Shooting the Disney Dark Rides – Part 2
My approach to shooting the dark rides addresses each of the challenges from the first part of this series. First, get to know your equipment well (button placement, menu options, scrolling quickly through menu options, setting up custom functions, etc.) and also know it’s limits (if you’ve never photographed a dark ride, you may not know your equipment’s limitations just yet). Shooting the dark rides will help you gain an intimate knowledge of your camera’s controls, which will in turn help your chances of capturing better images.
Use a fast lens (wide max aperture). I can’t stress this one enough. At a minimum (for HM and PPF) you will need a lens whose widest aperture is at least 1.8. If the only lens you currently own is a kit lens whose max aperture is 3.5 and you want to begin shooting dark rides, you’ll want to invest in a fast prime lens. Fortunately, most of the manufacturers make a very economical 50mm prime lens that has a max aperture of 1.8. Some of my best dark ride shots were taken with the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II lens (which currently lists for around $99). You can get good exposures on some of the “brighter” dark rides (Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World) with lenses that have a max aperture of 2.8, but you will need to rely more on the high side of your camera’s ISO limits with those lenses, which will introduce noise into the picture. I have typically found that the 50mm focal length (on a full frame sensor body and 30mm or 35mm on a crop sensor body) to be the perfect focal length for shooting the dark rides. Any longer focal length and you risk more blur because of the magnification (thereby increasing the need for a faster shutter speed). Any wider focal length and you risk more noise in your shot at the higher ISO settings (more black area captured in the frame = more color noise, at least on a Canon body) and focusing becomes more of a problem, especially if you’re using manual focus because you’ll find your subjects to be farther away. That’s not to say that good images can’t be captured on either side of the 50mm focal length (I’ve had some success with 24mm and 150mm), but you run into another layer of exposure and focus issues.
I shoot most of the darker dark rides with manual focus*. This is not by choice, but because my camera simply cannot find anything to focus on quick enough using AF. This is another area where using a fast lens helps. When you’re composing through the viewfinder, your camera is already opened up to its widest aperture and doesn’t “stop down” to the programmed aperture until you press the shutter release button. Therefore, it’s much easier to manual focus through the viewfinder with a 1.8, 1.4, or 1.2 lens because those lenses are letting in more light for you to be able to see to compose the shot. All that being said, try out your camera’s auto focus system and if it works well, use it. If you find that you have success with auto focus, use it in conjunction with your camera’s AF lock function and burst mode to fire off a series of in-focus shots. Then you can pick the best one from the series in post (this is also a good way to catch the “lightning” in a couple of Haunted Mansion scenes, particularly the ballroom). * I shoot most of the darker dark rides with manual focus. Ones I’ve found to be a little brighter and do not require manual focus are: most areas of Pirates of the Caribbean, most areas of Winnie the Pooh, IASW, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Spaceship Earth, and the Grand Fiesta Tour. Every other dark ride has required me to primarily use manual focus.
Metering – I use evaluative (matrix) metering most of the time. One thing to watch out for when using evaluative metering is your camera’s tendency to overexpose the brighter areas of the scene, especially when you set your ISO high. One way around this is to use exposure compensation. For example, the max ISO I will use on my camera is ISO 12,800. However, setting my ISO that high makes my camera’s sensor so sensitive that any brighter areas in the scene will likely be overexposed and details lost. Sometimes I will use exposure compensation to intentionally underexpose the image in order to leave a little headroom in post processing for boosting exposure without losing detail in the brighter areas. Therefore, if I don’t want to risk blown highlights in a particular scene, I might use ISO 6,400 and exposure compensation of somewhere between -1 and -1 and 2/3rds. I have used spot metering with some success, but don’t use it very often.
Mode – I typically shoot in shutter priority to make sure I freeze the motion on the ride. As a general rule of thumb, you can get by with a shutter speed equal to the inverse of your focal length to avoid blur. Therefore, on that 50mm prime lens, you could feel comfortable with setting your shutter speed to 1/50 sec. If your camera has an ISO capability of 6400 or higher, you have really steady hands, or have the ability to brace the camera on something (like against the side of the ride vehicle itself), there is a good chance you can drop below 1/50 sec. and still avoid blur. I’m not sure about the Canon professional bodies (1D series), but on the Canon non-professional bodies, there isn’t an option to set the floor on the shutter speed while using of the other creative modes (i.e. while using aperture priority). If your camera has that feature (and I believe some of the Nikons do), you might also experiment in using aperture priority with a shutter speed floor. That way, you have more control over DOF (DOF is not a big issue in the HM, PotC, or PPF, but Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Winnie the Pooh, and IASW do come to mind here). Until Canon adds this feature, I’m afraid I’m going to have to be content with using shutter priority or full manual mode.
Custom functions – If your camera has the ability to store custom functions, use them. Before going into the Haunted Mansion, I set up a couple of custom function settings that I can roll to in the event of a ride stop (usually a combination of a slower shutter speed and lower ISO settings). If the ride stops, I just turn the dial to one of the custom function settings and start firing. I don’t have to think about and fiddle with multiple changes while on the ride since those E-stops are usually only 15-20 seconds at a time. I will change a setting here or there while on the ride and that is one time where your knowledge of button placement on your camera will help you considerably.
The third and final part of this series will be posted Friday, in that article Todd will give tips for shooting specific rides.