Ten Tips for Better Theme Park Photos
While we love our theme parks here at Lifthill, we're also into photography. As pictures are such an important part of any trip, we'd like to take an opportunity to share some tips we've learned over years of shooting photos, both inside and outside the park. Some you may have already heard, and some may not apply to you, but hopefully you'll find something in this collection of ten tips that will help you get the shot you want on your next trip.
Come Early, Stay Late
Ask any professional photographer, and he/she will tell you that the best time to shoot is the hour or two after sunrise, and an hour or so before sundown. Why? Well, the natural light from the sun is less direct at these times, casting a softer, more pleasant light on everything around. Gone are the harsh shadows and lighting that have ruined a many afternoon shot, leaving you with nearly perfect picture taking conditions. As an added bonus, pretty much every park is less crowded early in the morning and late at night, giving you more room to work your magic.
While this is a point that some of you might not be able to do anything about, it's worth mentioning just in case. If you're planning to buy a new camera before heading out on vacation, and have the extra cash to spare, consider buying a dSLR (digital Single Lens Reflex) camera instead of a point-and-shoot. Not only do these cameras give you more control over the pictures you're taking, but they also offer larger sensors, which let you shoot in lower light without getting "shaky" pictures, help create a more natural image, and give you the ability to experiment with different types of lenses, should you be so inclined. With prices for low-end models such as the Nikon D40 and Canon XS approaching $400, it's only a matter of $150 or so to step up from a good point-and-shoot — but the difference in the quality of pictures is priceless. If you already have a point-and-shoot, or are otherwise camera-less, see if any of your friends or family has a dSLR for you to use on your trip. You can thank us later.
Pay Attention to the Details
Everyone gets excited about the big rides that parks have to offer, but we often get so excited that we forget why they're called theme parks. If you want to find some interesting, off-the-beaten-path subject matter for your park photos, consider taking your time and exploring areas away from the main pathways. A lot of the time you'll find interesting little details that you'd never noticed before, which serve the dual purpose of acting as interesting subjects for your photos and helping you appreciate the park even more.
Change Your Perspective
"Stand straight up. Grab camera. Point straight. Shoot." Although no one is ever actually told to take pictures using those steps, you might find it hard to argue against it after looking at an average park goer's camera. By changing your perspective — either by getting down closer to the ground, or by finding a safe elevated surface — you can add tons of visual interest to your photos, and present often-photographed subjects (like Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom) in a different light.
Shoot, Shoot, and Shoot Some More
One of the biggest advantages offered by today's digital cameras is the ability to shoot hundreds — sometimes even thousands — of shots on a single memory card, which we can then use to review our shots, print the ones we like, and share them in a multitude of different ways. To use this new technology to your advantage, you only have to do one thing: shoot! The more shots you take, the more likely you are to get a few real gems, and since there's no film to pay for or get developed, you can hold that shutter down without worrying about the bill. As an aside to this tip, here's another: don't stand and gawk at your pictures right after you've taken them. A quick glance down to make sure the picture is properly composed and exposed is fine, but save the "oohs" and "aaahhhs" for the restaurant, bench, hotel room, or somewhere else where you can sit down and enjoy your work without getting in the way of other guests. Remember: a good photographer is a courteous photographer.
Make the Best of a Rainy Day
Some people think that shooting pictures is similar to going to the beach: if it's raining, there's little reason to bother. But actually, overcast and otherwise inclement days can be some of the best times to get shots of your favorite park. Nothing changes the mood of a ride or attraction you normally see photographed on sunny days than to catch it with a storm brewing behind it, and if it's overcast, it's also a great chance to take some of those "details" photos we talked about above, as the cloud cover will keep the sunlight from making your subjects look harsh or overly bright. Plus, rainy days have an added bonus of keeping people away from the park, giving you more time to enjoy your favorite rides.
Pick Your Spot(s)
Planning to shoot a mid-day parade or nighttime fireworks? Do yourself a favor, hunt around for the best spot, and get there at least one hour prior to showtime. Sure, that's a solid hour that you could be spending riding rides, watching shows, or otherwise enjoying the park, but it will also give your photographs a chance to shine, without having to shoot over someone's head, through a crowd, or from a compromised position. And once you've got your spot picked out, trying taking a few steps to the left or right — sometimes the spot we think is best is just a hair off.
Follow the Rules: Don't Shoot Rides*
We know it's tempting: despite the warnings not to use flash photography on rides, there's no one around to stop you, so why not? Right? Wrong. Not only does taking on-ride pictures detract from the experience of the ride itself, it's also rude, and distracting to other park goers. Plus, unless you have some sort of ultra high-tech camera, your pictures won't come out anyway, making the entire endeavor a complete waste of time.
* There is, of course, one exception to this rule: newly re-opened rides with specific details that need to be shared. In which case, bring a high-powered dSLR, and sneak an external flash onto the ride with you. Once you're out of any worker bee's sight, attach the flash, and do what you must do. Then send the pictures to news (at) lifthill (dot) com. (Just kidding. Kinda.) But make it snappy; not even lofty photojournalistic goals can excuse a whole ride's worth of super-bright flashes.
Pack a 'Pod
You know those super-sharp landscape pictures you see on postcards and posters? Those photographers had a secret weapon: a tripod. No matter how steady your hand, you'll get sharper pictures by stabilizing the camera with either a tripod, or, if you're looking to save a little room, a monopod. Most good 'pods are collapsable and lightweight, so they're not too big a pain to carry around on a day at the park, and can easily been thrown in a locker if you want them protected while riding a coaster or other bumpy attraction. If a traditional tripod doesn't sound appealing to you, check out the Gorillapod — it's a flexible tripod that lets you mount your camera on pretty much anything, including trees, railing, whatever. If you can't or won't bring a stabilizing mount, try resting your camera on a wide railing, post, wall, or some other solid object — it will help more than you can image, especially as the natural light from the sun is replaced with the sparking lights of a theme park at night.
Taken from my Flickr photostream.
Practice Makes Perfect
Don't wait until you've packed your bags to start using your camera — every day is a new chance to take some pictures, and the more you use your camera, the better you'll get. Most modern cameras have a slew of settings for you to play around with, so bust open that owner's manual and experiment until you find a setup that works for you. Here's another secret: many of the tips above apply to normal photography too, so practice them in your everyday shooting. By the time your next theme park trip rolls around, you'll be ready to take some vacation photos that will last a lifetime.
For more photography tips and insight, Lifthill recommends The Digital Photography Book Volumes 1 & 2 by Scott Kelby.