Many people want great night photos from the Disney parks, but carrying a tripod is either impractical or impossible for them. For this post, I share some tripod alternatives. Since I have a minor “rant” at the end about recent rumors of Disney banning tripods, I’ll skip my normal prefatory remarks, and cut to the chase here with the tips first.
Shoot at Dusk
For many people with a background in landscape photography, the idea of shooting a sunset or at dusk handheld is like sacrilege. This is not the case with me at all. As I shared in My Photography Philosophy post, for me it’s about the thrill of the chase, and quantity over quality. In a nature, it might make sense to meticulously set up a tripod and patiently wait for the shot. A sunset is fleeting, and it takes too much time to get between spots and set up multiple shots. By contrast, theme parks are staged with numerous (potential) spectacular shots are in close proximity to one another. An epic sunset is thus a race against the clock, and in that race, I don’t want a tripod slowing me down.
Same idea for dusk. Once the sunset light fades, Disney’s show lighting turns on, and you have a beautiful window of blue hour/dusk light during which it’s basically night, but with more light in the sky. I find this to be the prettier time to shoot, and you can still get away with shooting handheld if you’re willing to push your settings…
Underexpose or Crank the ISO
In the last 5 years, high ISO technology has made tremendous strides. There was a time when I tried to avoid exceeding ISO 1600 with my Nikon D40. Now, ISO 12,800 is usable in some circumstances. (By the way, the first three photos are ISO 3200, 4500 and 8000.)
Late last year, I read a really fascinating article about ISO invariance, and the benefits of shooting at base ISOs and brightening in post processing if your camera (sorry, Canon shooters) is ISO invariant. Old habits are hard to break (especially when the high ISO shots give you a better view of a scene on your LCD), but I’ve been doing this more and more, to great success.
Slower Shutter Speed
When I’m shooting handheld post-sunset, I will quite often drop my shutter speed to 1/15th of a second with the Nikon D750 or D810. With the Sony a7 RII, I’ll go down to 1/4th of a second. With these large sensors, this can be a recipe for blurry disaster. My strategy is to fire off a burst of shots of the same scene and hope some are reasonably crisp. Even with a low keeper rate of <25%, this strategy is safe and effective if you fire off bursts of 10 or so shots.
The other benefit of using a slower shutter speed like this at dusk is you capture motion blur of guests who are moving through your scene, giving a dynamic energy to the shot. With a faster shutter speed, you freeze these haphazard guests, and the photo tends to look more like a snapshot.
As a corollary to the above, it should be noted that there’s a rule that minimum shutter speed should be 1/focal length (so an 85mm lens is 1/85th of a second, whereas a 14mm lens would be 1/14th of a second). This is good advice, and means you’ll have better success with low handheld shutter speeds with a wider lens.
This is one reason I’m almost exclusively using my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens (read my lens review) or, better yet, a fisheye lens, when shooting handheld at dusk or night. With a fisheye lens, I’ll regularly drop my minimum shutter speed to 1/8th of a second (1/8th @ ISO 8000 for the above photo) and still be able to maintain an acceptable keeper rate.
Use Image Stabilization
I mentioned Sony’s IBIS (in-body image stabilization) above, and it’s proved really useful for me on the a7 RII for giving stabilization to all lenses. While I dream of the day Nikon will find a way to add VR to its 14-24mm f/2.8 lens (probably not going to happen), in-lens and in-camera stabilization can really help drop that shutter speed.
Before I broke mine, I loved the Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC (read my lens review) because it allowed me to shoot handheld . After that experience, I’ve always favored lenses with VR/VC/IS. It’s just so handy when it comes to Disney photography. I’ve had similar success with the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens, shooting handheld at ridiculously low shutter speeds.
Say what you will about Americans becoming increasingly lazy, but the upshoot is that Disney’s Trashpods™ are placed every 25 feet so guests don’t just lazily throw their garbage on the ground. Have you ever paid attention to just how many trash cans line Main Street? It’s seriously as if Iger went a little crazy buying companies and now management wonders how to justify its purchase of The Bin Co. The bad news is that it’s nearly impossible to take a photo without trash cans in it.
The good news is that they are at your disposal ( 😉 ) when you need a surface for stabilizing your camera. Just use a lens cap or whatever random junk is in your fanny pack to prop up the lens, set the self timer, and you’re good to go. As Walt Disney famously said, “as long as there are trash cans left in the park, night photography will never be completed.” (He said that right after his famous line about using clone stamp to remove strollers: “if you can dream it, then you can do it.”)
Use Smaller Alternatives
I spend a lot of time on the ground even when I have a tripod, and that’s because I think the texture of the pavement can make an interesting foreground element. In my recent Tokyo Disneyland at Night post, I gushed about my Green Pod, and the creative spark it gave me when shooting there at night (tripods are already banned at Tokyo Disney Resort).
The Green Pod is an excellent option for those who don’t want to carry a tripod. You can use a variety of random articles for this, but that’s my personal pick. Other alternatives include a photography bean bag, table top tripod, or Gorilla Pod. All of these things are likely safe when the inevitable ban occurs in the stateside parks…
Disney Banning Tripods?
When I started using my tripod to take night photos at Walt Disney World in 2008, I rarely saw anyone else with a tripod. There were others doing it, but it was a relatively uncommon thing. There was a burgeoning community on Flickr, but that’s about it. Since, social media has exploded, and night photography in the parks has become commonplace. On an average night now I might see 10+ fellow photographers with tripods.
This interest in Disney photography is a great thing. The community is filled with tons of great people and photographers, and I’ve forged many friendships through it. However, it’s also an inevitability that it will become a victim of its own popularity. Every year it seems like a new rumor pops up that tripods are banned at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, only later to be debunked. As tripod use becomes more widespread, we become more of a hassle for security, and there will come a point where we go from a tolerated nuisance to an untolerated one. It’s only a matter of time before the rumor proves true.
So, how we do we forestall the inevitable a bit longer? For starters, by being as little of a nuisance as possible. Don’t use a gargantuan tripod or roll-up with a hard-shell case of gear. As security starts closing in during its sweeps, preemptively move towards the front of the park before being told to do so. Be deferential and acquiescent to security. Even if you think you’re being slighted, don’t get confrontational. Just because they’ve given you more time in the past (even if “the past” is the night before), don’t act like you’re entitled to them letting you finish your shots.
Above all else, be friendly and don’t have an ego. It might be true that posting photos online amounts to free advertising for Disney, but don’t proudly proclaim, “I have thousands of followers on Instagram, and need to get this shot” to a security guard. (Yes, I’ve heard it happen.) Being a quasi “celebrity” in the online Disney-niche is about as impressive as boasting about being the 1994 World POG Federation Midwest Regional Champion. No one outside of your clique cares. Moreover, if you think you are doing any favors to a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, the joke is on you.
Between tightening security because of the increase in people testing out their best Stupid Human Tricks in the park, and the proliferation of tripods, there will be a day when the rumors of tripods being banned comes true. In the meantime, we can try to delay that time as long as possible by being respectful, courteous, and discrete in our tripod usage. Let’s ride this wave as long as we can…
If and when tripods are banned from Walt Disney World and Disneyland, it’s not the end of the world. If you’re a photographer, consider whether a tripod is really essential. I don’t just mean whether a tripod is ideal but whether it’s truly essential for the work you’re doing, or if you just prefer to use one for your own edification.
Above, I described a lot of ways I push my settings in ways that would make technical perfectionists squirm. Sure, a photo taken at ISO 6400 or 1/15th second is not going to be a shot you’re going to deliver to a commercial client or sell as a large print, but I’d estimate that the vast majority–over 99%–of Disney photos are not used in these ways. Consider the end use of most Disney photos: Instagram and Facebook.
These are far and away the most popular photo sharing platforms in the world, both of which compress photos. The good news(?) is that compression isn’t a huge issue. Most people won’t notice it since they are viewing these platforms on tiny phone screens. Mobile browsing accounts for a majority of internet traffic, and continues to rise. Most people (myself included) want crisp, high-res photos for the idea of it, but the practical reality is that they are totally unnecessary given how we actually use photos.
Are imperfections you might notice in your 40+ MP photos when viewed on a 5K screen really that big of a deal? Is anyone going to notice if a shot is slightly soft or has high ISO noise? Probably not. (Although this begs the question about the necessity of fancy gear we’re buying in the first place, but that is another topic for another day.)
To underscore my point here, the photo above is one of my most popular ones on Instagram. The comments were positive, with no one questioning the noise from my use of ISO 10,000 or complaining of the photo’s softness. Neither matters, because the issues don’t jump out at you on Instagram, and people will overlook flaws–even if they do spot them–if it’s a photo they like. A compelling scene matters so much more than technical execution.
I doubt any of us are looking forward to the date when we can no longer use tripods in the parks. I hope this demonstrates that the sky is not falling if/when that does happen. Not only are there alternatives to using a tripod, but the creative challenge of not being able to use one as a crutch can open new doors and help you push your photography further.
Want to learn more about photography to take great photos in the Disney theme parks and beyond? The best place to start is Tom’s Ultimate Disney Parks Photography Guide, which covers a variety of topics from links to tutorials, tips, and tricks to recommendations for point & shoots, DSLRs, lenses, and more!
For other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
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Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts on tripods at Disney? Think they are a strict necessity for your photography? Have you been able to achieve good results without a tripod? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments!