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Florida Guide > Miscellaneous

Photographing Wishes Without a Tripod

I have long been a fan of photographing the Disney fireworks shows at Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Whenever I am asked about how best to photograph these shows my usual answer involves a tripod and a lot of patience. But I’m also aware that carrying around a tripod would be a huge chore to most people visiting Disney, so I often wondered …

Is it possible to take good photographs of Wishes, the Magic Kingdom firework show, without carrying around a tripod?

The answer, I believe, is yes. Here’s how …

The first consideration is that you are going to be battling in an environment that is very camera-hostile. Camera’s love the stable, bright light you get on a typical Florida day. They are not at all happy trying to cope in an environment that snaps between almost pitch darkness and near bright daylight conditions as fireworks explode and then quickly fade. Even the best digital SLR cameras are not good at trying to work out what’s going on in these circumstances, so to get good photographs you need to help out the camera a little. The more of the camera’s automatics you can switch off, the more you help it by reducing the amount of work it is trying to do.

Here are the settings that I found work well, along with some notes as to why and how.

ISO: Set the camera’s ISO setting to as high as it will go. I’ve tried photographing the fireworks at ISO 1600 and the results are pretty good.

Exposure or Program Mode: Forget all about any automatic or program settings on the camera and switch it to manual. In manual mode you will need to set a shutter speed and an aperture. Start off with a shutter speed of 1/25 second (or as close as you can get) and an aperture of f/3.5. The lower the aperture you can get the better.

Focus: Switch off the camera’s autofocus and focus it manually. The camera’s autofocus almost certainly won’t be fast enough to keep up with the show and you will end up missing heaps of shots. You don’t need to worry about re-focusing during the show as you will not be moving around. Focus the camera on Cinderella’s Castle and then forget all about it.

Lens/Zoom: Try to use the wider angle end of the lens’ zoom range. It is easier to hand hold a camera steady with a wide angle lens than it is with a zoom lens. It’s far better to get a good, sharp wide-angle photo than it is to get a blurry telephoto one. Modern digital cameras have so many megapixels that you can easily crop the photo later.

Digital Zoom: Switch it off completely.

Flash: Switch it off. It won’t help you.

Image Stabilisation: Switch it on and if it has different settings set it as high as it will go.

When it comes to taking the photos there is one golden rule. Take dozens and dozens. Your aim should be to take something like 50 to 100 shots through the show and then later sort them down to a mere handful of great photos. If possible start with a new flash card and shoot, shoot, shoot. Do not try to sort anything out until you are back home when you can view the photos on a much bigger and brighter screen. Use any gaps in the fireworks to check the image previews to make sure they look clear, in-focus and not too dark or light. If the photos look too dark try setting the shutter speed down to 1/10 but this might make things blurred if the camera doesn't have image stabilisation. If they are too light, try setting the shutter speed fractionally faster; 1/40 or 1/50 depending on what the camera will give you. Tempting though it will be, don't try to photograph Tinkerbell at the start of the show. She is way too small to get a good shot, she moves too fast to focus and you'll spend the rest of the show trying to re-focus on the castle and reset everything.

I think it is also worth mentioning a couple of things you might notice later when you come to view the photos on a larger PC or TV screen.

Firstly, noise! Not firework noise or crowd noise but digital image noise. When you are working at extremely high ISOs (the ISO is basically a measure of how sensitive the camera is to light) you will start to get some noise, or grain, appearing in your photos. This will show as tiny speckles here and there and it is completely normal to see this under these circumstances.

Next, human limits. When you are hand-holding a camera in this kind of light you are working very close to, or maybe even beyond, the limit of what you can reasonably expect your hands to achieve when it comes to holding the camera steady. Many, most or even all your photos are not going to turn out pin-sharp. If you want perfection you do need to go the route of the tripod, but that’s a whole other article. I think it’s fair to say that the results you are going to get are not going to stand enlarging up to 10x8 or 20x16 but many of them should print quite well at 6x4 or possibly 7x5.

And a final thought. The art of good photography is good planning and preparation. If you have a new camera or you aren’t completely comfortable with getting to all the above mentioned settings, spend an hour or two at home getting used to everything. When it comes to Wishes, get everything set well in advance of the show. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to firtle your camera settings two minutes before the show starts.

The results?

The words are all well and good, but what, realistically, can you hope to achieve?

If you want to see my results when I was working out all the above tips they are online at: http://www.orlando-guide.info/forums/topic_19024.asp

If you find you want to give this a go but your camera can’t get the exact settings mentioned above I am more than happy to field any questions. Just post your question to the forums (above link) and I will do my best to help.

Happy Snapping.

Author: Steve Harrison (Villa link: click here)
Other articles by this author: click here

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Page added on: 3 January 2007
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