Dark Ride Photography Basics

One of the things that we get asked quite often is, “How do you get photos on dark rides?” Well, today, we are going to dive into some of the basics of dark ride shooting. We’ll have future posts to go into the more advanced techniques as well as editing in Lightroom or Photoshop, but today’s post is strictly about the basics to make sure you get the shot. Also, these are recommendations based off of my success with dark ride shooting; other folks might have other ideas, and if you do, we would love to hear them in the comment section below!

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The first, and most important rule of dark ride shooting is to not use flash. There is no need to do so, and it does two things. First, it ruins the ride experience for other paying guests who are riding in your vicinity. Secondly, you get a washed out photo that doesn’t look anything like what the people who designed the rides were going for.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s talk about basic camera settings. When shooting dark rides, you aren’t necessarily moving fast, but you are moving, and the animatronics are moving as well. Because of this, we cannot really rely on what our camera thinks we should do in terms of shutter speed. So, for dark ride shooting, I suggest either shooting in Shutter Priority mode, or Manual, if you feel up to it. I do all of my dark ride shooting in Manual now, since every time I tried doing it in Aperture Priority mode, I would end up not getting the shot and getting frustrated.

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Typically, the general rule of thumb is that to get a sharp photo, you need to make your shutter speed whatever your lens focal length is. For example, the lens I use for 90% of my dark ride shooting is a 55mm. Ideally, that would mean I should be shooting at a shutter speed of 1/55. My camera doesn’t allow that, so 1/60 is the next best thing. But, with the technology that newer cameras have for better low light performance, I always stay between 1/80 and 1/125 of a second when shooting dark rides. I’d rather have something sharp where I can clean up the noise than something that is blurry.

When shooting at a shutter speed like that, your camera is going to adjust the aperture to be the one that lets in the most light. For some of you, that might be f/4. For others, it might be f/2.8 or f/1.8. The fastest lenses out there even can go down to f/0.95, but you get into stupid expensive territory with those! My 55mm is an f/1.8, and since I shoot in Manual mode while on dark rides, I always have mine set to be f/1.8. That way, the ISO can stay lower and I can capture photos with less noise in them. You shouldn’t get discouraged though if your lens only goes as fast as f/4, as the photo below was taken with an f/4 lens and still turned out alright!

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So, we’re in Manual mode, and we’re setting a fast(ish) shutter speed and the widest aperture available to us to let in the most light. That makes up two thirds of the exposure triangle, with the last being ISO. Now, the lower the ISO, the less noise will be introduced into the photos. It’s also worth noting here that the newer (and more than likely more expensive) camera you have, the high ISO performance will be better. The camera industry has come a really long way in the past few years with even making entry level DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras that work terrifically in low light situations. So, what should we do with the ISO? Well, you can adjust it on the fly as you see fit. This takes some finesse though, and it isn’t my favorite option. So, this is the only part of dark ride shooting where I let the camera pick, and I select Auto ISO. That way, my shutter speed and aperture are locked in, and the camera picks the right ISO to match those settings.

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Sometimes when in Auto ISO, your camera might try to go to ISO 12800 or 25600. This usually leads to unusable photos, with the exception of some newer cameras. But, most cameras these days have the option to set a ceiling for ISO. That way, if you don’t want it to go above ISO 6400, no worries. I usually have my ceiling set on the Sony a7 for ISO 12800, which is as far as I feel I can go and still be able to clean the image up on the computer later.

Lastly, getting sharp focus is important as well. There are things you can do, such as manual focusing, which can help ensure sharpness, but we’ll get into more advanced techniques like that in the next article. Since we’re sticking to the basics here, we’re going to stay in auto focus modes. For that, I try my hardest to stay within the center of my camera’s focusing matrix. The closer your focus point is to the center of the frame, you typically get faster and more accurate focus, which in these dark environments in crucial. You can always crop later to change the composition, albeit at a slight loss in resolution of your photo.

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Alright, so we’ve discussed shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focusing, which should really handle the basics of capturing the shot. You may be asking, “Where do we start?” Well, there are quite a few dark rides at Walt Disney World and Disneyland that are easier than others. it’s a small world and Gran Fiesta Tour at WDW are both pretty well lit. The west coast it’s a small world and the Little Mermaid dark ride at California Adventure would be two places to get a good start out at Disneyland. Once you master those, we can move on to super dark attractions like the Haunted Mansion and Peter Pan’s Flight.

Hopefully you enjoyed these tips and will be able to use them the next time you find yourself on a Disney dark ride. For those curious, all of the photos here with taken with the Sony a7 and either the Zeiss 55mm F1.8 or the Zeiss 16-35mm f4, all which can be found at Amazon. If you shop at Amazon, clicking the link sends us a little commission at no cost to you, so we appreciate it. We’d also love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!

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5 Comments

Keith

about 1 year ago Reply

Well done Cory and good timing! Somebody just posted about this the other day in the comments thread. Can't wait to see your post on the Haunted Mansion.....

WookieeGunner

about 1 year ago Reply

Question. You mention setting the aperture as fast as possible. Do you see any depth of field issues when doing this?

Cory Disbrow

about 1 year ago Reply

First of all, thanks for reading! As for the aperture question, yes, there are some times that the depth of field can cause issues where the slightest mis-focus can cause what appears to be a blurry shot. But, I prefer to have the lower ISO, so I keep it wide open. I'll traditionally take a few shots of each scene and then trash the ones that don't work once I see them on a computer afterwards.

Chris White

about 1 year ago Reply

Thanks for posting this. I really enjoy all the articles, but dark ride photography is a favorite of mine. I thought the previous dark ride photography articles were really well done, and this article does a great job of bringing it back up.

Cory Disbrow

about 1 year ago Reply

Thanks Chris! There will be more to this article in the coming weeks, with advanced techniques and also editing techniques.

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