Disney Dreams! is Disneyland Paris’ newest nighttime spectacular, and although it is absolutely gorgeous, it’s a beast to photograph. The show simultaneously has fire, fireworks, projections, lasers, and fountains–all of which call for different shutter speeds and exposures for an even or technically perfect photo, making it literally impossible to capture photos of some scenes in the show. Add to the mix some dramatic shifts in color throughout the show that “trick” the auto white balance on your camera, and even the skilled photographer will likely walk away from Disney Dreams! with their tail between their legs.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to take great photos of Disney Dreams, and even if you are initially frustrated when trying to capture great photos of it, the sense of accomplishment you’ll have when you finally conquer what has quickly become a white whale of the Disney photography universe will make it all worth it. This blog hates whales, so we’re happy to help you conquer them, and will do exactly that with these tips!
Note that this article assumes basic technical understanding of the elements of exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO). If you walk away from this article scratching your head, I highly recommend reading Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson before going any further trying to take better photos. A lot of people ask what kind of camera I use to take these photos, but without knowledge, a camera is just an expensive paperweight. If this article doesn’t make sense to you (because of the technical terms, not because of my poor writing), start with that (and other photography books) and then come back to this article.
Alright! Let’s get ready to caaaaaaaaatch some whaaaaaaaales! (Not quite as catchy as ‘let’s get ready to rumble,’ but whatever.)
1. Tripod or Handheld?
I’ve photographed Disney Dreams! three times, and each time I’ve used a tripod. When I photograph it again, I’ll use a tripod again. However, a tripod is not necessary to successfully photograph the show. In reviewing my shots from Disneyland Paris, I’ve found that over 50% of my Disney Dreams photos would have been fine without a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod, don’t worry, you’ll still be able to get good shots.
If you have the option of using a tripod, I highly recommend it. While over 50% of my shots would have been possible without a tripod, 100% were possible with it. By not using a tripod, you’re largely limited to good photos of the really bright portions of the show or high ISO photos of the darker portions (to prevent your shutter speed from having to be too low) that may or may not be salvageable. Every shot that is possible handheld is also possible when using a tripod, but not every shot possible with the tripod is possible when shooting handheld. (Sort of like how every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square…see, this blog is all about learning!) If you don’t mind reducing your “potential usable shot ceiling” by at least 25%, shooting handheld is fine. The trade-off for the lost shots is more flexibility in moving around to compose (if a child’s head appears in front of you suddenly) and not having to worry about your tripod being kicked. For some people, the loss of shots is worth it, and I can totally understand that.
The Central Plaza/Hub at Disneyland Paris is fairly large, but it does fill up prior to Disney Dreams! during busier seasons. As mentioned, I’ve only photographed the show three times, but I did so from three different spots. My favorite was the ‘front of the house’ as close to Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant as possible. This way, you don’t have to worry about any heads or last-minute-shoulder-kids blocking your view at the last minute.
Unlike a strictly fireworks show, the action during Disney Dreams! is not just above Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant. Rather, it’s low in the moat, on the Castle, to the sides of it, and above it. So the normal criterion of being able to see the sky does not apply here. You want to see high and low.
If you can’t get super close, the next best option is in the Central Plaza directly behind one of the fenced off patches of grass. This area is slightly elevated above the crowds in front of it, and more importantly, it puts empty space in front of you, eliminating obstructions. Be careful when picking one of these spots, as the projectors/speakers for Disney Dreams! can encroach on the edges of your frame. These can be difficult to see when you’re setting up your camera in the dark, but they will block some of the show if you don’t position yourself well.
Since so much of the action is on and around Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant, I don’t recommend going any further towards the Main Street USA Train Station than the Gibson Girl. The further back you get, the more of the show you miss. It can be cool for a “grander” view, but you do lose detail.
After the “what camera do you use?” question mentioned above, the most common question I’m asked is, “what settings do you use?” I literally change my settings for every different scene I shoot. Unfortunately, each moment in Disney Dreams! is a different “scene” in photography terms. With that said, here are some baselines.
Before the show even starts, and regardless of what else you do, you absolutely must shoot raw. The lighting changes so dramatically and often “tricks” your camera sensor that you will have to adjust white balance in post processing. There’s no way around this, and it’s a waste of your time to change the white balance for each scene. Just shoot in raw and worry about white balance when you get home. There is already more than enough for you to think about and adjust while photographing the show without worrying about white balance.
Since each element of the show calls for a different exposure, for each photo you need to pick your focus. If you’re primarily concerned with the projections or lasers, you need a faster shutter speed to freeze the action. If you want to capture the fountains or fireworks, you typically want a longer shutter speed to show their trails. You’re simply not going to be able to capture all elements in an “ideal” manner in a single photo. But you can get close with what I call a “compromise” shutter speed.
Basically, this means going as slow as you possibly can to still freeze the action, which in turn is about as fast as you can possibly go and still capture some streaming of the fireworks and fountains. I think the sweet spot here is exposures of about 1/4th or 1/8th of a second. Personally, freezing the projections in as crisp of a form isn’t paramount to me, so I usually dropped it to 1/2 second or slower to focus on the fireworks and capture more detail (and less noise) in the rest of the scene. Most of my exposures are in the 1/2 second to 3 second range, but again, detail in the moving projections wasn’t a huge detail to me, and several of the scenes in the projections are stationary for a couple of seconds, anyway.
Shutter speed is the most important part of the equation, but what about the rest? That’s a good question, and depends upon your level of comfort. The easiest thing to do is going to be choosing a shutter speed, putting the camera into shutter priority mode, setting auto ISO, and using a remote to trigger your shots. This is the fewest balls to keep in the air at the same time, and will allow you to enjoy the show as well as photograph it. That’s always a good thing.
If you are focused on great photos and are comfortable with your photography instincts, I recommend going into full manual mode, with “bulb mode” as your shutter speed. This means that you manually set ISO and aperture as you go, and your shutter speed is determine how long you hold the button on the remote down for. This is what I did, and I think it is the best option. However, it forces you to make a lot of adjustments to aperture and ISO on the fly, and to understand how scene shifts affect the exposure without having to stop and think about it. Potentially even more problematic, unless your finger is quick and remote is super-responsive, you’re going to have some 1 second plus exposure times due to remote responsiveness. You’ll probably have some ‘growing pains’ with this the first time you photograph Disney Dreams! at Disneyland Paris (unless you watch it on YouTube before you visit), but as you become more familiar with the show, this becomes easier, and your results get better.
4. Post Processing Tricks
The first thing you do when post processing, is to open every single photo you take (besides the very obvious duds) in Lightroom, Camera Raw, or whatever you use, and adjust the white balance and tint on each individual photo to your taste. Do this even with ones that look like they’re probably trash, because this can make a huge difference (that’s why this step is before #5…normally I delete my bad photos before editing, but with Disney Dreams!, the raw files are often misleading). Straight out of the camera, there’s a good chance that a lot of your shots will be messes of blue. Once you adjust the white balance and tint, you’ll find that these messes are actually very pretty.
Take the shot below, for instance. Straight out of the camera, it was a blue mess. After spending about 5 seconds moving the white balance slider, it looked totally different–significantly better and much closer to how the scene actually looked. The unintended consequence was that the sky became much more orange/pink than it was in reality, but this was something I could deal with. Those who don’t mind spending a lot of time in the digital darkroom could recover the “normal” blue sky and retain the “normal” colors in fountains and projections, but that requires double processing and is too much work for me. More importantly, from a purely artistic perspective, I think the sky color works.
The biggest aspects of post processing will be adjusting the colors. You’ll adjust the white balance and tint, but also will tinker with individual color channels, saturating and desaturating as necessary.
If you follow my advice in the “compromise” exposures, you’ll also want to tinker with the shadows and highlights, trying to recover highlights and bring out detail in shadows. Don’t push either of these too far, or you’ll end up with overly-dominant greys where blacks and whites should be. Beyond this, I process these photos as I normally would increasing contrast and fill light, and applying more noise reduction than normal.
5. Delete Half the Photos You Take
At least half. Unless you are a “Master Photographer” the likes of which the world has never seen, you’re going to have more misses than you have hits from Disney Dreams! Delete the misses. This should be common sense, but time and time again, I see people share an ugly photo they’ve taken right next to a gorgeous one. This isn’t like putting an ugly person next to an average looking one to make the average looking one beautiful by comparison. That doesn’t work with photos. Just because you take a photo doesn’t mean you have to share it.
Equally as bad is when someone shares 10 photos that are all good but were clearly taken in succession and are all virtually the same. Don’t dilute your good work by overdoing what you share. This advice applies all of the time, but especially when sharing Disney Dreams! photos, because you’re going to have some brilliant shots followed by absolute duds, and you’re also going to have many photos that look alike. Be selective. What often separates a great photographer from a good one is that the “great” one is only sharing their best work.
At may be difficult at first, but with knowledge of photography, an understanding of your camera, and these tips, you can take some excellent photos of Disney Dreams! at Disneyland Paris. If you have taken some good shots of the show already, you’re welcome to share links to them in the comments!
If you’re thinking about visiting Disneyland Paris, make sure to check out the official Disneyland Paris website for 50% off packages and other discounts! Visiting Disneyland Paris truly can be as inexpensive as visiting Walt Disney World! Also, make sure to read our Disneyland Paris Trip Planning Guide (written from an American perspective) for basic preparations for your visit. Want to see more photos or read about Disneyland Paris in agonizing detail? Check out our Disneyland Paris 2012 Trip Report!
If you’re interested in improving your Disney photography, check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Photography Buying Guide: Way More Than You Ever Needed to Know…
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Travel Tripod Buying Guide
Have you tried photographing Disney Dreams? Had any difficulties or have you been mostly success? Would you like to see or photograph it someday? Hearing from you is half the fun of these articles, so share your thoughts and any other tips you might have in the comments!