How to photograph theme parks :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to photograph theme parks

by David Peterson 0 comments

Ah, the family vacation. If you have small children, you've long ago left behind the idea of a romantic holiday in Paris, visiting The Louvre or backpacking in the high country. Your holiday destinations no longer include wine trains, fancy restaurants, and nightlife. These days your vacations are all about the kids.

Of course, I think it's pretty safe to say that all but the snobbiest of parents love Disneyland. Even if you don't much like the crowds and the long lines, you have to love the looks on your kids’ faces when they get to meet Elsa, Captain Jack, or The Mouse himself in person. But theme parks can be hazardous, too, both for your sanity and for your camera. What are some of the best (and safest) ways to capture those theme park adventures? Keep reading to find out.

  • Olympus E-M5
  • 3200
  • f/1.4
  • 0.04 sec (1/25)
  • 25 mm

Meow, Meow, A Pirate's Life for Me! by Flickr user Brett Kiger

Disneyland, or any big theme park, is a major ordeal for any family. Most people don't just go to Disneyland on a whim for a single afternoon—it's almost always a multi-day adventure that they spend months planning (and let's not forget the thousands of dollars they're likely to end up spending before the journey is over). So think about Disneyland as more of an experience than a simple destination. And start capturing photographs early—during the planning and preparation stages.

Your trip does not just begin when you walk through the gates of the Magic Kingdom—it begins the moment you tell your kids that you're going to Disneyland. Make sure you have your camera ready and take a photo of them after the big reveal. Now move onto the preparations—capture the packing process, shoot the kids just after they get up early that morning, and capture the anticipation before the long drive. And don't forget to also capture the boredom of the car trip, the stops along the way and the moment when they first see the theme park through the car window. And then of course there are individual shots you need to make sure you're capturing once you are inside the park—think about all the rides you're likely to go on and what photos you might want to capture of those particular rides. Or, you can go a little more generic and simply make a list of the types of shots you might want to get at each individual ride, such as waiting in line, looking at the ride cars before you actually get on them, the anticipation just before those cars take off and the excitement and disorientation that happens afterwards.


The right camera settings are going to vary depending on what you're shooting, so if you really don't want to spend a lot of time messing around with your settings I suggest choosing sports mode and sticking with it for all of the ride-based shots. You want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, but when things slow down feel free to switch to portrait mode, which will help blur out some of the many distractions that will be in the background of most of your images. If you prefer to work outside of scene modes, shutter priority is a good choice—choose faster shutter speeds for fast action and slower speeds for those long lines and the downtime between rides.

  • Nikon D300
  • 200
  • f/1.4
  • 0.001 sec (1/2000)
  • 50.4 mm

Two Kids Acting Normal (Explore) by Flickr user Scott Barlow


Disneyland and other similar theme parks are designed to be super family-friendly, but they're not really designed to be camera-friendly. It's not that they're camera un-friendly on purpose, it's just that thrill rides and expensive pieces of equipment don't tend to play well together. So the first thing I really need to do is caution you not only on your choice of camera, but also on how you're going to protect that camera while you're theme-parking.

Personally, I recommend leaving the DSLR at home. I know, you're going to get the best shots if you use your DSLR, but there are a myriad of problems that go along with choosing that expensive piece of equipment as your primary camera for a theme park vacation. First, it's bulky and heavy, and you need to ask yourself if you're going to feel like carrying it around all day. If you plan on getting to the park at 7 in the morning to take advantage of those early entrance passes, and if you plan on staying until the fireworks start late that night, your back and shoulder are not going to like you very much at the end of your trip—even if you are generally otherwise in pretty good shape.

But the other problem with bringing an expensive DSLR to Disneyland or a similar destination is that it's not really compatible with rides, and it's even less compatible with those jolting sorts of rides that tend to be the most popular attractions. And if you're with kids, you really don't want to have to bow out of every ride so you can guard your stuff—not only will you be separated from your family during the rides themselves (which means missing a ton of photo ops) but for the duration of time that they're standing in what is typically going to be a very long line. So whatever camera you choose really needs to be something that is compatible with everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now, if you're going to stay off of the super-fast, jolting roller coasters like Space Mountain or California Screamin’, you probably don't need to go so far as to buy a tough or rugged class digital camera especially for the trip. But, I do think these are great cameras for active people because they can withstand the jolts and knocks that are likely to happen even when you're doing your best protect them.

If you plan to mostly ride just the gentler attractions (which may be the case if your kids are quite young), you can take a lighter camera such as a micro 4/3. Whatever you choose, I strongly recommend a sturdy strap that you wear cross-body, because on some of those rides—even the gentler ones—you may find your camera flying up in the air while you're hanging on to something other than it.

Seats on some of the more jolting rides will often have a safety pocket for you to stash your camera in—if yours does, make sure you use it, especially if it's something that the ride attendant or rules advise. The possibility of getting an awesome shot is really not more important than keeping your camera safe and sound. But do make sure you remember to retrieve your camera out of that pocket at the end of the ride—I know more than one person who lost valuables at Disneyland because they forgot to pick up their stuff on the way out.

And then there is that other thing that I almost hate to mention, but that has to be brought up whenever you travel to a location where there a lot of people—and that is the possibility of theft. No one wants to admit that there might be thieves lurking at the Happiest Place on Earth, but the sad truth is that any place that attracts large crowds of people can also attract opportunistic thieves who might run off with your beloved camera and disappear into the crowd. This is yet another argument against expensive DSLRs and in favor of more economical, smaller cameras such as that rugged or tough class model. Regardless of what camera you do ultimately choose, I strongly recommend keeping it on a strap and wearing it all the time, even when you stop to eat. Setting your camera down on a table or hanging it over the back of the chair is a recipe for losing it—remember that a practiced thief can sneak in and out pretty quickly and run off with your gear before you even know what's happening.

Other must-have shots

Now that we've got that out of the way, remember that theme parks are not just about the rides—they're also about the food, the characters, the scenery, and, of course, the lines. Remember to capture the good as well as the bad. If you have kids who are constantly battling each other to be first in line, remember that those moments are not just huge embarrassments that make you want to crawl behind a tiki head, they are also photo opportunities. You're going to want to remember the conflict as well as the fun, because even though it may be trying at the time, you're going to be laughing about it later. Try staging a photo of the siblings at war in front of ‪Pirates of the Caribbean‬, and don't forget to capture those tired faces in the hotel at the end of the day, too.‬‬

  • Nikon D60
  • 200
  • f/5.6
  • 0.002 sec (1/640)
  • 27 mm

2010-12-31_NewYearsDisneyDem_051 by Flickr user theKNB

Disneyland has loads of photo opportunities after dark as well, from the Paint the Night parade to the fireworks. Now, I don't recommend bringing a tripod even if you desperately want to get pictures of the fireworks, because the only thing worse than lugging a heavy DSLR around all day is lugging around a tripod. The good news is that the Paint the Night parade features one million lights, which means that it's bright enough for you to capture even if your camera has only reasonably good low-light performance. Definitely turn up your ISO—if you're not sure how good your camera is at taking high ISO pictures, make sure you do a test before you leave home. Take a series of photographs in darker conditions at increasing ISOs, and open them up in post-processing to see how much noise you can tolerate. Avoid going any higher than that maximum setting if you can—which may mean finding a good seat early on, so you're close enough to fill the frame with those lights. Use a wide aperture if your camera has one, and whatever you do, do not engage your pop-up or onboard flash. Flash is not only going to be annoying to performers and to the other spectators, but it's also going to completely ruin the ambience of the scene.

Paint the Night by Flickr user heytherejere

Don't forget to photograph Main Street USA, that big ice cream cone or wad of cotton candy your child is eating, the dining-out experience, the crowds and the lines and everything else that makes Disneyland what it is. Photograph the aftermath of the rides as well as the anticipation—what fun is Splash Mountain if you can't get a picture of your soaking-wet kids afterwards?

I always advocate making a shot list, so be sure that you've got one in place before you leave. You don't have to stick with it religiously, but having a plan before you go is going to insure that you're capturing a wide variety of images and not just the obvious ones. And what about that iconic image of your kids standing in front of the Disneyland sign? Well, you can take that shot if you want to, but I always think it's better to have a series of images that scream "Disneyland," that do not involve those obvious poses. Instead, try capturing an image of your star-struck child's face as she looks up at the Disneyland castle or at her favorite Disney character.

  • Canon EOS 7D
  • 640
  • f/4.5
  • 0.067 sec (1/15)
  • 10 mm

Here Comes the Sun by Flickr user Brett Kiger


Disneyland (or any major theme park) is a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime adventure and you simply have to get it on camera. If you're worried about bringing a camera with you on such a crazy vacation, consider buying a budget model camera that you won't be concerned about breaking or losing. And bring lots of memory cards, too, preferably in smaller denominations, because you don't want to put all of your images on a single card and then end up losing or your camera or being a victim of a theft. Having lots of memory cards stored separately from your camera will insure you still have plenty of memories even if something happens to your camera along the way. With enough precautions, hopefully this is not going to be a problem—just make sure you don't get so wowed by all of the magic that you forget to take pictures of it.


  1. Start early
    • Photograph the preparations and the big reveal
  2. Settings
    • Fast shutter speeds for fast rides
  3. Safety
    • Bring a small, tough camera
    • Beware of thieves
  4. Make a shot list
    • Photograph the good and the bad
    • Set your ISO high for after-dark shots

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17 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.