A Guide to Action Photography at a Disney Park

By Scott Thomas on February 20th, 2012   |    Posted in:  Disney Photo Tips   |    Comments Off

We are excited to have Scott Thomas contribute today on the blog. Scott also appears on this weeks episode of ISO 5571 – A Disney Photography Podcast (Episode 7). Be sure to listen to the episode by visiting www.ISO5571.com or subscribing through iTunes for free to hear Scott discuss action photography with Cory Disbrow, Ryan Pastorino and Tom Bricker.

Disney Action Photography

Action photography is fun to do at a Disney themepark. There is always something moving from rides, attractions, transportation, live and audio-animatronic shows to people walking down Main Street. I photograph action three different ways: Stop Action, Blurs and Panning. Each one has its challenges and rewards. A little forethought and planning helps to get the best results and practicing each technique can help boost your success rate.

As I want to control the capture of moving subjects, I use Shutter Priority mode to accomplish this. I can freeze, blur or show movement by panning the camera by altering the amount of time the shutter is left open.


Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

To stop or freeze the action is a great way to stop time and see all the detail of the moment. Detail missed when watching the action. Take this scene from the Indiana Jones Stunt Show in Disney’s Hollywood Studios which is a fast paced, action filled. Actors are tumbling, jumping and attacking Indy. The extras are cheering, clapping and yelling in the background. That’s a lot to take in.

By using a fast shutter speed I was able to stop the action at the peak moment as one of Indy’s attackers is sent over his head. It stopped the two attackers coming up from behind him and the “crowd” is going wild in the background. This gives us a chance to study how the stunt actors have choreographed a split second of the show. Notice Indy’s hand is supporting and helping the tumbler over his head as he ducks to give clearance. It’s really fun to photograph the fight scenes to see how “close” the punches really come.


Guests ride Expedition Everest in Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Guests ride Expedition Everest in Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Blurs are something we all have gotten accidentally. The trick is to intentionally create photo with blurs which show motion in a still image. For Expedition EVEREST in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I observed the ride for a few minutes so I knew when the ride vehicle would appear (hint, you can see the first flashes of the on-ride camera going off just before it appears out the of the cave). Unlike a show, a ride gives you lots of time to experiment. I photographed this with fast and slow shutter speeds. This photo was taken at 1/15th of a second and gave a nice blur showing the speed of the plunge. Yet, you can still tell it is a coaster. If I had had a tripod, I might have tried even slower shutter speeds. Oh, and stop action was fun here, too. You can zoom in and see everyone’s reaction to the drop. Fun!

Remember to include interesting foreground and background elements to compare the fast, blurred subject with its static surroundings. The wooden idols around the viewing area of Expedition EVEREST were perfect in this case.


Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show viewed from the VIP seating area thanks to Tim Devine during Pixelmania!

Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show viewed from the VIP seating area thanks to Tim Devine during Pixelmania!

Panning is the most difficult of the action photography techniques. Unlike stop action and blurs when you want to keep your camera as still as possible. In panning, you want to track the moving object with your camera’s lens causing the background and foreground to “move” in the frame while keeping your subject still relative to the camera. To do this you keep your lower body still while turning at the waist. If you are sitting close to other people, make sure you have enough room as to not hit someone as you smoothly swing your camera and lens. It helps to have your elbows in tight to your body. Keep your subject in the frame in the same area as you pan. Squeeze the shutter and continue to track the subject even after the shutter has opened. Following through as you would in bowling or golf.

To get a good panned photo, you want to use a slow shutter speed in proportion to the moving subject you are photographing. For the Lights, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt Show in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, I have found 1/125th of a second to give good results. It leaves the background, foreground AND the spinning wheels of the cars and motorcycles blurred even when you get them sharp in the image. This gives the sense of speed. If you shoot this show with fast shutter speeds, the moving cars look static and uninteresting.

It normally takes a lot of panning attempts to get a few good ones and is one technique I highly recommend people practice. For slower subjects, go to a nearby park where people are biking, skating, jogging and running. Start with a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second and go slower as you improve your technique. For fast subjects, look to a local race track or, even better, a dragstrip. The cars run all day and give lots of opportunities for good results.

A word on continuous or burst mode. This is the setting on your camera when you press the shutter down and it continues to trip the shutter as long as you hold it down or until your camera’s memory buffer fills up. I use this mode in photographing sports and shows. You still need to anticipate the action or know when the action will happen. For Disney shows, I use youTube to study the shows and learn by the music or preceding action what is coming, can get ready for it and CLICK!

The Hero car jumps thru fire in the finale of the Light, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt Show in Disney's Hollywood Studios.

The Hero car jumps thru fire in the finale of the Light, Motors, Action Extreme Stunt Show in Disney's Hollywood Studios.



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