Disney World Fireworks
- Recently I was a guest on the Resort Loop podcast where we talked about photography in Disney Parks. Of course, any time the subjects of Disney and photography are brought up it never takes long until someone asks about photographing fireworks. On the podcast I talked about my personal tricks to getting fireworks shots inside Disney Parks, but an audio podcast doesn’t always tell the entire story (especially when the topic is so visual, like photography).
For this week’s Featured Image of the week I wanted to share a picture and some behind the scenes information about how I like to capture great Disney World fireworks shots.
The Resort Loop Podcast
It was a whole lot of fun being a special guest on the Resort Loop podcast back on September 8, 2017. The episode itself lasted less than 45 minutes, but the entire conversation I had with Tim & Bob was well over an hour long. It was so much fun I’m hoping they have me back on again some day…
The topic of the episode was “Perfect Pictures” and can be found by searching your podcast app for “Resort Loop” or you can head over to their website and find the podcast here.
I pretty much knew when we were recording the episode that the topic of photography in Disney Parks would require something more than just audio so I began working on a number of projects to go with the episode so be sure to keep an eye on this blog and I’ll share them as quickly as I get them completed.
Keep Your Camera Steady
Great fireworks pictures are a result of keeping your camera absolutely still and using an extremely long shutter speed to let you capture several seconds of time. Keeping your camera steady is simply a matter of using a tripod (or special “grip equipment” designed to mount your camera to a solid object). To get an extremely long shutter speed you’ll need to choose settings on your camera that will allow it to capture at least 1 second of time (and up to 3-4 seconds of time for capturing a lot of fireworks in a single shot). Here’s a one second long fireworks shot I took in Washington, DC during the 2009 Cherry Blossom Festival:
The reason a second (or longer) capture time works is because the brightest parts of the fireworks move outward from the moment of explosion. If you captured a fraction of a second the resulting picture only shows a small portion of the fireworks. Unfortunately, most cameras (especially when set to an automatic mode) want to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible to prevent movement during capture. A camera does this to help handheld photos look sharp because the longer the camera is capturing an image the more your hands might move (and that movement is what causes a picture to blur). Because you need to override the short capture speed you NEED to make sure your camera will not move. This is where a good tripod becomes important.
The good news is Disney Parks let you use a tripod so it’s not a problem to bring one with you when you’re visiting. The bad news is you’ll have to carry your tripod around with you all day unless you rent a locker to store it during the day.
If you plan to capture night time long exposure shots on a tripod it’s best to find one that is compact and light. I’ve always reccomeded “travel size” tripods like this one from Mefoto:
A tripod like this isn’t cheap – but it’s small (just over 15″ long when folded up) and light (because it’s made of carbon fiber it weighs just over 3 pounds). If you’re going to be walking around with a tripod then you’re going to want to invest in one that isn’t a burden when you’re not using it (otherwise you’ll probably just leave it behind). Once you invest in a good travel tripod you’ll be able to get awesome travel shots like the this one I captured in Paris:
I carried my travel tripod everywhere while I was in Paris (even in the daytime) and if it was too heavy or bulky I would have left it sitting in the hotel. Spending a little more for a good tripod let me bring it everywhere I went.
Alternative Ways to Keep Your Camera Steady
I have two ways to keep my camera steady which are smaller and cost less than a full-sized tripod. The first is a “table top” tripod like this one I use:
This little tripod is the Oben TT50 and it’s super cheap (under $30), very small (under 4″ when folded), extremely light (less than 5oz) and it’s easy to use. I keep one with me almost all the time and it’s allowed me to get all sorts of pictures I could never get if I was hand holding my camera. While it is short (compared to a full-size tripod), you can set it on any sturdy flat surface (like the top of a trash can) and you’ll be able to capture pictures like this one I took of Illuminations:
For this shot I used my full-sized digital camera held steady on top of a trash can by my Oben TT50. My camera captured 4 seconds of time to get the fireworks and because the camera didn’t move the foreground elements look nice and sharp.
My second way to keep my camera steady is to use a specialized piece of equipment called a Magic Arm. Here’s a look at my Manfrotto Magic Arm with a studio clamp and a camera mounting plate:
This special piece of gear can be clamped to something solid, like a fence rail, and it will keep your camera steady during long exposure shots. Here’s a look at my Magic Arm being used in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom before a fireworks show began:
I love this piece of gear because it’s extremely small (folded for storage it’s less than 12″ long), not too expensive (around $150 for a complete kit) and versatile because you can clamp it to almost anything. Best of all it doesn’t look like a tripod so I’ve been able to use it in several places that ban tripods.
The downside to using the Magic Arm system is it’s weight. At almost 6 pounds for a complete kit it weighs more than a good travel tripod. Also, it can be a bit awkward to use for people who aren’t familiar with this kind of gear.
Now that you have your camera steady it’s time to get the settings right.
Not all cameras will let you choose your settings so you’ll have to check your owners manual to see if your camera can be manually set for shutter speed and sensitivity (ISO). Camera phones, for example, may not let you choose settings.
The first important setting will be focal length and focus. I prefer using a super wide angle lens, or the widest setting on a zoom lens, for my fireworks shots because using a wide angle lens helps to get more of the fireworks in the shot. You never know how high in the air the fireworks will go so using a super-wide angle lens will make sure you capture a lot of height without having to re-aim the camera.
For focus I recommend something called pre-focusing. This is something that can be a bit of a challenge because it means getting your camera focused before the fireworks start going off. You’ll need to have a way to change from auto-focus to manual focus (I set one of my camera’s custom buttons to do this) because once you do get your lens focused you need to turn off your auto focus. I like to focus on something that’s super far away and then turn off the autofocus to make sure the camera won’t make any further adjustments.
With focus locked in I set my camera sensitivity as low as I can (on my camera it’s ISO 100 but your camera may be different). By using a low sensitivity setting the picture will have far less noise in the darkest parts of the shot. Also, if you’re using a low sensitivity and an automatic exposure setting the lower ISO means your camera will choose a long shutter speed.
Finally I set my aperture and shutter speed. For my lenses I’ve had the best luck setting my camera to use f5.6 or f8 (this setting lets you capture more “in focus”) and I choose a shutter speed between one and four seconds. Because the fireworks are super bright an aperture setting of f8 works great with a longer shutter speed. Once the fireworks begin you can check your camera’s LCD to see if the settings are working. If you’re not happy with the look of your shots try changing the shutter speed and the aperture until you get the look you want.
For best results you’ll need to trigger your camera before the fireworks go off and wait for your camera to make its capture. This is tricky, but with a little practice you’ll know exactly when to hit that shutter release button.
If your camera won’t allow you to manually set aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity then you should see if your camera includes a “scene” setting for fireworks shooting. My smallest point-and-shoot, a Sony DSC-WX350, cost me less than $300 and has a fireworks scene that works pretty well. Here’s a look at my camera when set to fireworks mode:
If you’re using a smart phone then you’ll just have to keep the camera steady and capture as many shots as you can (also called “burst shooting”). After the fireworks are over you’ll need to go through the shots and possibly combine several shots using an app to get what looks like a long exposure shot.
Some Final Thoughts
Capturing awesome fireworks shots isn’t difficult if you have the right gear and know how to set your camera. The real trick is to lock your camera down and make sure it never moves (I even use a wired remote so I don’t move my camera by pressing the shutter button).
If you want your fireworks shots to really stand out I recommend including non-fireworks elements to help identify where the shots were taken. Here’s a shot I took during a 4th of July fireworks show in Washington, DC:
The Washington Monument in this shot quickly identifies the location as Washington, DC.
In Walt Disney World the easy way to identify the location is to include a park icon (like the big castle, for example). Once you have your “classic” Disney’s Magic Kingdom fireworks shots you can try different locations throughout the parks to see if you can capture unique perspectives that are easily identifiable as in a Disney Park.
Consider a Dessert Party
One thing that’s always difficult is finding a great place to set up your tripod where you won’t be in other peoples way (or worse, have people hitting your tripod because it’s so crowded). I’ve had great luck paying a little extra to be in a separated location during the fireworks. The best example of this is booking a Disney Dessert Party (they almost always include a reserved fireworks viewing location). This shot was captured from the Tomorrowland Terrace during a Magic Kingdom dessert party in 2012:
And this brings me to my final thought when it comes to capturing fireworks in a Disney Park. While it’s always great to take pictures, sometimes you’ll miss the big picture if you’re spending too much time trying to take a picture.
I’m a huge fan of Disney vacations because so many people work extremely hard to ensure I have a great time. When it comes to fireworks (or what Disney calls: “Spectaculars”) a team of people have combined music, fireworks, lights and even special projection to give everyone a multi-sensory experience. Sure, the pictures look incredible, but sometimes it’s important to put your camera (or smart phone) away and just take it all in. I’m not above holding my camera over my head when I’m standing in a gigantic crowd to take a picture like this:
Whenever I’m holding my camera over my head I try to think about the people around me (especially those behind me) so I’ll make sure to turn off my LCD display. Doing this means it won’t interrupt the view of anyone standing behind me. I’ll also take a picture or two and then immediately bring the camera back down. In other words, I won’t hold the camera up for long periods of time because I know it will block the view of others trying to watch the show. Long story short: I understand why people want to take pictures during a fireworks show but I get frustrated by people who don’t take my enjoyment into consideration so I try not to be like the people who frustrate me…
Remember, it’s OK to put your camera away and just enjoy the experience with your own eyes. Fireworks shows are meant to be seen and heard while you’re there and no picture (or video) can ever recreate what it’s like to really be there in person. I’ll still take pictures during a fireworks show – but I’ll also try to enjoy the show without my camera (or see it a second time without bringing my camera). Fireworks are totally different when you’re not trying to capture the moment, and the experience itself is often what you’ll always remember.
The Gear I Use to Get Fireworks Shots
My favorite travel camera and lens combination is the Sony A6000 mirrorless camera and the Sony16mm f2.8 pancake lens. Not only is this a great combination for getting super wide shots on vacation, it can also work great for capturing great looking fireworks shots. I love the small size and great picture quality of this setup and for well under $1000 it’s pretty affordable.
I use a Sony wired remote and a Mefoto travel tripod to make sure the camera doesn’t move once I start taking pictures. If I’m not using my full-size travel tripod I use either my Oben TT50 tabletop tripod or my Manfrotto Magic Arm.
Finally, I edit all my pictures using Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.
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