Density Filter Reviews.***
Disney Photography Tips
We’ve done a number of blog posts providing tips for improving your photography at Disney. I can’t stress enough that knowledge is the biggest component of taking good photos at Walt Disney World (and beyond!) so you should really read some of the tutorials I’ve written. They have helped a lot of people.
Actually, before you read my tutorials, it might be a good idea to read My Philosophy on Photography. You may not agree with my aesthetic or stylistic approach, or have different goals with your photography. If that’s the case, there are a ton of other sites with photography tutorials, and those might be better for you. I don’t take any offense, everyone has different preferences.
With that said, here are some of my best photography guides. You should read these after you read Understanding Exposure. These guides all assume you have a decent foundation to understand the basics of photography, and you might be confused by these if you don’t know the basics:
This just scratches the surface on the photography guides we’ve written. To read and learn more, browse the photography category of posts on the blog. Once you’ve learned a bit, it might be time to buy some new equipment to help you take better photos. Read on for our buying suggestions…
As mentioned above, the vast majority of people just getting started in photography are probably best suited by a high-end point and shoot camera, with my absolute top pick being the Sony RX100. This is a great way to get a taste of serious photography with customizable settings and excellent image quality, but in a compact package. Most people won’t outgrow that camera, but if you do, then look at DSLRs or mirrorless cameras.
If you’ve already decided that a DSLR camera is your best option, you’ll want to think about everything you need to go along with it to really take your photography to the next level. If you’re on a limited budget, start out by making 3 upgrades: 1) tripod, 2) Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, and
3) Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. I’d say these are the 3 best purchases a new DSLR photographer who wants to photograph the Disney Parks can make to improve their game.
However, if you really want to take your photography to the next level, gear is not what you need–at least not exclusively. What you need is knowledge. You will never take amazing photos in auto mode. You need to start by getting a copy of Understanding Exposure to learn the fundamentals, and then read more advance books, tutorials, and practice like crazy. Anyone can become great at photography, but you can’t get there just by purchasing fancy toys. 🙂
Finally, a word of warning. Don’t take shortcuts when buying photography equipment. Yes, it’s expensive, but I’ve discovered first-hand that buying photo gear on eBay or Craigslist is a huge risk. You don’t know how the seller took care of their gear, if it’s grey market (meaning US manufacturers won’t service it if there’s a problem), or what problems may come up down the road. You also don’t save that much over buying new. Finally, you don’t get a warranty. Things do go wrong with cameras, seemingly inexplicably, and it would really stink for that $1,000 investment to break with no recourse for you.
We’re Amazon Prime members, so we almost always order from Amazon.com. I also recommend Adorama.com, B&H Photo, or Abes of Maine, but I generally avoid all other online photo retailers (I STRONGLY recommend avoiding J&R Cameras due to two negative experiences I’ve had with them). By the way, if you are considering a purchase of any photography equipment, lenses, or anything else for that matter we would greatly appreciate it if you use the links in this post to make your purchase. It benefits the site, doesn’t cost you a dime, and helps us to keep providing you with useful(?) content!
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What have you found helped improve your photography? Have other photography tips of your own to add? Other gear recommendations? If you have questions, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll try my best to help!