A topic that often comes up in our Facebook Group is dark ride photography. In this blog post, I will go over the equipment I use and share with you my settings for some popular Disney dark rides. Hopefully, in the future, we will share another blog post about editing dark ride images. What I am about to share with you is what has worked for me over the past few years. Just like everything else with photography, there can be multiple ways to achieve similar results. If you have your own formula that has been working, go ahead and share it in the comments section. I would love to read our members thoughts on this topic.
While people can take great images with just about any camera if the conditions are good; dark rides are a very different ballgame. Let's think about all the challenges for a moment:
1. Very little available light: I know, I know, pretty obvious right? The point of the ride being "dark" is to show you elements that Disney wants you to see and hide the elements Disney wants hidden.
2. Movement: The ride vehicle is moving and the objects we are trying to photograph are moving; and depending on the ride, it can be a smooth or bumpy ride motion. This really plays a role in camera settings.
The good news is that even with those challenges it is possible to make good images on these rides. Having the right equipment, and knowing the limitations of your equipment, is essential in shooting dark rides.
The good news is that with every DSLR release, the manufacturers are making equipment that can better handle low light situations. My first DSLR (Canon T2i) took fairly decent images up to ISO 3200. Anything beyond that needed heavy noise reduction in post processing. Overusing noise reduction makes the images look soft; this means they lose detail, and generally don't look very good. Today, DSLR cameras have ISO ranges from 100-25,600 or more. Usable ISO can be debated; but personally, I would not set my ISO higher then 8000-10,000 on a crop-body sensor (eg., Canon t6i, 80d, 7d mkII, Nikon D3200, D5200, D7100/ 7200) or 12,800 on a full frame sensor camera (eg., Canon 6d, 5d mkIII / mk4, Nikon D610, D750, D810).Currently, my camera body is the Canon 6d.
The bad news is that even though camera are getting better at handling low light with better high ISO performance, kit lenses are usually not fast enough (i.e., have a large enough aperture) to get good images. You can purchase faster glass for your DSLR, but it will come at a cost. This cost can vary greatly depending on what you buy. Canon and Nikon both have inexpensive options in 50mm f/1.8 (between $100-$200). If you have a higher budget you can look at lenses with an aperture of f/1.2 or f/1.4. The lower the number, the more light that is available to the sensor; and this helps greatly with dark ride photography. Currently, I am using the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and its a great alternative to the much higher priced (and significantly heavier) Canon version. This lens currently retails for $900; and the Canon equivalent is about $1,600.
Now that we know about our camera and we have some pretty fast glass, we are ready to dive into camera settings. Before we go any further, one thing I must remind you is: DO NOT USE FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY ON DARK RIDES! The Cast Members or audio recordings constantly remind guests of this. Please be respectful, and not ruin the magic or enjoyment for others by being selfish and taking flash pictures. Not only will this ruin the ride experience for everyone; but it will inevitably lead to a very bad photo. As I said earlier in the blog that in Disney dark rides, the Imagineers allow you to see the elements they want you to see, and hide the elements they don't want you to see by using specific lighting. Please respect this for the enjoyment of all guests.
Whew! Now that I have that off my chest; here are the settings I typically start out with.
Camera Mode: Manual or Shutter Priority. If I would like to have full control of all of my camera settings, I set the camera to manual mode. This is very helpful when using something other than maximum aperture (f/1.4 in my case). I may want a larger depth of field than what I get at f/1.4. Sometimes I use f/1.8 or f/2.0 depending on the ride and scene I am trying to capture. If you are not completely comfortable shooting in Manual mode, then you can set the camera to Shutter Priority. This mode only allows the user to select a shutter speed; and the camera sets the aperture and ISO it thinks best for the scene. Usually it will select the maximum aperture for the lens but sometimes it does not. This is a limitation of Shutter Priority, and it can lead to less then desirable images.
Shutter Speed: My starting point is 1/80 sec. This is usually pretty good for getting sharp images even though the ride vehicle and/ or the animatronics are moving. I have used 1/60 sec and sometimes I use 1/100 sec or 1/125 sec. My choices really depends on the speed of the ride. Rides similar to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh uses a little faster shutter speed because it moves a little quicker then a ride like Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance.
Aperture: Usually maximum aperture. On my Sigma f/1.4 I generally stay between f/1.4 to f/2.0 and on my Canon 70-200L IS II it's set to f/2.8. Maximum aperture will allow the most light to reach the sensor; but also lead to a very thin depth of field. This means your area in focus may be as little as a few inches. Depending on how much of the scene you want in focus, this may have to vary a little.
ISO: Auto. I have my camera programmed to an ISO range of 100-12,800. I am comfortable using 12,800 with some light noise reduction in post processing. I allow the camera to pick the ISO is thinks is best for the scene.
Metering: Spot Metering. This metering mode takes a reading of a small area in the dead center of the image, and allows the camera to choose the settings based on the part of the scene you are focusing on. Spot metering and focusing on the brightest part of the scene will allow the camera to choose the lowest ISO (and therefore the least amount of noise) required for the brightest part of the scene.
Drive Mode: This is your frame rate. I use Continuous High; and depending on your camera, this can range from as little as 5 to as many as 12 frames per second.
Auto Focus Mode: AI Servo. On a Canon DSLR this is continuous tracking. This is great because as you hold down the shutter release the camera with continuously focus for the scene on every single shot.
Well, these are all my secrets! If these work for you, please share this page with others and comment below. I have been using these since 2014 and some of my results are shown on this page. Shooting dark rides is very challenging. It pushes your equipment and sometimes your patience when things don't go as planned. Don't get frustrated!! Continue to learn how to properly use your equipment and when looking at your images try to use the knowledge you have gained to adjust settings. You can learn so much from your images, even the bad ones. In time you will develop the skill to figure out what went wrong and how to improve the next time. Remember a great place to share your work and ask these questions in on the Facebook Page.
Thanks for reading