Night photography is tricky, but can be incredibly fun at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and other Disney Parks. This post covers my top tips and tricks for night photography in the parks based on common questions I’ve received. It touches upon everything you should know about nighttime photography, from what equipment you need to settings and other ideas to make your night photos awesome.
Getting started in nighttime photography can be daunting, especially for beginner photographers. In large part, this is because it’s not as intuitive as taking photos during the day. Additionally, it requires knowledge of your camera’s controls, manual settings, and certain equipment. Once you have all of that, you’re good to go.
The plus side is that “certain equipment” doesn’t mean you need the top DSLR for Disney Parks photography. I receive more questions about night photography than any other kind of photography, but the fact is that nighttime photography is not difficult at all, so long as you are armed with knowledge and a couple pieces of gear. In fact, you can get pretty good night photos in the Disney Parks with a point and shoot camera.
So what do you need, equipment-wise and knowledge-wise? Let’s take a look…
10. Lethal Weapon VI: Tripods
When it comes to night photography, a tripod is a necessary ‘weapon’ if you want a killer photo. This is the first tip on the list because whether you’re willing to carry a tripod is a bit of a threshold question. A lot of people ask me how to get great night photos, but they don’t want to use a tripod. Totally understandable, as the priority for most Disney vacations is family time, with photography squeezed in when they can. However, for consistently great photos over which you have full creative control, a tripod is necessary.
It enables you to compose the photo where you want, and stabilizes the camera during longer exposures necessary for night scenes. For Disney, I use the Luxi L III by Velbon, which is a light-weight and inexpensive travel tripod. If you want something higher quality and more versatile, the MeFoto RoadTrip Travel Tripod is a great option. Read my Choosing the Best Travel Tripods post for insight into which might be best for you.
9. Trash Cans Are Friends (Not Food?)
The good news for the 99% of you who aren’t crazy enough to carry a tripod to the Disney Parks is that there are alternatives. As Walt Disney famously said, “Disneyland is a place for the young, young at heart, and oodles and oodles of trash cans. Oh, and Olaf.” Or something like that. I don’t think most people realize how many trash cans Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and the other parks have until they need one to take photos.
You can use a variety of random articles to position your camera and lens the way you need them angled on top of the trash can, but the best options are a photography bean bag or a table top tripod or a Gorilla Pod. The downside is that you don’t have creative control over the placement of trash cans, but they along with other random places you can rest your camera work for stabilization in a pinch.
8. Do Not Touch.
Even the slightest movement of the camera is the difference between a crisp night photo and a blurry one. This includes touching the camera in any way during the exposure, even pressing the shutter to take the photo (when I said, “even the slightest,” I meant it!). Instead, you’ll want to use the camera’s built-in self timer or, better yet, a remote.
A seemingly minor detail, but the devil is in the details. You can purchase infrared remotes, but a wired one is better and offers more functionality. My pick is the CHEAP-O® Display Remote (from the makers of my highly recommended CHEAP-O® Fader Neutral Density Filter), which is a fraction of the cost of first party wired remotes.
7. Use Manual Settings
Humans are smarter than cameras. I’m sure that will all change once Skynet goes live, but for now it’s true, so you should use manual settings. Both from a creative perspective and in terms of knowing what’s technically necessary for the precise scene you’re shooting, a photographer armed with knowledge will always produce a better photo than the camera in auto mode. Always.
No two night scenes are the same, so you need actual knowledge of the why and how of proper exposure, not just some memorized settings. I highly recommend picking up Understanding Exposure and learning photography so you can determine for yourself which settings to use based on what you observe and intend for particular shot. Looking at others’ EXIF data doesn’t hurt (and mine for each of these photos can be viewed by clicking a pic, to go to the photo’s SmugMug page, and hitting “info”), but nothing compares with really mastering a knowledge of manual settings for yourself. With that said, the next few tips will give you some general ideas…
6. Go Long!
The most common specific question I get regarding my Disneyland and Walt Disney World night photos is “how did you get a photo without any people?” Most of the time, the answer is pretty simple: stay late and shoot long (exposures). In the last hour to half-hour the parks are open, many areas are fairly empty.
Even if there are people in your scene, it’s pretty easy to eliminate them (or “ghost ’em out” as the kids these days probably say) by using a 20-30 second exposure. With that long of a shutter speed, people moving in your frame won’t show up. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help with the random person transfixed by their phone and standing perfectly still right in the middle of Main Street, but it’s a great trick to use to rid most shots of people.
5. Burst It!
I love ‘bursts in my photos. Sunbursts. Starbursts. Even moonbursts. This is possible to accomplish with a star filter, but that’s really more a stylized special effect filter. It looks more natural if you simply use an aperture of around f/13 to f/16 at achieve starbursts.
You might have to go higher with some lenses (f/20 to f/22), but there is some loss in image quality that way. Also, the higher your aperture number, the longer your shutter speed will need to be. In some particularly dark scenes, you might not be able to go up to f/16 and still keep your exposure length below 30 seconds.
4. Multiple Exposures
Since it’s the trendy thing to do, and I’m a tubular dude (so “cool” that I still use 90s slang…), people assume all of my photos are tone-mapped HDR. I do some Disney Parks HDR photography, but the vast majority of my photos are not HDR. Almost all of my photos are actually a single exposure, and are not tone-mapped.
With that said, for night scenes, I usually take multiple exposures because it’s better to have too many than not enough. If there are really bright areas and really dark areas in your scene, there’s a decent chance combining two different exposures will help. A prime situation is when neon lighting is present (think Sunset Boulevard at Disney’s Hollywood Studios).
3. Avoid the Darkness
Since night is dark, this might sound like a contradiction. There are varying degrees of darkness, though, and what makes photographing the Disney Parks at night so rewarding is the way the artificial lighting that the Imagineers utilize can really enhance a scene. Unfortunately, interesting artificial lighting isn’t appropriate everywhere, and some scenes make for dull nighttime photos as a result.
While post processing and longer exposures can help bring out detail in shadows, if a scene is mostly shadows, no amount of post processing or length of exposure will save it. Chances are, it will just be a dull photo. The best photos will be where there’s a good mix of shadow and light, which gives a photo depth and texture.
2. Don’t Forget Composition
If you’ve never taken good night shots, they can be a novelty when you start out. As a result, the necessity of good composition might slip your mind. I speak from experience. Looking back at my early photos, I notice a lot of creative composition in my daytime photos and a lot of ‘stick the tripod in front of something and take a capture a flat scene’ night shots, most of which I now find pretty uninteresting. I tried harder with the daytime shots because I wasn’t impressed with a basic daytime scene by itself.
In hindsight, I’m not longer impressed with with a basic nighttime scene. I mention this mistake I made because I see many Disney photographers falling into the same trap with super-basic, super-boring nightscapes. Leading lines, shadow and light play, and a sense of depth all can help elevate an ordinary night scene into something spectacular. This isn’t to say you should avoid the basic shots (they’re admittedly fun), but get creative, too.
Most of the tips on the list are really things any skilled photographer could tell you, but #1 is one of my secrets to the look of my photos. I normally overexpose my night photos, which makes them pop. This is why my night shots frequently have deep blue skies, detailed shadow areas, and an overall, vibrant “punch” to them. Slightly overexposing scenes means they are brighter and more detailed than what the naked eye would see at night, giving the photos a bit of hyper-realism.
With this, there’s a fine line between looking like an amplified version of reality and looking cartoonish. Ultimately, where that line falls is a personal thing. I think my photos push the bounds on realism just the right amount, but I’m sure others think they look garish. This definitely comes down to personal preference, and is a “salt to taste” thing. Try out varying amounts of overexposure in your own photos to see what works for you.
Of course, you will have to make sure you apply the right kind of post processing to that overexposed photo so it really pops. This is another salt to taste thing, and another topic for another day (and post).
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If you’re looking for other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts. The best place to start is my Ultimate Disney Parks Photography Guide. Some additional posts you might enjoy:
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Infrared Photography Guide & Tips
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
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Do you have any tips or tricks for night photography? What’s your favorite spot in the parks at night? Other questions? Any recommendations? Share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments!