You usually don’t hear words like “exciting” or “daring” to describe most engineers, and it looks like I’m no different. I say this because it looks like my mid-life crisis involves photography rather than a motorcycle or a sports car (although the new Corvettes look pretty nice). Until about five years ago, I was content to shoot photos with a point and shoot digital camera, never changing any settings or worrying about any of the finer points of photography.
But then in 2010, I bought a Pentax K-x DSLR, and things started to change, albeit slowly. Even then I shot in Auto mode, maybe daring to turn off Auto flash. The tipping point came in 2011 when we spent two weeks at Walt Disney World, and I must have taken 1,500 pictures over the course of that trip. Not that many were all that good, but I noticed a distinct improvement in the photos, even though I still made very little effort to frame shots or consider composition, lighting, etc.
After the trip, I spent quite a while looking at my photos and started to look at some of the great photos that are all over the Internet. I’d see great fireworks photos, or terrific dark ride photos and tell myself that I could do that.
Keep in mind that up to this point, I’d never really spun the dial on my Pentax off Auto. No big deal – I’d let the technology do it for me. It was going to be two years until our next trip to Walt Disney World. I’d never adjusted aperture, shutter speed, or ISO. I bet a lot of you are wondering how I got my degree in engineering. You wouldn’t be the first.
Here’s where I made my first mistake – I figured I’d get exponentially better results without any practice. Good (and great photography) takes time – getting to know your gear, taking photographs “that don’t matter”, and learning before you’re in the location where you want to get your great photos. In other words, I should have trained for better photography – just like runners do for runDisney events. Even experienced runners get out a little. So why not for photography?
Also, many of those great online photos are by people who’ve spent years working on their photography, even if only on a casual basis. Besides skill, those photographers have a plan, and have time to setup for many of these shots. And some visit the parks many times every year. Most of these photographers are also carrying some pretty nice (and expensive) gear. If nothing else, the odds are they’ll have more of an opportunity to capture a great shot, and they have the skill to make the most of that opportunity.
In April 2014, we finally returned to Walt Disney World. We had a great time, but certainly not the “glitch free” trip we all hope for. That’s where some circumstances beyond my control conspired to spoil my “plan”, such as it was. As luck would have it, we fought illness during the drive over and for the first few days of the trip, so touring plans changed. In a great stroke of irony, we only visited EPCOT once, despite being there during the Flower and Garden Festival. I was really excited to get photos of the topiaries, but we MOTORED through EPCOT. So in many ways, it doesn’t seem like we were there at all, and I came away with a disappointed feeling from a photography standpoint. I was running around like you wouldn’t believe trying to shoot topiaries. Say the word “topiaries” to my kids and they’ll just shake their heads.
To add to this, the Auto/Manual focus switch on my Pentax K-x stuck, so I was unable to get into manual focus. That’s not a big deal for most shots, but for dark ride photography and shooting fireworks, manual focus is the way to go, unless you’re really good at using your camera’s auto focus. One good thing, though, is the switch defaults to Auto, so I was able to get decent photos, but not the dark ride shots that I’d hoped to get. And hand holding your camera and trying to be still just for a 1 second shutter speed isn’t going to work. But when I realized I was having gear problems on top of the other issues we’d had, for a little while I wished I’d chosen another new hobby. Not checking my gear before the trip was my second mistake.
Even in the midst of all this, I did get some shots that were better than on previous trips. I also made the decision mid-trip to shoot RAW format, which allows greater flexibility in post processing photos to make them better, or in my case, turn a bad shot into an ok photo. RAW vs. .jpg is like debating reading the unabridged book or the abridged version. The story suffers some loss in the abridged version – and the same goes for .jpg photo files. I used to worry about disk space taken up by the larger files – in this day and age, digital storage (whether online or disk) is cheaper and more available, so take advantage of it.
And I learned other lessons:
- Check your gear before the trip, and if necessary get repairs done (you can rent or borrow another camera too). Find out about your gear problems before you get there. It’ll reduce your stress if nothing else.
- Practice, practice, practice. Don’t do it like I did. Technology is great, but the camera can’t overcome excessive user error.
- Have a plan, but be flexible. Think of the shots you want to get, and when you want to get them. So now I have my plan for each park, and even if it takes years to complete, it should be a fun process. I’d love to go on a trip where I can focus only on photography, but the chances of that happening are pretty slim.
- Make sure to look away from the view finder or camera screen. Look at the parks and resorts with your own eyes and record memories that you alone will carry. And there’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself short on time since you’re trying to cram in rides, meals, shows, whatever. Just go with it.
- Don’t give up on “bad” photos. Software can help salvage photos that make you want to sell all your camera gear.
- Don’t be embarrassed to share your photos. Not surprisingly, the online Disney fan community is overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and there are experts in every field, including photography. The Disney fan community is great about sharing their tips and knowledge on every subject.
The overall takeaway here is, I underestimated how difficult photography can be – shooting the dark rides and other Disney subjects isn’t easy, even when your gear is working. I was also pretty naive in thinking that my camera would work perfectly and overcome any shortcomings I have, and that I’d be able to figure out how to manipulate settings while trying to walk (or speed-walk!) around the parks.
I’m not sure when we’re going back, but I think the photos from the next trip will be better, and hope to improve every time after that, too. In the meantime, I’m asking for your help – please comment below and share your experiences on how you’ve improved your photography overall, and especially your photography at the Disney parks and resorts. And please check out my Flickr Photo stream: chris_white23. I appreciate any comments you’d have.