You may be able to tell that I’m a “photo nerd.” All of the photography on this blog was taken by me, except in some circumstances when I’m in the photo.
I’ve never been a professional photographer, but I have gotten better over the years. In my photography experience, the most challenging pictures I’ve taken have ever taken have been on the dark rides at Disney parks. These rides pose unique challenges to get the exposure, focus, shutter speed, composition, and ISO exactly right, in the least ideal conditions (when you can barely see your camera to know how to change those settings, making things even more difficult…)
TURN OFF YOUR DARN FLASH
If you remember nothing else from this article, please remember these 4 words: TURN OFF YOUR FLASH. If you forget this little nugget of advice–don’t worry. They’ll literally remind you at the beginning of every ride.
Seriously, though–flashes are a bit counter-intuitive. A flash is NOT intended to be used in a location where there is not enough lighting to take a picture–a flash should be used to improve lighting in situations where the lighting is less than ideal. This doesn’t mean “add light where there is none,” but rather, it means use a flash to “paint with light,” which is a goal that all of us photographers should strive for.
For example, if you’re taking a picture of someone in front of a back-lit window, you should consider using a flash to help fill the dark part of the image, making the lighting of the image more consistent. Using it to take a picture of someone in a dark room just produces a picture where it looks like the subject of your image is about to get hit by a semi truck. Using flash on a dark ride will always result in an overexposed, very crappy picture and a lot of ticked-off guests around you. It also makes you look like a moron. Just don’t do it.
One other note–many cameras (including the D7500 that I shoot with) have “focus assist” lighting. That is, when you start to take the picture with your camera, autofocus kicks in, and a light of a particular color (commonly white, red, or green) illuminates the scene to help the camera focus on the subject properly and take the picture–even without flash. This arguably isn’t as annoying as using a flash, but it is close. (Using this functionality will yield a better picture, but will likely slow down your autofocus dramatically…) Turn this functionality off. (For Nikon cameras, it is in the “custom setting” menu.)
Use the Best Hardware and Software You Can
It’s true–the best camera in the world is the one you’ve got on you, and you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. That being said, it is possible to “gear up” and make the odds of getting a better picture more ideal. Two hardware components in particular and one software component will provide you the best chance to get your shot:
- An Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) camera is a good idea, due to the control given to the photographer. Again, I use a Nikon D7500, a DX (cropped) sensor camera. I like the cropped camera because other gear (like lenses) is generally less expensive, and it is a LOT easier to travel with, being lighter weight and smaller in size. (Yes, Canon is fine also. No, I won’t argue with you about which one is better.)
- A fast-prime lens is also a good idea. A “fast” lens refers to one that has a large aperture and lets in a lot of light (i.e. – if you look at the lens, it is a lower f number–preferably lower than f1.8, if possible.) A prime lens is the opposite of a zoom lens. Here’s one of my fast primes (and the one I use most commonly) for my DX body Nikon camera.
- Postprocessing Software is also a real must. The best photo software is Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop, but both have a pretty steep (but worth it) learning curve. You can do a lot of what you can do in Adobe Lightroom in Snapheal, and you can do a lot of what you could do in Adobe Photoshop in Paint Shop Pro (which is a lot cheaper) or even Paint.net (which is free). Whatever you choose, though–learn how to use it properly.
One last corollary – NEVER USE AN iPAD OR TABLET TO TAKE PICTURES ON A DARK RIDE. This is almost as annoying as someone using a flash–so don’t be a selfish idiot. And just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. If you do this, not only are you going to be guaranteed to get a terrible picture, the GIANT SCREEN that you’ll be using to take the picture will probably blind you and the people in the two cars behind you for the rest of the ride. (Also, if you’re taking pictures of or recording a parade or a show with your iPad, you are equally distracting to those around you as you would be on a dark ride. Please stop. Also–stop recording vertical video!! UGH.)
From there–there’s skill, and there’s luck. The main skill aspect involves getting out of automatic mode, and luck comes into play a few different ways. The main skills you’ll need will involve you getting out of the “Automatic Mode” on your camera.
Note: For these next 4 sections, you’ll really benefit from a basic understanding of the “exposure triangle.”
Get Out Of Automatic Mode, Part 1: Exposure Settings
At first, the automatic mode (sans flash, of course) may be an okay way to start, but you’ll ultimately be limited using it, and you’ll be relying on luck more than skill. (More on luck later.)
In dark rides, you can’t change the lighting of the scene. (And why would you want to? The designers of the ride put those lights there for a good reason…) Our eyes are naturally much better than our cameras and lenses at adjusting to the high dynamic range that a dark ride scene would show. So, taking the standard shot of a normal scene may lose a lot of details in the sections of the image where there is more light in general.
If you intentionally underexpose the image a little, you’ll capture more detail (and capture it more clearly). Using post-production software (like Lightroom, Photoshop, Snapheal, or something like that) will allow you to recover details that may be located in the farther reaches of the dynamic range of the shot. (Shooting in raw helps with this also, but the files can be huge.) Long story short, when in doubt, underexpose a little. You can recover a lot more from an underexposed shot than an overexposed shot. (The same could be said about film photography, by the way.)
Don’t overdo this, though. Remember–each 1 stop that you underexpose the image, that means you’re letting in half the light as before. (-1 means that you’re letting in half the light you would with a normally exposed shot, -2 means you’re letting in a quarter of the light, and so on.)
Get Out Of Automatic Mode, Part 2: Shutter Speed Priority Mode
Having a fast prime lens, my initial inclination was to move to aperture priority mode, put the size of the aperture of my lens all the way down to its largest setting, and shooting that way. However, this isn’t the best idea–a superior strategy is to use shutter speed priority mode and vary accordingly. It’s best to try and keep the speed less than 1/100th a second, if conditions allow, but this also depends on how fast the ride you are on is moving at the time that you want to take the picture. Of course, decreasing shutter speed will result in less opportunity for the image to be blurry, but will also make your image darker.
You can use your light meter to help figure out what it recommends based upon the scene at hand, but this can be a little challenging in the dark. Just make sure you know the dials / controls of your camera to the point where you can quickly adjust them in the dark. Practice makes perfect here–as well with most anything on this list.
You could go into full manual mode, but I find it too challenging and distracting from the ride, unless you have a very controlled picture that you’re trying to go for, and you know what settings you want to shoot with. It’s better to leave the camera decide the other aspects of the image so that you can focus on tweaking one variable (shutter speed, as I’m suggesting here) to get what you want.
Get Out Of Automatic Mode, Part 3: Experiment with ISO
ISO refers to film speed, but, as we live in the digital age, it refers to the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light.
Higher ISO means “more sensitivity to light,” which in turn would suggest that one should crank their ISO to the maximum setting when getting on a dark ride. This is doable, but not ideal, as when you crank ISO on your camera, the image will start to get grainy and show a lot of color noise.
Also, in some cameras, the highest ISO settings will convert the image to greyscale. This is due to the fact that more light is required for the sensor to distinguish color versus light intensity. A camera that can only distinguish light intensity is (by definition) a black and white camera. (And by black and white, I mean greyscale.)
Our eyes work the same way. Suppose you are in a dark room, getting gradually darker. As the room that you’re in starts to get darker, it will be harder for you to distinguish colors from each other. Eventually, you’ll only be able to determine light intensity. The same is true about cameras–but when the sensors are pushed to the edge of their ranges, you’ll get spots of random color, as the sensor has an increasingly difficult trying to figure out what color light to use to compose the image.
Using a lower ISO yields a cleaner, crisper image. You may want to start at a higher ISO and turn the ISO lower as you shoot to see what results you get. Again, like your shutter speed, before you embark on this it is best to have a good feeling for how to do this with your camera easily, without having to look at menus, buttons, and the like.
Get Out of Automatic Mode, Part 4: Use Manual Focus
So–now that we’ve tied down the shutter speed and ISO. Let’s talk about focus. You already have a fast, prime lens–and as you have a fast lens, that means a big aperture, which means your depth of field is going to be limited. So–to get us over the finish line on technical the technical side, focus is key, as the portion of your image that is in focus is key for getting the shot that you want.
Again, you can start with autofocus to see what you can get, but you should experiment with manual focus, especially in focusing on the specific parts of the image that you want in focus.
And–small depth of field isn’t a bad thing–it is a real requirement for telling better stories in your photography. Your job as a photographer is to tell a story and make the viewer want to look at your image.
Luck, Part 1: Take Advantage of Still / Stationary Moments
Getting into the luck aspect of things: Don’t forget to have your cameras ready when you get on the ride, even if you don’t plan on taking pictures… because sometimes rides stop, and you get stuck somewhere for a while. And when you’re stuck, your stationary, and you have more time to configure your camera, take different shots, try different compositions / settings / etc. Depending on where you get stuck, you may have an awesome opportunity that you’ll never have again!
Luck, Part 2: Take Advantage of Non-Standard Lighting Conditions
Like the last one, this is rare–but this one is even more rare. Sometimes, rides fail. Then, you’ll be stuck on the ride, and they may have to evacuate you from the ride. This can be a bummer, as it is a time sink–but typically the house lights are turned up, and if you have your camera handy, you may be able to get some awesome shots!
On the flip side, if you get evacuated, don’t be a jerk and take pictures while outside of the ride vehicle, backstage. It’s against the rules, and it is unsafe. You’re not meant to be walking around an attraction like that, so put your camera away and pay attention to where you’re walking. You could damage the ride further or get injured yourself–and both aren’t worth it.
Luck, Part 3: The Ol’ Numbers Game: Keep Shooting!
Practice makes perfect, and luckily, practice doesn’t cost you anything any longer… so shoot, shoot, shoot! Don’t delete duds until you get into post-production–you may accidentally delete a winner. Also, on those dark images, try to use Lightroom (or similar) to see what may be worth recovering. You may be surprised!
And remember–it’s just a ride. No matter what, have fun!