Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What Gear Should I Bring To Disney?

Disney Reality (Unedited X20 Shot)
You’ll often be shooting during harsh mid-day sun while you are slathered in sunscreen with massive crowds
all around you. This leaves you with limited angles to get a shot and even If you get some things to go right
you can still get an epic fail like this shot with sunscreen on the lens!

It’s funny how often this question comes up, but during the summer it seems to happen weekly. You are going to one of the Disney properties with the family and you are deciding what gear you should bring. Most often this is the “dad” trying to decide what lenses and camera(s) to bring, but occasionally I get a mom asking this question to.

Why are you going to Disney?

Disney is almost always about family (Unedited X20 Shot)
Disney Photo Pass Photographers will photograph you with your camera if you ask
They may not be perfect shots, but they are free keepsakes that you’ll cherish years later

At Disneyland a few years back my wife stopped me and grabbed me by the biceps and said “is this Disney boot camp? Are we here to have fun or to complete your checklist?” This was a life changing moment for me because I knew she was right – the goal of Disney is to have fun with your family, not to take photos or see every attraction. Sure, we want to have nice memento photos of the event, but unless you go alone on assignment your objective is NOT photography. This is a good time to leave your hobby/passion at home and focus on the family, but I can relate with the desire to still have great keepsake photos to remember the event. Here’s some tips on how you can do that:

  1. Leave the DSLR at home – Yes, I know this is painful as there are so many beautiful colors and things to photograph at Disney, but are you there to take photos or to have a great experience with your family? I’ve talked to hundreds of photographers who before their trip thought they could do both, but I have not spoken to a single spouse who agrees that they accomplished that objective. Your objective is to spend time with family, so leave your big camera and lenses at home. Should you decide to bring them, you’ll often find that they get in the way and you never have the lens you want for any given moment in time. Stopping to switch lenses or add a flash isn’t going to make your spouse or kids happy, so trust me when I say DO NOT GO THERE!
  2. Get a killer small camera – I’ve written articles in the past where I’ve taken a G9 to Disneyland, and for Disney World this year I’m taking the X20. Whatever camera you take – make sure it is compact. If you want great photos with a compact camera then you better be willing to pony up some bucks because all of the great ones I’ve reviewed have been in the $500+ range. A used Fujifilm X10 is a good budget solution, but at the end of the day you are going to want a camera that you can lift, click and get the shot – without a lot fiddling around. Great high ISO performance is a huge plus, and personally I prefer a zoom lens over fixed lens solutions like the Sony RX-1 of Fujifilm X100s. See the right side of my blog for a complete list of cameras I’ve reviewed.
  3. Open up your wallet – While the shots may not be as good as one’s you would take with your fancy, schmancy DSLR, go ahead and pay for Disney Photo Pass to take DSLR shots of you and your family. Your family will appreciate you being in the shot and you’ll get your high quality keepsakes. Sure they are shooting with Rebel-class cameras, but odds are they will still be better than yours small camera by virtue of a larger sensor. These folks often know where the great places are to shoot because these people take the same damn shot a thousand times a day in that spot! Sadly though these photographers range from mediocre to downright sloppy, but you’ll care less about composition / quality 20 years from now when your little ones are all grown up.

Tip: Involve your family in your limited photography by letting them take the shots too – even the small kids.

While not perfect, this shot taken by my 5 year old daughter (at the time)
was one of my favorites of the trip – because it was her photo!
Involving family may not get you perfection, but it might get you pleasant
memories. I highly encourage it!

Screw you Ron, I’m bringing my good camera

Okay, let’s assume I’m an idiot and don’t know what I’m taking about about. At a minimum if you are going to bring your good gear then consider a mirrorless like the Fujifilm X-E1 where you’ll have a smaller body and lenses to haul around. If you aren’t willing to make that investment and you must bring your big DSLR, then consider a big zoom like a Canon 28-300mm or Nikon 18-300mm so that you aren’t changing lenses. Sure you’ll sacrifice a little quality over your high end pro lenses, but that can most often be fixed in post-processing via sharpening. Personally I find 200mm is plenty of reach – especially with cropped sensor cameras. If you want great quality then a dual lens setup with a 24-70 f/2.8L II & 70-200mm or a 70-300mm can be a a good choice. 

One thing I ask before you do this though is have your spouse read this article. ;-) While s/he may not say anything at first, it’s been my experience that 100% of the time the spouse gets fed up with the Disney vacation becoming a photo walk. Their visions of a happy family enjoying a wonderful experience together are already ruined by the sheer exhaustion that typically happens during a Disney vacation, so your clicking a half dozen photos every 5 minutes is not going to help keep that frustration at bay.

Thanks for depressing me, now what?!!!

Disney offers many fun shooting opportunities (Unedited X20 Shot)
While your images might not be DSLR like, good weather and light can give you some
solid images that look great after simple editing with Color Efex

When I give people Disney Camera advice I usually get the following reactions:

  1. You don’t know what you are talking about MY spouse is different – This is the photographer who usually has a piece of photography gear thrown at them by their formerly unflappable spouse who never got angry once in the X years they had been married. If you think this, then hire a good lawyer because there will come a day – and it may be 20 years from now – where you’ll need it because you are clueless about to read your partners true intentions.
  2. Crap, I’ve spent $4000 on gear and you are telling me I need something else now? – This is the tough one that even I faced, but I’d also consider you do what I did – reach out to your friend network and see if you have a friend who will loan you the camera you need – perhaps even in exchange for you loaning them your DSLR. Even if you are terrified of loaning someone your gear, TRUST ME – gear at Disney will take more of a beating than anything your friend will typically do with your DSLR back home! You are the one who is going to add scuffs and dings to their precious camera. You can also consider renting which is cheaper than purchasing, so if you go back to your DSLR when you get home then your rental money will be well spent.
  3. Okay, I trust you – now what?!! – See #2, but generally speaking you want an all-in one solution. Sure cameras like the x100s and RX-1 are tempting, but the lack of zoom will prove frustrating at Disney. My weapon of choice in the past was the Fujifilm x10, but now is the x20. It’s hard to go wrong with either, but the x10 does have the advantage of its EXR mode which is pretty much a full-auto that “just works”. Sure you won’t have raw files, but are you REALLY going to go through and process the RAW versions of all 450+ Disney photos you took? Are these really your portfolio images, or are they really for your family and parents? The truth of the matter is that these photos will often be keepsakes that are shared privately so the content will outweigh the quality 99.999999% of the time. As a result, take advantage of the engineering you’ve paid for in your camera and take advantage of the work done to create very usable JPEG images that are sure to make mom happy! If you can get RAW images out of your camera then do that too for the extra insurance you get with having a raw handy.

If you REALLY want to do it right…

Okay, with the lecture behind me I can honestly say that any Disney property is a photographers dream. While you probably won’t get the release you need to use the photos commercially, it can still be a great place to add photos to your personal collection. If you really want to do Disney right as a photographer my biggest advice is to carve out a few days where it’s just you and your camera at the park. This removes you from any family obligations so you can be there for the park opening and most importantly, sunset. What’s more it’s my understanding that you can still bring tripods into the park, so you can setup and take your time to get the great shots of your favorite locations. This also allows you to take super long exposures with a ND filter to help eliminate moving people from your shot. While flash photography isn’t allowed in the attractions, a good DSLR with great high ISO performance is going to help you a lot at freezing the action. Point and shoots generally don’t cut it here, and the smaller form factor cameras that do often don’t have the high ISO range of some of the better DSLR’s.

Lens wise you’ll benefit from having a lens or dual camera setup that minimizes your lens changes, but generally speaking you’ll probably not want anything larger than a 70-200mm lens – even if you are by yourself. A macro is always handy at Disney as is a standard zoom lens.

You can do yourself a huge favor when you are on your own by timing your visit to occur during off-peak times. This will mean shorter park hours, so if your real objective are fireworks, the light parade or Cinderella’s castle at night then peak season might be a better bet. Generally after the fireworks and last parade the park remains open for about an hour with a much smaller group of people. This is where the photographers come out with the tripods and set up the perfect shot.

Don’t leave home without this…

Whether you choose to shoot with a point and shoot or DSLR, there’s a few must haves that you’ll want on your trip:

  1. Hoodman Loupe – If you do any daytime shooting it will be very difficult to see your LCD in the bight California or Florida sunshine, so you’ll be very glad to have something that can cover your screen so you can view your LCD image with some degree of accuracy. Especially when the light goes harsh this is important as camera meters have to make tough tradeoffs in hash light, so you’ll end up with images that can easily be too bright or too dark. Knowing that before you get home is important, and your histogram won’t always tell you what you really need to know – does my exposure look the way I intended.
  2. Lens cleaner and microfiber – You’ll need a lot of microfibers in fact because you’ll be sweating profusely with sunscreen getting smeared on your camera during the hustle and bustle of getting around the park. Wiping your lens with your shirt or a napkin isn’t going to cut through residue, so clean your lens & LCD often and properly to get the best results. Typically when you are waiting in line for an attraction is a good time.
  3. Lens Hood – Your lens should always have a hood on it in sunny conditions (at a minimum), so if you don’t have a hood at Disney you’ll probably end up with a lot more lens flare and washed out shots than you were expecting.
  4. Flash – A flash – especially one that supports high-speed sync – can be invaluable tor getting you proper fill flash exposures in harsh conditions. If you are stuck with an on-camera flash then just use a single layer of a white napkin or a ketchup cup, because you don’t want to be the dork at the park with reflectors and an assistant!
  5. Essentials – It goes without saying that sunscreen, water, hand sanitizer, and something like baby wipes to keep the oils off your hands are very helpful – at any location on a hot day. There’s a bunch more, but there are tons of books written on what to bring to Disney.

TIP: I’ve seen sunscreen completely erase lettering on cameras before, so if you care about your gear then be careful to avoid sunscreen on it.


Disney Parks are a great activity for the family, so unless you have very deep pockets I’d suggest spending the money on your family first. A good point and shoot or even cell phone will give you the memory shots that you want from a trip, and the picture pass can give you some DSLR shots for the most scenic photo ops with the family. Investing in great memories with your family is going to pay better dividends in the end too!  As such, to me Disney is about fun with loved ones, not photography.

If you don’t have a family yet or have tons of money to burn, then make a special trip to Disney as a photography destination and enjoy everything but the rides during the peak lighting conditions. Stay at the Disney owned hotel closest to the park and dump your gear off mid-day to enjoy the park or rest, and save your shooting times when the odds are in your favor. There’s lots of fun things to shoot and you’ll have a lot more fun when your family isn’t yelling at you stop taking photos and saying c’mon!


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bgood said...

Practcal advice as usual. Fill flash in harsh sunlight is essential (for people shots) in my opinion and should be factored into camera choice.

Jamie said...

Great article, Ron!

I've been to Disney World and the related theme parks many, many times. Thankfully my folks are Disney Vacation Club members so the cost of our lodging is pretty minimal.

On my earlier visits, it was primarily point & shoot cameras. But, as my gear and skills improved, I started bringing my professional gear. By this time, my kids were older and more patient with me giving me the time I wanted to capture the sights and unique elements that only a Disney vacation can provide.

On my most recent visit, we went back to the park after dinner and I brought my tripod to get some outstanding night shots! I spent nearly 40 minutes getting great captures of the various color cycles of Cinderella's Castle!

But, the most important advice I pass along to all my first-time visiting friends relates to Disney's PhotoPass.

Disney's PhotoPass is a unique setup. There are quality photographers stationed at all the "prime" scenic locations in ALL of the DIsney parks. At your first stop, they will give you a PhotoPass card. After they take your picture, they scan the card and all those photos are now tied to YOUR account.

The first piece of advice: use your camera phone to take a picture of the back of this card. If you lose it, you COULD lose all those memories. As long as you know the account number, you can retain those images.

Second, give them YOUR camera! Yes, they will not only use their equipment, they will also take pictures with your camera. These folks see hundreds of guests per day so they can operate nearly every camera made! P&S or dSLR - they will get you quality shots.

Lastly, if you've fully taken advantage of the PhotoPass card, buy the CD when you get home! Yes, it's expensive, but you go online to their sometimes-clunky website where you can add borders and custom graphic touches to your PhotoPass images. You can also size them as you wish. No matter how many images are on your account, one fee covers ALL images!

Lastly - enjoy all the Disney has to offer. Take your time and don't rush to "see and do everything." There's never enough time in the day so start with a gameplan and don't feel bad to skip something. You can always come back another time!

Justin A said...

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