Pandora – World of Avatar instantly became one of the most photogenic lands in Walt Disney World when it opened at Animal Kingdom this summer. Despite how beautiful it looks, it can also be one of the most frustrating lands for photography.
Aside from our free eBook, Pandora Expedition Guide, I’ve pretty much refrained from sharing photos of this new Avatar land to avoid spoiling it. However, it’s been a while since we did a photo sharing or photography tips post, and I feel I’m overdue for one. Suffice to say, this post will have photo spoilers, so stop reading now if you don’t want to see those.
In addition to sharing my best Pandora – World of Avatar photos (thus far–I’ve only photographed it a couple of times!), I also wanted to provide some random tips for photographing the land. Nothing substantial, just some random thoughts on photography strategy, and how to overcome some of the unique challenges posted by Pandora…
You can click on each photo to view it larger (and with high resolution) in my SmugMug gallery and to see the camera settings I used. All photos in this post were captured with my Nikon D750 DSLR or Nikon D810 DSLR.
One of my biggest challenges as a photographer has been thinking more carefully about color theory. In landscapes, my natural (or perhaps learned?) inclination is to go for the most beautiful weather possible: sunrises and sunsets with epic color, clear and crisp blue night skies, and dramatic, deep puffy clouds during daytime.
Aesthetically, I think these conditions are the prettiest weather, and as such, I usually strive to shoot in these conditions. What it has taken me a while to learn is that the prettiest backdrop is not necessarily what best compliments a subject. Sure, it makes for a superficially-pretty photo (and often, that’s all I’m after), but it does not always “work” the best.
That’s great news for Pandora – World of Avatar. The land is located so close to Animal Kingdom’s parking that the sodium vapor light pollution is going to mean that anytime there are low clouds, the night sky over Pandora is going to turn an apocalyptic shade of orange.
This also happens a lot when photographing Spaceship Earth, and there have been innumerable times in that scenario that I just have packed up my tripod. However, I decided to just roll with it when photographing Pandora – World of Avatar.
I’m glad I did. While the orange sky looks totally unnatural…so too do mountains that float. This is an alien landscape, I think the “rules” of what a sky should look like sort of are out the window. Moreover, I think the orange of the sky complements the blue of the floating mountains. In a photo with a ‘perfect’ blue sky, the landscape blends with the background in a sea of muddled blue and purple.
I guess this is all to say: embrace the “ugly” orange sky. There are plenty of situations when light pollution looks bad and you should avoid photographing it. I don’t think Pandora is one of those situations. Rather, I think the radioactive orange sky really makes the floating mountains pop, and also adds to the surreal appearance of this alien landscape.
With that potential frustration hopefully removed from your mind, there are plenty of other frustrations that still exist when shooting Pandora. The land is absolutely beautiful to wander, but this often does not translate to photos. I think there are a couple of reasons for this…
The first is that scenes in photos lack the inferred context your mind can add while your eye moves around. A single photo often looks like an amorphous blob of ‘huh?’ It’s difficult to tell what’s pictured, and even though it looks pretty, it doesn’t make sense in isolation. (And maybe that explanation doesn’t even make sense.)
Another problem is that the sightlines are awful. For example, there are light posts, random trees, oddly-aligned structures, and other “stuff” that obscures the most photogenic angles. Nothing like a huge lamp in the middle of your floating mountain scene!
This is another thing that you miss with the naked eye, because you mentally look past these things as your head moves around (or some other scientific explanation–I don’t know how the eye and mind relay info back and forth). Things that fade from your mind when dynamically viewing a scene don’t ‘fade’ so easily when they become the unintentional subject of a static photo.
Again, maybe that makes zero sense if you’ve never tried photographing Pandora, but I’m guessing those who have are nodding in silent agreement right now. (If not, I guess I’m just a raving lunatic.)
One of the easiest ways around the above-mentioned frustrations that arise when photographing wide landscapes is to shoot tighter. I had great success using my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and even my Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens at night, which is not something I’d normally use in such a scenario.
In fact, photographing the details of Pandora – World of Avatar is like shooting fish in a barrel. Crazy looking alien plants that put even the weirdest stuff on Planet Earth to shame, along with a range of vibrant colors and beautiful bokeh. This is much easier than using an ultra wide angle lens in Pandora, and it’s also pretty rewarding since it’s something you (probably) aren’t doing as much at night.
I’m always a big advocate of getting low and finding ways to use the ground to add leading lines or foreground interest to a photo. This is a patently obvious suggestion for photographing Pandora – World of Avatar, as that bioluminescent pavement is so pretty.
Again, you’ll run into sightline issues with this, but I think there are plenty of options and great opportunities for creativity when photographing the pavement of Pandora. Another challenge here is the people. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Pandora is sorta popular… 😉 (Seriously though, if you have not heard, you should read our Ultimate Guide to Pandora – World of Avatar, which offers tips for saving time, beating the crowds, and more.)
Some other random tips…the floating mountains don’t always need to float. I’ll be honest: up until visiting Pandora, I thought there was going to be some crazy illusion using waterfalls or something, that actually made it look like these mountains are floating. As in, completely off the ground.
There is no such illusion, and only a few vantages within Pandora that even make it look like some of these mountains are floating without being anchored to the ground. A huge natural alien arch is good enough, don’t worry about making it look like they are floating.
Fisheye lenses are fun in Pandora. The landscape of this new land is alien, so introducing a bit more weirdness via your lens can work well.
I especially like using the fisheye to exaggerate the winding quality of the roots of the floating mountains, and trying to get as close as possible to the mountains while still keeping them in the frame.
With regard to the attractions, only Na’vi River Journey is conducive to photography on-ride. And really, only the finale of that attraction is going to give you anything all that photogenic. The rest (in my opinion, at least) does not really translate to photos.
Even though photography is not allowed on Avatar Flight of Passage, there are still some excellent photo ops in the queue. I’d recommend visiting this line as late at night as possible, and spending some time using a fisheye lens or ultra wide angle.
Alternatively, if you’re visiting during the day when it’s busier, breaking on the 50mm or 85mm and focusing on the details is another viable strategy.
Overall, photographing Pandora – World of Avatar is both a very satisfying and very frustrating experience. The land is beautiful, and looks like a hyper-realistic photo come to life. Even straight out of camera, your photos might look unrealistic. I say embrace this. It is an unrealistic alien landscape…obviously the photos are not going to resemble other scenes you’d shoot in Animal Kingdom. I think the good news in all of this is that Pandora is the right mix of challenging and beautiful that will make for a place photographers are going to spend inordinate amounts of time shooting for years to come. It’s the kind of unconventional, meandering landscape that presents myriad creative photo opportunities, and even years from now, people are going to find fresh and interesting ways to shoot it. That’s a great thing for Walt Disney World photographers.
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.
Have you photographed Pandora – World of Avatar? If so, what did you think of the experience? More challenging or easier than expected? Any tips of your own to add? Any questions? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts or questions you might have–I’ll do my best to answer anything else below!