All posts for the month July, 2010

With summer upon us a frequent activity of mine and I’m sure many others is visiting a theme or amusement park with family and friends. The wealth of colors, sights, people, shapes, and the occasional furry bear make theme parks an excellent venue for taking some really amazing photos. However, it is important to make sure that you’re using the right settings on your camera. Not only to make sure you get a great shot, but also to make sure that you do not disturb others around you who are trying to enjoy the ride!

The idea for this article came out of a trip I recently took to Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. More specifically while riding one of my favorite attractions, Spaceship Earth, at EPCOT. You know Spaceship Earth it’s the one that people claim looks like a “big golf ball”. In actuality it is one of the world’s largest geodesic spheres. It is while riding this iconic attraction that an incident occurred that prompted me to write this post.

Spaceship Earth

In general, this particular blog post is aimed at anybody who will be visiting a theme park and taking photos in the near future.

However, more specifically this post is aimed at the gentleman of average-description who was sitting 4 cars behind me on June 30th, 2010 at precisely 1:34 PM in the afternoon who decided it would be a bright idea to continually use his flash approximately every 10 seconds while taking photos, thus ruining the ride for not only me, but the other 25 people around me who were all taking the “slow-moving journey through the history of civilization” that is Spaceship Earth!

I can only hope that this man is a reader of my blog, and if so, my friend, you’d better listen up because I’m talking directly to you on this one! *End of rant*

For those who don’t know, Spaceship Earth is what is known as a “dark ride”. These types of rides usually take place in some sort of a vehicle, which brings you past various scenes of a story, such as a haunted house. The key thing that some people don’t seem to fully understand is the “dark” concept.

These rides are meant to take place in the dark and often times have extremely low-light levels. Naturally, it is very difficult to take photographs under these conditions and have them come out. This, I assume, is why there are people who take photos in these “dark rides” with their flash on.

There is a better way. Let me show you some techniques that you can use on “dark rides”. Not only to help you take better photos, but also so that you’ll be able to take the photos you want without disturbing the other people around you who are also trying to enjoy the attraction.

There is also a third reason why you shouldn’t use flash on “dark rides”. This is because the photos will never look like what you see on the ride. The people who create these rides use special lighting, and projections to create all the effects that you see, and to give the scene an illusion of realism. When you take a photo your flash is so strong that often times it overpowers all of these special effects and you end up with a photo of a very fake looking mannequin.

Let me give you an example…at the very top of the Spaceship Earth ride is a beautiful projection of the planet Earth. Naturally, everyone loves to take a picture of it. And of course there is always one person who will ruin the scene with their flash.

What this person doesn’t understand is that they just took a photo of a big white nothing! You see the image of planet Earth on the ride is a digital projection, like when you watch a movie. So when you shoot your flash at it, it ends up being so bright that it drowns out the projector and all you get is a photo of a blank white screen.


Image of Earth (f/1.8, 1/10s, 1600 ISO)

Earth with Flash

Image of Earth taken with Flash

As you can see from the images above clearly the flash doesn’t work in this type of situation, and all you have done is upset the other riders around you. So how can we get a nice photo of the Earth projection or any other scene in a “dark ride”? The first step is to turn off the flash! Every camera has a way of doing this, usually you should look for this symbol on your camera. This is where you can change the flash setting on your camera to OFF .

Once you have your flash off, there are some other settings on your camera that need to be “tweaked”. You’ll want to increase your ISO. We’ve talked briefly about ISO before. ISO is the setting that controls how sensitive to light the sensor on your digital camera is. If you’re using a film camera the ISO is determined by the type of film you place in your camera. The higher the ISO that you use, the more sensitive it makes your camera to light an therefore makes it easier to take photos in low-light.

Great so let’s crank our ISO setting to full blast and take some “dark ride” photos. Wait just a minute, it’s not quite as simple as that. You see although increasing the ISO makes our cameras more sensitive to the light coming through the lens, it has a very detrimental side effect that we must take into account.

Increasing the ISO also increases the amount of noise in your photo. This means that if you set your ISO too high your photo will turn into a big grainy, noisy mess. What’s worse is you won’t realize this until you download the photos to your computer, because on your cameras tiny little screen everything looks sharp and clear.

Spaceship Earth Scene with ISO set too high

Fear not though, today’s modern digital cameras can usually use ISO settings as high as 1200-1800 without showing any noise at all. In addition, camera manufacturers are pushing the ISO envelope all the time, creating better and better sensors that can take high ISO’s without showing any noise at all. Just this year 2 of the major camera manufacturers came out with cameras whose maximum ISO settings are over 100,000!

Changing our ISO will allow us to take better photos without flash, but what other settings do we need to know about when taking photos on “dark rides”? As you know, in nearly all “dark rides” there is some sort of movement or vehicle that you travel in, this is the “ride” part of the “dark ride”. When you leave your camera on it’s automatic settings it wants to slow down your shutter speed so that it can allow the most light possible into your camera.

Your camera’s shutter speed controls how long the sensor or film in your camera is exposed to light. Slowing the shutter speed down will allow more light to enter your camera because the shutter is open for a longer period of time which makes for better photos. There’s only one problem, when you combine a slow shutter with the movement of a “dark ride”, you get blur. Basically your photos would be a big blurry mess if you simply used your camera’s automatic settings on a “dark ride”

In order to correct this, we must tell the camera which shutter speed we’d like it to use. This way we can pick one that’s slow enough to be able to take decent photos in low-light but still fast enough so that you don’t get any blur from the moving ride vehicle. To do this we must put the camera into Shutter-Priority Mode, or S-Mode. You should be aware that not all cameras have an S-Mode setting on them. For those that don’t you can usually use either a “Night Mode” setting or “Portrait Mode” setting on your camera. These modes limit how slow the shutter speed will get so you can prevent or eliminate blur.

For those of you with cameras that have a Shutter-Priority Mode I would recommend using a shutter speed of 1/15 – 1/30 of a second. I find that setting is usually sufficient to get a nicely exposed photo while eliminating blur. If you’re not sure what kind of settings your camera has, consult with your owner’s manual to see if it has an S-Mode setting, and to see what other exposure presets it may contain.

Some digital cameras today come with over 15 programmed exposure modes. With everything from a “beach” to a “fireworks” setting there should be one offered on your camera that will allow you to limit your shutter speed. For more information about S-Mode you can click here to view our previous blog post about it.

SSE Scene

Properly exposed scene without flash (ISO 1600, 1/10s, f/2.8)

As you can see from the above photo when you combine a high ISO with the proper shutter speed you can walk away with a great photo of any “dark ride” without using your flash, just as the designers intended the scene to look. And more importantly, without disturbing your fellow riders! So the next time you find yourself at Epcot, riding on Spaceship Earth, I beg you, please keep in mind what we’ve discussed here today. Not only will it help you take better photos, but as you can see Mr. average description gentleman sitting 4 cars behind me, I might just be the one who is on the receiving end of your flash bursts.