Shooting the dark rides at WDW can be frustrating and extremely challenging, but also fun and good practice for technique. First, a couple of small disclaimers: we’ve all heard the saying “it’s not the equipment, it’s the photographer,” which is fundamentally true. However, in the case of shooting dark rides (i.e. motion under low ambient light conditions), we have to face the fact that getting a decent exposure can be equipment prohibitive. Next, I present this article from the view of a DSLR user, since I have no experience in shooting dark rides with a p&s or micro 4/3rds camera. Finally, I don’t go into details of the post processing work because the main focus of this article is how to achieve better exposures on dark rides. After reading this, you may not come away with the ability to successfully shoot every dark ride scene at WDW, but hopefully you’ll pick up a few tips to allow you to walk away with a few keepers. This is a good time to point out the Golden Rule of photographing dark rides – turn off your flash!
I have always loved the Disney dark rides. As a child, those WDW visits with my family (during the late 70’s and all through the 80’s) are some of my fondest childhood memories. I always saw the dark rides as first hand visual proof of Disney magic in action (especially the Haunted Mansion, which remains my favorite attraction to this day). However, the ride scenes always seemed to go by too fast (and in the case of Peter Pan’s Flight, the entire ride is over in about 2.5 minutes). Being able to get a decent picture inside the ride gives you more time to spend with those scenes later. It gives you more time to study them and appreciate the extra attention to detail that the Imagineers crafted. It also helps to document your trip more fully if you have a completist mentality (like me). They can also challenge you to become a more technical photographer.
From a technical standpoint, shooting the dark rides can both test your knowledge of exposure and the triangular relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and can also give you some great practice with your equipment (i.e. the ability to change settings without ever taking your eye out of the viewfinder). Of course it helps to know your equipment well before you begin shooting the dark rides, but you will likely find that you’re getting to know your equipment more and more after each trip through the Mansion, regardless if you walk away with any keepers or not.
First and foremost, as I said before, we have to accept the fact that some dark ride shooting can be equipment prohibitive. You may be a very good technical photographer, but if the widest aperture of your fastest lens is 3.5 and your camera’s sensor maxes out at ISO 1600, you will struggle to get decent exposures in the darker moving rides because of your equipment’s limits, no matter how proficient your skills (more on equipment later).
Another challenge is the ability to make good use of our camera’s auto-focus capabilities. Regardless of brand, in a dark scene where your camera cannot detect good contrast, your system will struggle to auto-focus. If you’ve ever tried to shoot a dark ride using auto focus, at some point you’ve probably ridden right through an entire scene missing the opportunity to get a shot off because your camera was hunting for something on which to lock focus.
If the darkness wasn’t tough enough, we also have to overcome movement on the rides, either the vehicle that you’re riding in, or movement of something in the particular scene you’re attempting to shoot. That’s why those of us who enjoy shooting the dark rides always hope for a ride to make an emergency stop (E-stop) in front of one of those difficult scenes. However, even when your ride vehicle stops, the movement of animatronics in the scenes does not stop, so you find yourself constantly fighting motion. The challenge becomes the ability to hold your camera still enough to use a slow enough shutter speed to let in enough light to expose the image, but a fast enough shutter speed to do it without blur either from camera shake or motion.
You can always study the EXIF from dark ride images that you like from others to see what settings they used to capture a particular scene. That’s how I got started and I highly recommend studying the shots of others, but I will share my general thought process on shooting the dark rides in the next part of this series.
Stay tuned for part two as Todd goes over his approach to shooting dark rides and the settings he uses. Part two will be posted on Wednesday morning.