Disney World Fireworks: Off the Beaten Path
I love shooting fireworks. Walt Disney World is always magical but there’s something extra special about that moment at night when the music begins and the sky comes alive with color.
I love the story of the show, I love the electricity in the air and, most of all, I love the challenge of capturing this magic with my camera.
My first attempt to photograph fireworks was in May 2010. I was nervous about setting up a tripod in the park and uncertain where to stand. I set up very early and chose a conservative spot, at the end of Main Street in front of the Roy and Minnie statue. I carefully checked my “How To” notes, and, soon enough, the show started and I began shooting. My timing was poor, I kept the shutter open much too long and I blew out the highlights in most of my exposures. But I had a absolute blast- and I was hooked.
Since that trip a year ago, I have been fortunate to make several more trips to Walt Disney World and to have many more opportunities to shoot fireworks. With each attempt, I have improved my timing and have become more comfortable. I am still far from an expert but as I continue to learn, I have started to take a few pictures that I am proud to share.
As I started to have some success, I realized that it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to keep re-shooting the same frames. As a result, I began to vary my location. Shooting fireworks from different locations is a risky experiment- not every location that I have chosen has been successful- but it’s always been exciting and fun. Sometimes, I will chose a spot that is a complete bust, requiring me to pick up my tripod and run. Other times, I find that I have chosen something interesting but, due to the placement of some of the bursts, the location will only yield a few useable frames per show. Still, I would rather take the risk to capture a few unique photos than continue to re-shoot dozens with the same composition.
Please don’t misunderstand me- there’s nothing wrong with shooting Wishes from Main Street and Illuminations from the entrance to the World Showcase. These shows are meant to be viewed and enjoyed from these locations. The pictures taken from these standard spots have great impact. Even with the number of times I’ve seen Wishes, I still like to shoot on Main Street at least once a trip. However, if you’re looking to add some variety and spice things up a bit, here are some of my tips for finding a good location.
Preparation is essential to scouting out a good location. In order to chose a pleasing composition, you will need some sense of where the bursts will appear. If you’ve never seen Wishes from a location other than Main Street, you’ll be surprised at how far away from the castle some of the bursts actually originate and you may be surprised at where they appear in the sky in different locations. Facing the front of the castle, the closer you are to the castle, the smaller and lower the large bursts appear. Further away, like at the Ticket and Transportation Center, they are high and huge, filling the sky. In Fantasyland, the large bursts come from behind Dumbo. Deep in Frontierland, they appear over the dock at Tom Sawyer’s Island. At the exit to Thunder Mountain, the bursts appears to the right of the mountain.
I like to start considering my location early in the day. As I work my way around the park in my usual touring, I think about where the bursts might appear, based on the direction I’ve seen them in other locations, and I consider what type of foreground might be interesting. By considering this early, I don’t have to go out of my way and waste prime touring time- I just make it part of my thinking as I enjoy the day in the park.
If you have a smartphone, it will come in really handy here. I have all my photos on smugmug so if I’m trying to remember where the bursts appeared in a location, I can pull up a photo that I’ve previously taken. I may also pull up a friend’s Flickr site to see another view and use that to extrapolate where the bursts may be.
I’ll also ask Cast Members for advice. After all, they have seen these shows often and from many different locations. I’ve learned to be very specific with my questions. I’ve found that if I ask a Cast Member at the Magic Kingdom where Wishes appears in the sky, I frequently get the answer, “Main Street. You should go to Main Street”. At Epcot, the same question is usually answered with, “The bursts appear over the lagoon”. Be specific- after all, they are used to answering these questions for the general public, not someone with your photographic vision. Instead, ask “If I am standing in this spot when Wishes starts, where in the sky will I see the bursts?” Respect their opinions but take them with a grain of salt. Someone who is not a photographer will try to guide you to an obstructed view. My goal is not an unobstructed view, but a view with an interesting foreground.
Consider the crowd and the park hours when you chose a spot. On a very crowded day, Main Street will be mobbed. To secure a choice spot, you may need to stake out your area long before the show. To avoid wasting precious touring time, crowded nights are often good nights to consider alternative locations. However, some alternate locations also are difficult on heavily crowded nights. For example, when the park closes early, Fantasyland is quiet during Wishes. On a late closing night, however, it is still quite busy. On a night like this, you run the risk of having your tripod knocked over if you set up in Fantasyland. Also, the busy crowd may appear blurred and chaotic during your long exposure, distracting from the foreground you are trying to create.
Another important skill, if you are going to make a habit of shooting in alternative locations, is to be familiar with the show. Learn its rhythm and the sequences. This is especially important if you are planning to watch the show from a location where you cannot hear the musical cues. YouTube is a great tool to use for this. I like to watch Wishes on You Tube while I’m on the elliptical; it also really helps pass the time!
When you arrive at your spot, before the show starts, take some exposures of the scene. It is very likely that the exposure time of your foreground will be much longer than that which is needed to properly expose the bursts so your final product may require multiple exposures. I run some brackets on the foreground so that I have everything I need if, in processing, I decide that I want to use a different exposure for the foreground or perhaps create and HDR of the scene to combine with the exposure for the bursts. I recommend taking these exposures ahead of time, rather than waiting until after the show, in case you decide to move your tripod mid-show to recompose. That way, you have the exposures from that original spot and can then bracket some additional exposures for the new spot after the show ends.
Once the show starts, assess the situation. If you are not composed correctly, move! Better to miss the beginning of the show than to shoot the entire show with a composition that is not pleasing to you. One word of advice, though- do this quickly and then stick with a composition, rather than continuing to move. This is especially important in the locations where the show appears split, meaning the castle bursts are in one direction and the high bursts are in another. I have a bad habit of continuing to turn my tripod to catch shots of each direction. Really, it is better to shoot one direction well than grab mediocre shots from each direction.
I’ve started to accumulate a collection of fireworks shots from various locations and in future posts, I will show some of those shots and discuss a little bit about the location choice and the processing of these photos. For now, to conclude this article, I thought I would throw in a few shots from an off-Main Street location that is done quite frequently- the Ticket and Transportation Center, by the Ferry Dock. The TTC is a wonderful place to shoot Wishes, especially if you are looking for a less crowded location or trying to dash to another park after the show. They pipe the music in here so you still get the full effect of the show and the view here gives you an idea of how large the bursts really are. Also, I have found that it is a great place to watch the special event fireworks. On one trip, I really wanted to see Hallowishes more than once but I was only planning to attend one Halloween Party. So, I caught the show at the TTC and was able to see it a second time, for free! I highly recommend watching and shooting Wishes from the TTC- it will not disappoint!
Thanks for reading and feel free to share some of your own tips for finding a location for fireworks in the comments below. I have many fun locations to share with you in upcoming articles so stay tuned!