10 Rules for Family Photography at Walt Disney World

By Tom Bricker on August 13th, 2010   |    Posted in:  Disney Photo Tips   |    18 Comments

Being a blog written by folks who are serious amateurs and/or semi-professional photographers, I think it’s fair to say there’s a slant towards photography as an art form here. With that mentality, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Walt Disney World, above all else, is a family vacation destination. As such, the heavily overwhelming type of photography engaged in at WDW is family shots. I think we more “serious” photographers can often be too dismissive of this type of photography and the importance it plays at WDW (for example, in a recent forum thread, when asked whether he should bring his flash or UWA lens on a family trip with his kids, the overwhelming advice to the poster was to bring the UWA, which provides little benefit to family shots, whereas a flash provides great benefit). Given its importance and predominance, this article seeks to help everyone—from casual point and shoot users to advanced semi-professionals—look at Disney family shots in a different light. So here are my rules—and I mean that in the loosest sense; your mileage will vary in that I doubt anyone will agree with all of these—for Walt Disney World family photography!

1. Drop the “I don’t like to be photographed” attitude.

I hear this from so many people, and yet I still don’t quite understand the rationale behind it. I suspect some people are self-conscious, but others I think just say it for no real reason at all. In any case, it’s ridiculous. Even if you don’t want photos of yourself for your personal consumption right now, you never know how your interests will change over the years. You can always not look at the photos you do take, but you can never go back and look at the photos you didn’t take. Further, photos aren’t just for you. If you’re on Disney-photography blog, there’s a good chance you’re a big Disney geek in general, and are quite possibly going to indoctrinate your children or grand-children into Disney geekdom. If that’s the case, they will likely want to go and look at pictures of you when you were visited the parks “back in the day.” Even if they don’t end up liking Disney (heresy!), there is a strong possibly that they’ll, at some point, take an interest in old family photos. Why would you not want to be a part of those photos? More importantly, how will you explain to them that you’re not in any family pictures despite you having multiple hard drives or albums full of Disney photos? Writing this rule is actually quite difficult for me as I honestly find it utterly incomprehensible that people would deliberately avoid being in their own vacation photos.

The “future generations” aspect of this rule is the portion that, in my opinion, ropes even those day-tripping locals who might otherwise feel they don’t ‘need’ to get the touristy shots of themselves because they go so often. Down the road, when you tell your kids stories of how you went to the parks weekly, monthly, etc., they’re probably going to be a little more surprised that you don’t have any pictures of yourself there. Even if you go alone, every once in a while, take a point and shoot with you and hand the camera off to a PhotoPass Cast Member. I’m not suggesting you should make pictures of yourself a priority on every day trip, just every once in a while.

A final tip: if you are self-conscious, just wear extremely trendy clothing. That way, when people look at your photos years from now, they won’t notice you at all. They’ll notice the ridiculous clothes you’re wearing. I know I barely notice my dad’s physical appearance in the late-80s, but I can tell you one thing, I know he wore short shorts and muscle tees everywhere!

2. Fun poses are best when they fit the subject of the photo.

I have an uncanny knack for idiotic poses. For an entire year of college, in nearly any picture you find of me taken by my friends, I made the same contorted face and gave a double thumbs-up (I called this the “EXTREME” pose). However, I recognized that there was an appropriate time and place for this, and didn’t make the face in family photos, vacation photos, in any professional photos, or in photos I might someday display. My rationale is that ten years from now, if people saw those images, they’d think I had some sort of condition. Similarly, no one is going to remember what flavor of the week pose Miley Cyrus was doing in 2010. If three-fourths of your photos have this or some other dumb pose in it, people looking at the pictures (yourself included) in ten years won’t think you’re hip, they’ll think you’re a fool. The idiotic poses are okay if used sparingly, but fun poses that fit the “theme” of the photo work so much better than generic odd poses.

Do you really want to look like this fool?

This is a much better fun pose, as it matches a theme of the shot (Pluto the dog), even if not everyone viewing the shot could tell we’re posing as dogs.

Character shots are another area in which I think it’s necessary to have some fun to achieve a good shot. If you just awkwardly go stand next to the character as if they’re a prop, the picture might not be as good, but more importantly, the experience will not be as good. We always go into character pictures with a plan. Something we’re going to say something to them (e.g., in jest calling Goofy by the name “Pluto” and asking why he’s not orange like he was the other day) that will rile them up. From there, we proceed with the interaction and have a good time. If you have young kids, I would recommend indoctrinating them to the world of the characters in this manner, rather than having them just go stand next to the character and saying cheese. I don’t know anything about child or developmental psychology, but something tells me it would make for a more positive experience with the child. For us, since we’ve handed off our cameras to the PhotoPass CM or Character Attendant (I have no problem handing them my DSLR, but if you’re uncomfortable with this, bring a P&S), we let the CM capture the interaction and whatever pose we’ve thought up for the experience.

Pretty simple pose here—we’re acting like monsters with the Monsters (Inc.).

It’s difficult to articulate this in words, but for your fun shots, try to think of clever poses that fit the background and area in which the photo is taken. For instance, if you get a photo near the Seas pavilion at EPCOT, posing like something from the sea would be a good option. It’s unlikely that you can illustrate “boat,” “submarine,” or “giant squid” through expressions or poses (if you can, I want you on my Charades team!) but you can certainly pose like a fish by puffing your cheeks and putting your hands to the side of your face as fins or pose like a shark by placing your hand atop your head.

Sarah caught herself a flounder!

While not everyone looking at the picture will get the idea that you’re trying to convey the appearance of a fish or shark, it’s one of those “A for effort” scenarios, and you will certainly remember what you intended to be in the shot, and get a good chuckle out of the shot, thinking back to the odd looks you received from passers-by. On that note, I suppose I should add a caveat: these types of poses are not for the easily embarrassed. Unless the parks are empty when you take your photos, you will get some weird looks. I call these people the “Fun Nazis;” despite being at Walt Disney World, the place where everyone should embrace their inner-child, they are unwilling to let their guard down a little and have some fun. You ought not let them bother you.

Anyone onlooker who saw us taking this probably thought, “Who let the dork-bots into the Magic Kingdom.” But you know what? It’s one of our favorite shots.

3. Posed or canned shots can be a drain on your party, and don’t necessarily convey the experience of the trip.

At the other end of the spectrum from those who have the same idiotic pose in every shot, there are those folks who only take vacation shots after carefully lining up their families in front of the appropriate landmark, making sure young Billy and Bobby’s cowlicks are firmly combed down, and everyone is fully smiling. This practice will get old very quick for your party—especially if you stop them often and orchestrate the whole affair as if you’re engaging in a studio shoot and everything must be perfect. Moreover, it’s not all that representative of your experience, and will not prove that interesting for folks to whom you show your picture.

Think about it. Unless your vacation is starkly different in nature from mine, the substance of your trip generally does not consist of you going up to various objects, standing in front of them, and taking an “arms-crossed, hair-combed, smiles-full” family picture. When I see vacation slideshows like this, I often think to myself, “Wow, these folks have a real knack for standing in front of things!” These shots just get boring after a while. Essentially, they are the exact same shot of the people in the photo, just with different backgrounds. Heck, if they invested in a green screen, the people in the photos wouldn’t have needed to even go on vacation! Sarcasm aside, the basic take-away from these first two rules is that any one type of picture, even if different than either of the types discussed here, should not be over-used.

4. Get a mix of posed shots and candid or fun shots.

This provides a segue way into the next rule, which is a necessary corollary and a seeming contradiction: stick with mostly classic canned poses and fun or spontaneous poses that fit the scenario. You should not read the first or second rule, think you have too many idiotic-posed or canned shots, and go off the deep end in the other direction. In my opinion, it’s best to have a healthy mix of posed shots and fun shots. While so many people on Flickr discuss how they try to avoid the typical cliched Castle shot, if you come home from a trip to Walt Disney World and don’t come away with a nice shot of your party in front of the Castle, you’re doing something wrong.

Get creative with your conventional posed shots. We’re terrible dancers, otherwise you might be able to tell that we are mimicking the Princess and Prince dancing.

When Sarah and I are taking pictures I usually let her choose the first pose or two for each shot, and she generally picks the classic or romantic poses. Since it’s really tough to take candid shots of both of us when I’m taking the the pictures, for the next shot, I spontaneously think something up and give her really short notice of the pose. Her poses generally turn out better because either, A) I don’t give her enough notice and the timer fires the shot before she has a pose prepared, or B) my ‘off the cuff’ idea isn’t as great when reduced to a photo as it seemed in my head. Every once in a while, though, the spontaneous ones turn out well, and when they do, they turn out really well.

5. Using foreground and background scenery to “build” a photo creates more immersive shots.

This won’t always be possible, but when you’re in a location that has some visual layers, some to position yourselves between some of those layers to make the photo more interesting. This can be a difficult one with some subjects, such as the Castle, where there isn’t much you can put in the foreground to give the shot layers. The layer doesn’t necessarily have to be in front of you, though. Even something as simple as sitting by the planter surrounding the Partners statue will make for a more layered shot than one of your party just standing in front of the camera.

Morocco is one of the best places to layer shots with its “interactive design” and beautiful architecture. This room near the rear of the pavilion provides numerous shot opportunities. For those whose skills with a flash are subpar, it’s one of the few places at night where you may not need to use a flash.

One of the things you’re looking to accomplish by layering the shots is to avoid that “green screen” look to which I alluded above. You don’t want your vacation photos to merely appear as you standing in front of a bunch of things, or to look as if you might have just cooked them up in Photoshop, so any way you can immerse yourself with your environment that may demonstrate an interaction with your surroundings will not only make for a more interesting shot, but also will make it seem like you had a more enjoyable trip. No joke. People would think you just begrudgingly went somewhere and stood in front of things, they’ll think you went somewhere and did things. That you actually partook in your surroundings. At least, I know I think these types of things when I look at vacation photos.

6. With careful composition, the fisheye and ultra wide angle lenses can be useful, otherwise, AVOID!

The ultra-wide and fisheye are becoming incredibly popular lenses within the Disney photography community. Normally, these lenses are bad choices for portraiture. They create distortion when used a certain way—distortion that the wives and girlfriends out there likely will not be too thrilled about if you use those lenses to shoot them. That said, if used carefully, these lenses can be pretty cool.

When using these lenses, it’s very important, especially with the fisheye, to center any human in the frame, to move back from them as much as possible, and to have the lens level with them. If you fail to do any of these things, you may inadvertently make your loved one look like a heifer.

Here we wouldn’t have had the space to back up enough to get this shot of all of Grauman’s without the fisheye “manufacturing” some space. The distortion serves a double-purpose, as it makes a shot with an uninteresting “green screen” pose a little cooler.

Here we introduced distortion to make a shot that might otherwise just have been weird (I mean, who lies on that dirty ground and takes a picture). Note that we centered ourselves in both of the above shots to avoid distortion.

There are a few benefits to these lenses. First, you can introduce some interesting distortion to the surroundings, and if following the above rules, you’ll be immune from the interesting distortion. This can make for some cool shots that otherwise might be fairly dull. Second, you can manufacture some distance between you and your subject, which is especially important in tight spaces. Although some of the shots ended up looking odd, and were thus deleted, I can’t tell you the number of times Sarah and I turned the fisheye on ourselves, held the camera far away, and snapped. After cropping down to get my curled arm (mostly) out of the shot, the result was usually pretty good. Similarly, the ultra-wide or fisheye can be used on-ride to get nice photos of the expression of your companion. I have countless images of Sarah on Test Track screaming out her lungs. Had I used a standard focal length, I could have gotten the shot of her screaming, but the photo wouldn’t have been as interesting, as the focal length would have precluded me from capturing the ride vehicle as well, which added important context.

7. If possible, stick people in your “creative” shots to double the bang for your buck.

This one is easy-enough: when your going around, getting your creative “Flickr-worthy” (or whatever hosting service you use) static shots, keep in the back of your mind in what shots it might be fun to include people. When you “find” such a shot, get your static shot first, then adjust the settings according to get yourself a nice artistic vacation shot. This can work especially well if you fall into a rut coming up with creative vacation shots. More importantly, it can be a great tool to include the family when they’re otherwise tapping their watches, wondering how much longer it’s going to take. If your family is enthusiastic about pictures of them, they might be more amenable to you setting up your creative shot. After all, it’s partly for them!

I spent a long time setting up this static shot of the Tower. When I finally got done, putting us into it blunted the pain of how long the setup took, as I got two shots that I really liked out of the set-up time. We used a “fun pose” of putting our arms in the air as that’s what we typically do when we ride the Tower of Terror.

Another shot I spent a good deal of time on was this (lining up everything so it was symmetrical); once I had that done, all I had to do was press the remote again a couple of times with us positioned over the camera, and presto, doubled the bang for my buck—in only about 20 seconds.

8. If using a DSLR, an external flash is a must.

Even if you’re using a DSLR equipped with a pop-up flash, you should get an external flash that attaches to the hot shoe on the top of the camera. The larger surface area of the flash makes the light somewhat softer than the pop-up flash, but more importantly, the adjustable nature of the head allows you to bounce the flash off ceilings, walls, and large individuals standing in your general vicinity (well, maybe not the last), which really softens the light. This can do wonders for human skin, as can diffusers.

Some people claim that they don’t use a flash because natural light looks better, but I think this is a lousy rationale to avoid buying one. Natural lighting sucks during midday and is nonexistent during the golden hour and beyond. Some of the best family shots are spontaneous, and you can’t choose the type of light you’ll have at those times. Moreover, I think the absolute best looking family shots at WDW are night shots. Just as the artificial lighting adds to scenery shots at nights, it adds to family shots. Problem is, it usually only illuminates structures, not the people in the shots around the structures, so a flash at night is a must for family shots.

There are other more advanced uses of the flash that can really help make for an interesting picture (do a google search for “strobist”), but those are beyond the scope of this post. About the only other thing that I would recommend considering for your external flash besides a diffuser is set of gels. These can be especially helpful to balance out white balance; I find the biggest challenge is remembering to use them. I’ve had mine for three trips and have probably used them less than 10 times.

We used a flash here to attempt to provide the proper fill; the goal was to, as much as possible, make it appear as if no flash was used.

Admittedly, flash light is the area of photography in which I struggle the most (others may disagree, claiming I struggle in all areas). This is because it can be difficult to balance exposure and flash to achieve the right level of “fill” flash so that it’s not patently obvious that you used a flash. Too little and your subject may have unflattering shadows. There also sometimes is the opposite temptation: to let loose with the flash and not worry about the accompanying exposure; indoors, this can produce an illuminated subject surrounded by a dark background. Finding the proper balance can require a lot of guessing and checking until you are satisfied. When you’re first learning to use the flash properly, this can be frustrating (at least it was/has been for me) and may dissuade you from wanting to use the flash. Over time, as with any aspect of photography, you’ll find it becomes more natural, and less guessing will be necessary. That said, even still, it’s one of the areas of photography where I find myself taking the most ‘trash’ shots. I am so thankful for the digital era of photography!

9. Delete your crumby shots before sharing pictures with others.

Anyone who has suffered who Uncle Cletus’ and Aunt Edina’s slideshow of 2,000 pictures they took on their trip to Yellowstone, of which half are duplicates or are only slight variants of other shots, and another quarter are sideways or upside down knows how painful it can be. Don’t be that person who shares every single photo. Everyone takes some bad pictures. Either delete those bad pictures before showing others, or remove them from the file with the keepers. This doesn’t really pertain to the “taking better vacation pictures” spin of this post, but it is important. If you don’t trim down your vacation photos to a manageable number before showing others, they will lose interest and stop paying attention. You wouldn’t want to negate all of the hard work that you put into using the aforementioned techniques by failing to trim down your library.

10. Take as many pictures as you can while still having fun!

Remember, you’re on vacation, relax. The entire trip should not be about playing family historian (on that same note, if all you’ve got is a little FlipHD camera or something like that, rather than waste your time recording attractions and fireworks, why not savor them, and then just download the videos? It’s not like the videos are unique to your trip. However, I’m not saying don’t record your family). Just as you may get sick of taking pictures, yet feel obligated to do so, your family may get sick of being in pictures (but yet feel obligated to do so). Do what feels natural or is right for your family. That might mean getting as few as 20 family shots in a weeklong trip. That sounds like heresy for me, but for some, any more would be unbearable. Regardless of what anything above said, always remember the vacation is about relaxing, so don’t embrace the other rules at the expense of actually relaxing. Another one of those intuitive ones, but I figured I’d add it since I’d rather have an even ten rules than nine.

So there you have them: my unofficial rules for family photography at Walt Disney World. I think that by following these rules, you come home with a lot more satisfying vacation photos. I realize some of the rules are written in a rather pointed manner, and I doubt anyone will agree with everything I’ve said (I’ll be satisfied if I bat around .400), so I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter. With which rules do you disagree? What have I left out that should be etched into stone? What other comments do you have. Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!


  1. Matt Pasant   |   Aug 13, 2010

    As good of a photographer as I think you are, my belief is this where you shine. the genuine joy and love comes through. And I enjoy seeing you try new things. You’ll look back on these for decades and smile.

  2. Keith Kolmos   |   Aug 13, 2010

    Great post. I saw all the pictures in your honeymoon trip report, but reading these tips made them all seem new again. You’re a great photographer and a pretty good writer too!

  3. Robby Bennett   |   Aug 13, 2010

    I will agree with Matt on this. You have incredible static shots, but the way you incorporate yourself and Sarah into the shots are great!

  4. Larry White   |   Aug 13, 2010

    Tom this is a GREAT post. Thanks for the reminder of why we go to Disney. I’m guilty of getting of not getting enough shots with the family!

  5. Cody   |   Aug 13, 2010

    Awesome post, Tom. You are the master of capturing the memories! I am taking these tips to heart for my boys’ first trips coming up.

  6. Samantha Decker   |   Aug 13, 2010

    Tom, your trip reports on the DisBoards, occasional “family shots” on Flickr, and post right here, always amaze me – you’ve got a knack for family photography! I love what you’re doing with that fisheye!

  7. Christian Lambert   |   Aug 13, 2010

    Amazing shots. I can;t imagine how long it takes to type things up that are this long.

  8. Ryan Pastorino   |   Aug 14, 2010

    So awesome…

    • Bob Kennedy   |   Aug 15, 2010

      Great article. As the designated family photographer on our trips, I’m always searching for ways to keep things fresh. You gave me a lot to think about – especially in terms of character shots. Many thanks!

  9. ColleenG   |   Aug 18, 2010

    Tom, what a great article. My kids get so sick of posing for pictures on our trips. Your tips will be so valuable on our next trip. Hopefully the kids will smile some more.

  10. Doug Norris (Photogineer)   |   Aug 22, 2010

    You know this is the best part of photography. The fact that no matter how much you think you know there is always something to learn. I am so guilty of not being in most shots and as I go back I sometime wish I was. I think this is a new goal of mine to be in more and make it look like I am having fun. (which I always am). Thanks for the reminder.

  11. Todd Hurley   |   Aug 23, 2010

    Great entry, Tom. Thanks for offering up advice on how to maintain creativity while still including family members (and yourself) in the shots. I definitely plan to try some of these things during our next trip.

  12. Susan   |   Sep 1, 2010

    Great article Tom…sure looks like you & Sarah have lots of fun. :-)

  13. DonnaMac   |   May 8, 2012

    This is a great article, I am a serious amateur photographer. I found photography at Disney to be like a shoot out at the OK coral. You better be quick and you better be fast or you will get killed. Dead, murdered by these electric scooters not paying attention where they are going (I was nearly taken out twice and I was not in a high traffic area) and these mad mamas who have had it with their bad kids and are willing to take you right out with their stroller just to drown out their screaming kids. I took you advice because of the crowd and went tight. But setting up any picture requires you to be aware of your surroundings at all times or your equipment will be destroyed.



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