Disney Photography Blog

Disney World Fireworks: Off the Beaten Path

By Katie Marino on April 22nd, 2011   |    Posted in:  Disney Photo Tips   |    14 Comments

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.

Disney fireworks photography from Main Street USA

This is one of the best frames from my first attempt at Disney fireworks photography.

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.

Disney Hallowishes Fireworks Photography

Hallowishes, October 2010

Disney Fireworks Photography, Holiday Wishes

Holiday Wishes, December 2010

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!

Disney Fireworks Photography

Taken from the Ticket & Transportation Center

Disney Fireworks Photography

This is the same burst sequence as is posted above, from Main Street. Compare the difference in the size of the bursts.

Disney Fireworks Photography

You can capture incredible reflections from the TTC

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!

14 Comments

  1. Greg Stevenson   |   Apr 22, 2011

    I love seeing fireworks shots from your alternative locations. Hope you keep posting them.

  2. Tom Bricker   |   Apr 22, 2011

    Awesome shots. It’s tough for me to justify watching the fireworks from non-prime locations, as you can’t hear the soundtrack as well, or the view isn’t the best, and I’m primarily watching them because I love fireworks. Shooting them comes secondary, so I don’t mind having a catalog of redundant shots. In other words, I’m glad others are out there capturing the unique angles for me to see!

    • Katie Marino   |   Apr 22, 2011

      Tom, I definitely hear what you’re saying. For me, I’m a very visual person and when I am focused on a task, I tend to not hear what is going on around me anyway- I’m not musically gifted like Cory :) So for me, I hear very little of the show anyway because I’m so in the zone. If I wasn’t shooting the show, I’d be distracted and probably miss most of it anyway so that’s one of the things I love about photography- it focuses my attention somewhere. I’m the first to admit that what works for me is not what works for everyone :) That being said, I doubt I would watch the fireworks from a hard ticket event from an alternate location-if it’s a one shot deal and I’m paying extra, it’s Main Street for me (although with the amount of castle bursts in the specialty shows, I think it would be really interesting to see the show from the other side of the castle).

  3. Robert Acosta   |   Apr 22, 2011

    Great article. I’ve shot fireworks at WDW on just about every trip, but I never tried shooting from other locations. I’ll have to try that the next time I go.

  4. Paul Gowder   |   Apr 22, 2011

    Thanks to your shots and others like Larry and Katie, I shot Wishes from the TTC last might for the first time. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Scott Thomas Photography   |   Apr 25, 2011

    Katie,

    From the TTC, what kind of lens do you recommend?

    I’ve been seeing all of your and others alternative firework locations in the parks. Have it on my To Shoot list for my fall trips. So, I will be very interested in your follow up articles here.

    Scott

    • Katie Marino   |   Apr 28, 2011

      Scott- I shot at 70mm, landscape, hoping to be able to catch the perimeter bursts. That was not wide enough for the perimeter bursts. I ended up cropping most of the shots to a portrait view. If I shoot there again, I’ll either use a longer focal length and shoot portrait or shoot very wide, landscape, solely for the perimeter bursts (assuming a special event show). I know a lot of other people have shot from the TTC, I’d be interested to see what focal length others have used.

  6. Bob Desmond   |   Apr 28, 2011

    Good article, Katie. I agree with everything that you say here. Also, your photos look great! This is a good read for beginner and advanced photographer alike. Bob D.

  7. Laurie Schaerer   |   Aug 15, 2011

    I’m very late reading this article. I’ve just found your website – what a treat. I’m going to be at WDW the last week of Sept., and probably will not be doing MNSSHP, but I would like to get some great Hallowishes shots. On one night of the party, we will be eating at OHana’s, and I had planned on taking photos from The Polynesian beach. Are the photographic opportunities better at TTC than The Polynesian?

    • Katie Marino   |   Aug 19, 2011

      Laurie- I wouldn’t say that they are better- they are just different and it depends on what you want. At the TTC, you will see the castle straight on and you will be able to see the train station and some lights of the entrance area. At the Polynesian, you are little more angled towards the castle so the symmetry is just a touch off. Also, the top half of the castle is visible above trees. If you’re already at the Polynesian, I’d probably stay there just to minimize running around but either way, it will be a great show and a great time.

  8. Laurie Schaerer   |   Aug 19, 2011

    Katie – Thanks for your response. I really love your photos from TTC. It’s just a short walk from The Polynesian so I’m thinking I may give that a try. (I’ll probably need the walk after a meal a OHana’s).

  9. Andy   |   Jan 16, 2012

    I just found this blog. I’m local. (an hour away) and would never have thought to shoot from the TTC, I was gonna try bay lake and just skip the castle shot. We just got a DSLR on Saturday. What iso and settings should i use? I’ve never shot fireworks with a dslr before, just a point and shoot, but i’ve set the iso long so I could get some cool fx. Any help you can give is appreciated hard core!

    THANKS!

    • Andy   |   Jan 16, 2012

      I just found this blog. I’m local. (an hour away) and would never have thought to shoot from the TTC, I was gonna try bay lake and just skip the castle shot. We just got a DSLR on Saturday. What iso and settings should i use? I’ve never shot fireworks with a dslr before, just a point and shoot, but i’ve set the iso long so I could get some cool fx. Any help you can give is appreciated hard core!

  10. Tonya Holcomb   |   Jan 30, 2013

    Thank you Katie! I shot images from the Tomorrowland bridge b/c I wanted a picture of Tinkerbell as well. I will shoot from the TTC next trip.

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