Photographing night time parades can seem like a daunting task. The bright lights, moving vehicles and characters, camera settings, and the decision of which focal all combine for one challenging photographic proposition. However, it does not need to be. Instead, think of it as a sort of “reverse dark ride.” Instead of your ride vehicle moving, the subject is moving. The big advantage to that is that it’s pretty difficult to get a fat lip while photographing night parades because you got whipped around while turning to get a shot of the city of London. (Big Ben moves at a much slower and more predictable pace in Main Street Electrical Parade!)
While there’s that upside, the downside is that the crazy dancing of some characters in night parades is much faster and more unpredictable than the movement of a ride vehicle or audio animatronics on rides. This means you either need faster shutter speeds for the parades, or you have to be willing to deal with some slight motion blur in the extremities of characters. (Something with which I’m perfectly fine so long as the rest of the character is crisp; since these characters do move, motion blur can be a good thing to demonstrate their animated-ness!)
Despite these crazy characters, surprisingly, fast glass is not absolutely essential for most night parades. Maybe essential only in the way that flossing your teeth daily is essential. (Sorry, dentists.) I’ll cover why this is a common misconception more below. I would assume, though, that most people have a lens capable of doing at least f/4; you will want to use that speed of lens, or faster. For the most part, people use 30-50mm primes (f/1.4 or f/1.8) on these parades, but consider going a different route. Use that 70-200mm f/2.8 to get tight portrait shots of the characters on the parade! Use a fisheye to capture an army of toy soldiers! The point is that, as with any type of photography, think outside the box a bit to get shots different from the same ones everyone else has.
Reasonable minds will vary on this one, but I like to go with aperture priority one or two stops above wide open, not exceeding f/4, with auto ISO (setting a base and a minimum shutter speed). Invariably, when I photograph night parades, I set my minimum shutter speed too low. I have made this mistake so many times that I don’t know why I still do it. Perhaps starting out with the D40 has ingrained a fear of ever going above ISO 800 in my head, as I frequently end up with shots where the ISO is 400, but the shutter speed is around 1/50th. If you have a camera made in the last two years, there’s little reason for this. Your base ISO should be ISO 800 and your ceiling should be ISO 1600 (for those with upper level models, consider ISO 3200 as your ceiling).
Your minimum shutter speed will depend largely upon your chosen lens. If you’re using a fisheye or a wider focal length, you can go slower. If you’re using a telephoto, you need to go faster. This is because the longer the focal length, the more any little camera movement is exaggerated. Or something like that. The reason why it happens is immaterial; what matters is knowing that it happens, and knowing how to deal with it. Even though I don’t always follow this, my ideal minimum shutter speed is 1/125th of a second for anything above 30mm, and 1/100th of a second for anything below 30mm. If you’re using a non-VR or IS telephoto, you should go for 1/150th of a second. If you can’t push the shutter speed that high, at least shoot on burst mode so you increase your chances of getting a crisp shot (I shoot in burst regardless; there are so many danged characters moving all over the place that so many of the variables in getting a good shot are beyond your control).
With these parameters entered for your camera, you next have to determine how your camera will calculate the exposure. I always use center-weighted metering. This means the meter concentrates 60-80 percent of the sensitivity in the center of the frame. The balance then tails off towards the edges. Since most of the time the parade float, character, or whatever you’re photographing is in the center of the frame, this is how you should have your camera determine the exposure. If you use matrix metering, you’re likely to have the character or float–especially in Main Street Electrical Parade or SpectroMagic!–be overexposed. I usually also dial in my exposure compensation to -.7 to err on the side of safety, because I can bring detail out of the darkness, but I can’t generally recover blown highlights too well.
The final technical consideration involves an age old debate that has raged among photographers for years: to flash, or not to flash. I fall firmly on the side of the camp that does not use flash for any nighttime parade. Putting aside the questions of whether it ruins the illusion of the parades (it does) and is disrespectful to the performers and other guests (it is), it’s not necessary! If you do everything else right, flash during night parades is absolutely unnecessary. On top of that, if you’re the selfish type who doesn’t care about the three above-mentioned points, it makes shots look worse. I know there are probably those out there reading who will state, “If used properly as fill, it can add to the shot.” I suppose we’re all entitled to our opinions, but I wholeheartedly disagree with that sentiment. I have yet to see a night parade photo with any level of flash used that: 1) I could not tell the flash was used to accomplish, and 2) was as good as a quality shot where the flash was not used. Just say no to flash during night parades.
This brings us to location. Above all else, location is king. Location is paramount to enjoyment and quality of photographs of a parade. Although Christmas in the woods is beautiful at Wilderness Lodge, the same cannot be said for Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade in Frontierland, or photos thereof. In addition to this, choosing the right location can mean substantial advantages in the amount of light in the frame. This is why the necessity of fast lenses for night parades is faulty. Depending on how you position yourself, there can be a substantial amount of light in the frame. Certainly significant amounts more than you’ll find in the typical dark ride scene. While the frame is pretty dark as the Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade crosses over the bridge to Liberty Square, that same scene would be considerably brighter on Main Street, USA, under all of the lights of the buildings, and the Christmas lights strung overhead.
This is not to say there aren’t advantages to shooting in poorly lit locations. When you’re using a wider lens to try to capture an entire float, or you really want to isolate your subject, few methods are as effective as setting them against a black background. While this may push your ISO upwards and your shutter speed down, it can be worth it.
Beyond the standard float and character portraits, there are those crazy-awesome long exposure shots. Those are another story for another article.
[announcement]Tom has launched his own Disney blog that you should definitely check out. The Disney Tourist Blog is now home to all of the great trip reports and dining reviews Tom posts on various sites after each of his trips. He also includes a ton of great photos that don’t get posted to flickr. Check it out![/announcement]