Dark Ride Photography Tips: Haunted Mansion
We are back with another Disney Photography Tips article, only this time we are doing things a little bit different. We had planned an article on just dark ride photography with each of us sharing our approach. We decided to go into a bit more detail though and have separate articles for the different dark ride attractions at Disney. To get things started today, we are focusing on the Haunted Mansion.
If you have any tips on shooting the Haunted Mansion, be sure to include them in the comments below. We enjoy sharing our approach but like to hear what your plan normally is also.
I swear, these photo tip topics keep getting harder and harder. I think for the next one, Adam might ask me about photographing Kilimanjaro Safaris while riding a zebra instead of a safari vehicle. Haunted Mansion is one of the hardest Disney photo subjects. If there are any good tips I can share, they would be definitely to use the fastest lens you have, preferably in the 35-50mm range. Anything tighter than that would make the compositions difficult. For example, I have a 35mm f/1.4 and a 50mm f/1.4 which are both pretty solid for Mansion shooting. When I shoot this ride, I also have my ISO pretty high. This ride is far darker than say Pirates or Mermaid, so I tend to hover in the ISO 6400 and above world. I usually try to stop around ISO 12800. This is going to cause quite a bit of noise. I normally use noise reduction on a shot from this ride, but if you use too much, it looks too smooth and you start to lose detail. So, some of that noise is just part of shooting environments that you basically need night vision for. The other major key for the Haunted Mansion is manual focus. My 5D Mark III with its ridiculous AF system gets tricked 99% of the time on this ride, so manually focusing is just easier. I find that if you find infinity on your manual focus ring, and then turn it back just a tiny bit, you’ll have a good starting point for the distance between you and the ghouls. I try to set a shutter speed and aperture and then fire off a bunch of shots while adjusting the manual focus ring in between each shot, hoping to all things sacred that I get a winner!
I agree with Cory. Haunted Mansion is a tough one. I would definitely go with the fastest lens you own. Luckily, one of the cheapest lenses out there is one of the best options for this ride. Yup, the “nifty fifty”, or “fantastic plastic” will be your friend here. Yes, I’m talking about a ~$100 lens for Nikon or Canon. Sorry, I admit I’m not familiar with options for other brands.
Anyway, my approach to Haunted Mansion is very similar to shooting nighttime parades for the same reasons I explained in our article about shooting Boo to You. I shoot in manual mode with my cheap 50mm f/1.8 lens attached and will select ISO 6400, the max usable ISO on my 5D Mark II. The combination of the cheap lens and my 5 year-old 5D2, focusing in the dark is nearly impossible. Manual focus is a good way to go as Cory suggestion, otherwise your camera might be hunting for focus and you could miss the shot. However, our friend Todd Hurley has discussed this before and suggested finding a light source near the subject and prefocus on the light source since the camera uses light to autofocus. You have to be quick, whichever method you choose. Those darn doom buggies seem to shift whenever you are focus and composed and ready to carefully hit that shutter while holding your breath to avoid camera shake. It never fails. So get to know the behavior of the doom buggies and anticipate their movement. Keeping an eye on the one in front of you is a good way to know when your chair is about to shift.
A good place to start in the low light environment is the stretching room and the queue leading to the loading station. Especially at Disneyland where some of the elements (following busts, for example) are before you load into your doom buggy. Then once you are on the ride, set your camera to it’s absolute limits and see what you can get. Then ride it again, and again, and again, and then ten more times because that’s probably how many times it will take to get a handful of keepers. Ok maybe, maybe not but my point is it will probably take multiple tries before you get something you like. If I can successfully shoot just one scene per ride, I am happy. Even better if each ride I can nail a different scene than before.
In post-processing, a good noise reduction plugin is ideal to help battle the noise from using high ISOs. Your best bet is to just go with it in terms of shadows. Keep dark areas dark. Boosting exposure or opening shadows only exaggerates the noise problems and can actually introduce even more noise or unwanted artifacts. Keep the darks dark, and aim to keep those highlights, often really bright and colorful, in check.
With some practice and a few dozen rides, you should have no problem getting some keepers!
In order to properly shoot the Haunted Mansion you’ll need to take your tripod, super zoom, neutral density filters and lock them up and throw away the key. Instead, when visiting the 999 happy haunts, the fastest lens in your kit is going to be king. In my case, I turn to my trusty 25mm f/1.4 (50mm equivalent).
As all mortals know, there is a scant amount of light in the Haunted Mansion. This requires you to squeeze your camera’s sensitivities as far as possible. Opening your lens to its widest aperture, and sending your ISO into the stratosphere will help with your exposure leaving you to balance your shutter speed & focus for sharp shots.
My approach is to use shutter priority, and start with the slowest shutter speed I can realistically hand hold. I’ll adjust my shutter faster if the scene allows for it, while leaving my ISO on auto to balance out the exposure. I also use spot metering with my center AF point selected so my camera is calculating based on my subject and not the entire scene. This is helpful when shooting bright spooks such as Madame Leota or the singing busts.
If shooting RAW, you’ll be able to eeek out a bit more of your exposure in post – but keep an eye on how much additional noise you’re introducing into your shot.
The Haunted Mansion is a tough dark ride, if not the toughest to shoot. You’re just about shooting in the dark – but thanks to improvements in camera technology getting a good photo from the mansion no longer costs you your soul. Like any other aspect of photography, shooting on dark rides takes time and practice – so stick with it but no flash pictures… please…
I love photographing the Haunted Mansion, not because I always walk away with great shots, but because it means I can ride the attraction! It is my favorite attraction in the Magic Kingdom and probably in all of Walt Disney World. At this point, there are a few scenes that I am always attempting to capture, but many that I now admit I should just put the camera down and enjoy. For example, I know I am never going to get the caretaker with his dog, but it seems that every ride I am still trying to focus on him as we turn that corner.
There are two classic Haunted Mansion shots that I have yet to capture the way I have hoped and they have become the main challenge for me each time I ride. The first is the five singing busts in the graveyard scene. It seems I can focus and get three of them in the frame without a problem, but when you only have a split second to frame the shot to include all five, well I never can do that! The other shot I am always after is the hitchhiking ghosts that appear when you leave the graveyard. On the last trip, I actually came close to finally getting this one, in fact looking at the screen on my camera I thought I did. The shot was framed perfectly, they were in focus, but I had the ISO too high on my Olympus OM-D E-M5 and there was just way too much noise in the final image (for my liking). These are two shots that I will be working on each time we step on the attraction during PhotoMagic!
I remember reading a tip on Flickr (I forget who posted it right now, sorry) for capturing the hitchhiking ghosts. It said to focus on the singing busts and lock your focus, then when you turn the corner for the hitchhiking ghosts, you will already be focused and ready to shoot. This is what I had tried the last time and it seemed to work well, except for the fact that I should have known better to have the ISO as high as I did.
I agree with Cory, Ryan and Alan about using your fastest lens and that a 50mm lens is great for this ride. I have a 25mm f/1.4 (50mm equivalent) that I have used with good results. I end up going on the attraction many times in one trip though, so I usually try to do things a bit different on some rides. For example, I ended up trying a wide angle lens on one ride to see if I could come up with anything unique (it was a waste of time, don’t bother!). I also took one ride using my 75mm f/1.8 (150mm equivalent) to try for one single shot that I had in mind. I wanted to get a closeup of Madame Leoata, which is another of those classic shots. The photo that I ended up with is posted above and I was very happy with the results. My point is to definitely use the best tools you have available if you will only be on the ride once or twice, but if you get to go on multiple times (and this goes for any attraction), don’t be afraid to put on a different lens and try to come up with something a little bit different. I am reminded of an article that Todd Hurley wrote for us recently about creative dark ride photography, it is definitely worth reading if you haven’t already.
More Disney Dark Ride Articles
Speaking of Todd Hurley, be sure to also check out his three part series on dark ride photography at Disney. He gets into the details of which settings to use, gear and tips for each ride.