Tips for photographing the Headless Horseman at Disney

By Adam Hansen on October 18th, 2011   |    Posted in:  Disney Photo Tips   |    17 Comments

We have received a number of requests for tips on photographing the Headless Horseman at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. The Headless Horseman has always been a difficult photo to capture, especially without the use of flash. In recent years it seems he is traveling along the parade route a little slower, which should make things easier, though it can still be a difficult shot to get.

We have asked a few other contributors to send in one of their Headless Horseman photos along with any tips they can provide. We thought this would be a unique way to offer photography tips for a particular shot as opposed to just one photographers point of view. It is great to see that each person had a different way of capturing the shot, which proves there is no one correct setting.

Let us know what you think of this concept and we may continue it with other photo subjects.

Katie Marino

Settings: f/1.4, 1/320, ISO: 2000

The headless horseman is such a fun beginning to Mickey’s Boo to You Parade.  To photograph him, first choose your parade spot wisely.  Try to find an area that is well illuminated.  Some areas along the parade route are quite dark while other areas next to street lamps are much brighter.  Also, know that the Headless Horseman starts from Frontierland just before the parade starts and reaches Main Street about 5 minutes later.  The remainder of the parade will not reach the end of Main Street for at least 20-25 minutes after the Headless Horseman so if time is a premium and you want to minimize waiting, Frontierland may be a better choice.

You’ll want to use your fastest lens – for this photo, I used my Sigma 30mm 1.4.  I put the camera in shutter speed priority, choosing 1/320, and set the ISO to 2000.  (I’ve used shutter speeds as low as 1/80 and, at this speed, you’re not likely to completely stop the motion but that’s ok, if your goal is to communicate a sense of movement).  I recommend choosing a focusing point where you think the horseman will be placed in your frame, in addition to using the AI Servo/AF Continuous mode of focusing.  I’ve tried keeping all focal points active and using AI Servo but with the shallow depth of field at f/1.4, I’ve missed focus this way more often than not.     Also, put the camera into burst mode and take as many photos as possible.  The light inside the pumpkin head flickers on and off so you’ll want to take a number of photos to make sure you capture it when it is on.  Good luck and happy shooting!

Read Katie’s articles here on Disney Photography Blog

View Katie’s photos on flickr


Tom Bricker

Settings: f/1.4, 1/30, ISO 360

I shot the Headless Horseman three times this past trip, always using the panning method. I did this because I knew I had the luxury of photographing him three times (if you go to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, you’ll have two opportunities, so there is a safety net if your first try doesn’t work), as I’ve found panning to be a high risk proposition for situations such as this.

For settings, I chose aperture priority with auto ISO set to raise my ISO as high as necessary if my shutter otherwise would have needed to drop below 1/30th of a second. Because I wanted the scene to be dark (and I could recover some light in Photoshop without compromising shutter speed), I set my exposure compensation to -1.33. Luckily, on Main Street (the best place, by far, to photograph the Boo to You parade) there is a decent amount of light, so my camera only kicked the ISO up to 360. As the horseman approached, I did a slight pan, shooting in burst mode until my buffer filled. Using this method, I got a couple of usable shots, but nothing great, each time he passed.

Next time I think I might be a little more daring and use a shutter speed around 1/15th to 1/20th of a second. Even more risky, but I think the payoff will be better with more blurring in the background. Static shots of the Horseman on Main Street should be relatively easy by using autofocus that tracks and a shutter speed of around 1/150th of a second. Adjust ISO upwards accordingly.

Read Tom’s articles here on Disney Photography Blog

View Tom’s photos on flickr

Visit Tom’s web site: Disney Tourist Blog

 Crystal & Bryan

Settings: f/1.8, 1/100, ISO 3200

We unfortunately didn’t get to the parade route early enough to get a front-row seat, which would have been preferable.  For this shot I bumped up the ISO as high as usable on my 50D (3200) and shot a burst. The lens I used was the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens, although I went with f/1.8 for the aperture (I find shooting at f/1.4 a bit soft sometimes and tried to err on the side of caution).  I still didn’t get as sharp an image as I’d have liked, although we did up the sharpness on the Horseman in Photoshop (and also put a little Gaussian blur on the background to further emphasize the Horseman).  Definitely one of the trickiest subjects to shoot at Walt Disney World, and with little opportunity for practice!

View Crystal & Bryan’s photos on flickr

Visit Crystal & Bryan’s web site: CanaDisney

Cory Disbrow

Settings: f/1.2, 1/100, ISO 1600

Settings: f/1.2, 1/60, ISO 1600

I made sure to use my fastest lens, a 50mm f/1.2 to capture the Headless Horseman. I was set up in Frontierland right near a spotlight which I knew would provide adequate to good lighting for the shot. I made sure to set my aperture to f/1.2 to get the fastest shutter speed I could, and judging by the light I had, I figured ISO 1600 would work sufficiently. In the first two shots, I got a pretty crisp shot of him, even at the extremely wide aperture of f/1.2. That was thanks to the good light from the spotlight. Then as I followed him with my camera out of the good light from the spot I found, the shutter speed I was using became a little too slow, but I got lucky and caught a panning-esque shot of him, which I thought came out pretty neat.

Read Cory’s articles here on Disney Photography Blog

View Cory’s photos on flickr

Adam Hansen 

Settings: f/1.8, 1/80, ISO 2000

I attended both parades the night I went to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, with the idea of getting an extra chance at photographing the headless horseman. The first parade I watched from Frontierland and the lighting was not that great. I also set my ISO too high (3200) with the initial idea of not wanting to miss him as he passed. It turned it he was moving a bit slower than the previous year, so it gave me a chance to adjust my settings for the second parade.

For the second parade I found a spot on Main Street and made sure I was near one of the lights that shine down from the buildings on Main Street. This time I shot in manual mode (f/1.8, 1/80, ISO 2000) and hoped for the best. I knew I would just hold down the shutter and take as many shots in burst mode as I could. Unfortunately, I started this when he was still too far down Main Street so by the time the headless horseman got closer my camera buffer had run out and I had to wait a second. I was still able to get a few shots off when he was directly in front of me, and luckily ended up with one I was really happy with.

Obviously the extra light helped, but I think it also added a cool effect to the photo by shining on the horse.

Read Adam’s articles here on Disney Photography Blog

View Adam’s photos on flickr


Hope you enjoyed this new feature, we think it offers a unique view on a photo subject and hope to offer it again in the future. Also, thank you to Tom, Katie, Crystal and Bryan for contributing to the article and sending in examples. They are all great friends of the blog and amazing photographers. Be sure to check out their work in the links above.


  1. Tom Bricker   |   Oct 18, 2011

    Adam – I know the feeling of starting too early and having your camera buffer fill. That’s exactly what happened to me 2 of the 3 times I shot the Horseman, and both times I shot the Graveyard dudes with shovels in the parade (buffer filled right as the sparks started to fly). No matter how many times I tell myself not to start too early, I always get trigger-happy. Even with Extreme III class 10 cards, I have this issue.

    • Adam   |   Oct 18, 2011

      Same thing with me when it came to the graveyard scene. I kept shooting and when the sparks appeared, the buffer was full. lol

  2. Nick Barese   |   Oct 18, 2011

    Thanks for the tips. I was at the Haloween party on sunday night and it is fantastic. Using the kit lens i was not able to get a good shot of the horseman. Next time i go back i really need to invest in a good low light lens like the sigma 30 1.4. That and the info i am learning here everyday i hope to be more sucessful. Thanks so much to all the contributors on this site!

  3. Paul Gowder   |   Oct 18, 2011

    Here’s another option for the Headless Horsemen, try panning!

  4. Dogstardaddy   |   Oct 18, 2011

    Great article guys! Loved that we could compare setting details on the different shots. Articles like this where you demonstrate different ways to capture the same image, are really helpful. Thanks.

  5. Greg   |   Oct 18, 2011

    Thank you for this. How you do think a Canon EF 50mm f1.4 would have done?

    • Katie Marino   |   Oct 18, 2011

      The 50mm 1.4 is also a fine lens to use; I’ve used it for the Headless Horseman as well. I prefer the Sigma 30mm because I think it focuses a little better but it’s a very small difference.

      • Cory Disbrow   |   Oct 18, 2011

        Yeah, the only thing that would worry me about the 50 1.4 is the erratic focusing, especially in low light. If you can nail the focus, the shots would all come out fine.

        • Greg   |   Oct 18, 2011

          sounds good! Thanks for the info!

  6. Wesley Lowe   |   Oct 18, 2011

    Great article! I’m hoping my Nikon 35mm 1.8 will do the trick. It’s not the best focusing lens. I’m hoping to trade it in for a Sigma 30mm soon.

    • Adam Hansen   |   Oct 18, 2011

      That is the same lens I used and had no problems during the parade. I think you will be fine.

      • Wesley Lowe   |   Oct 18, 2011

        Good to know. If mine turns out half as good as yours, I’ll be doing good.

  7. Colleen   |   Oct 18, 2011

    Love the idea for the article of having different perspectives. We went to MNSSHP 2 years ago and the Headless Horseman FLEW by. Hopefully we will get to go again when the parties are going on and I can take another crack at him.

    • Tom Bricker   |   Oct 19, 2011

      From what I understand, they’re still training this new horse, so he should be much slower this entire year.

  8. Drew   |   Oct 24, 2011

    Shooting the headless horseman, to me was like a final exam for disney photography graduate level. It was the culmination of everything I read and learned in the previous year; from shooting dark rides, to shooting fireworks ,to shooting characters indoor in crappy non white balanced light. Tom, Corey and Adam were great professors.
    My favorite HH shot was the second of 2 i was able to shoot off. The shot is a little dark but relatively sharp. I could probably lighten a litle in post but i think it adds a bit of spookiness. I think the three L’s are the best tip I can offer. Location, Location, and luck. That and a strong understanding of your camera settings.

    • Drew   |   Oct 24, 2011
    • Adam Hansen   |   Oct 26, 2011

      That is a great first try Drew. I agree it may be a bit dark, but you are right about the added spookiness. I viewed it large and besides for the darkness, it looks very good.

      Thanks for the compliments, I am glad our blog and tips have helped you throughout the last year!



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