Disney Photography Blog

Dark Ride Photography Tips: Haunted Mansion

By Adam Hansen on October 15th, 2013   |    Posted in:  Daily Disney Photo   |    17 Comments

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.

Cory Disbrow

Haunted Mansion - Cory

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!

Ryan Pastorino

IMG_2370

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!

Alan Rappaport

P9170775

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…

Adam Hansen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

17 Comments

  1. MarkWDW85   |   Oct 15, 2013

    Awesome article, guys!

    I think I may have been the one to post the tip Adam’s referring to on Flickr, though credit for that tip goes to Todd Hurley (care of Episode 22 of ISO5571). Even with that tip, getting a usable shot of the Hitchhikers is still a very a difficult task (for me, anyway) but a very fun challenge.

    • Adam Hansen   |   Oct 15, 2013

      That sounds about right, and it makes sense that a dark ride tip would originate with Todd Hurley! :)

  2. DreGGs   |   Oct 15, 2013

    You all forgot one huge “tip”..

    Hope for the ride to stop :p

    But yeah..you guys are dead on. Fast primes, high iso, and luck :)

    • Adam Hansen   |   Oct 15, 2013

      Funny you should mention that! The last time it stopped twice which was great, the only problem was it didn’t stop in a good location for photos. If you get lucky though and your vehicle stops in a great spot, that is a great time to lower your ISO and get a nice clean shot!

      • DreGGs   |   Oct 16, 2013

        Its also not too much of a hassle to have a monopod set up for this ride. This is when I’m glad I have the MeFoto roadtrip..it converts to a monopod easily!

  3. Mitch   |   Oct 15, 2013

    Thanks for this excellent post guys! I use a Nikon D5100 with the Sigma 30mm 1.4 and ISO 6400 with primarily manual focus on this ride. Shutter speed between 1/60 and 1/125. I rarely get anything usable aside from the floating head lady and the ghoul at the end that joins your ride vehicle. I love taking photos in the queue, but photographing Haunted Mansion is just an insane task .. that is, unless you ride vehicle breaks down. Then you can go nuts!

  4. Alan Rappaport   |   Oct 15, 2013

    They should amend the breakdown spiel to include, “photographers, start going nuts!” because anytime my Doombuggy comes to a ‘dead’ stop I start firing away like a madman.

  5. Todd Hurley   |   Oct 16, 2013

    Yeah, the best way to capture the Hitchhiking Ghosts is to set your camera shutter to burst mode, auto-focus on the singing busts and lock focus, sit tight and then fire off a burst sequence when they come into view.

    The guys above already have great tips. Some other tips that I can think of off the top of my head are:
    1. Be sure to use custom functions (or shooting banks) if your camera supports them. This is meant to be used in case of a ride stop to at least get you closer to ideal settings without having to fiddle around with multiple buttons on the fly (and in the dark). I suggest a CF manual setting where aperture is f/2.8, shutter speed around 1/4 second, and lower the ISO to around 3200. At 1/4 second, you’ll need to brace the camera on the front doombuggy railing (and switch to Live view for manual focusing if possible). You can also lean back into the doombuggy to help brace yourself or brace the camera against the side of the doombuggy.

    2. The success rate for shooting dark rides is low so, if you’re attempting it for the first time, don’t get discouraged if you come away with nothing the first few tries. If nothing else, it’s a great way to get to know your equipment and work on fundamental exposure skills.

    3. Try single point auto focus on bright parts of scenes (eg. candle lights) first (focus and recompose the shot). Then, if you find you’re not having success with AF, switch to manual focus.

    4. Instead of using your camera’s expanded ISO settings, use it’s highest native ISO and then set exposure compensation to -1EV to allow yourself some head room in post to manually boost exposure. The advantage here is that you should be able to control the noise a little better in post than if you max out your camera’s ISO and let it boost the signal in camera. The downside to doing this is that you likely won’t be able to capture a lot of the dimly lit surroundings (like the table in the seance room) but the upside is that you’ll probably end up with a cleaner image and you won’t blow highlights (the seance room and the bride scene in the attic are two places where this technique works well).

    Good luck! I wish I could make it down there this weekend to meet everyone.

    • DreGGs   |   Oct 16, 2013

      To give an addon to your first point…you can also use a camera bag resting on your lap as a “table” to rest your camera on…thats what I typically do…see example:

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/dreggs/9538193762/

    • Alan Rappaport   |   Oct 16, 2013

      All great tips Todd, thanks. I’m going to try your Hitchiking Ghosts method, as I am still coming up empty when shooting those guys.

      And yes, yes, YES to #4. I learned this the hard way.

  6. Alexander John   |   Oct 16, 2013

    Did you get scared taking these pictures? Gosh, I know it’s a good example but I wouldn’t want to be in there…Just saying your brave!

  7. Greg Stevenson   |   Oct 17, 2013

    This ride kicks my butt every time. Thanks for the great tips.

  8. Wedding Photographers Melbourne   |   Oct 18, 2013

    This is one of the best blogs I have read.

  9. Cammi   |   Oct 22, 2013

    Rats, my camera (50D) only goes up to 3200 ISO. Lost cause for me? I have a 35mm 1.4 lens to use.

  10. TJ   |   Nov 10, 2013

    So much to learn! I’m assuming you are all speaking english, but i don’t understand a word of it, lol. Hopefully someday I will after I read some other pages here :)

  11. Sam   |   Nov 11, 2013

    I wanted to say thanks for this great article! Due to it, I walked away with a shot of two of the hitchhiking ghosts on the Haunted Mansion! I was shooting with a 50mm/f1.8 on a Canon crop body which obviously was too tight to get all 3 in the shot but I’m just happy that my first try of shooting Haunted Mansion (and really my first try of dark ride shooting ever!) I walked away with such an awesome shot! Thanks to the tips from this blog :)

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