Dark Ride Shooting

Steve Jobs

I have been asked by quite a few people to share my Dark Ride Shooting Secrets, so I decided that I would put all that I know into a comprehensive post which I hope will help everyone.

Shooting on the Dark Rides is one of the toughest places to attempt to photograph. There is the combination of extreme low lighting and the fact that you are moving, and most of the animatronics are moving too. So there is a real challenge with getting the right settings for your camera to handle these extreme situations.

Even though the equipment you use does matter, it isn’t all about the equipment you have but it is also about how you control that equipment to make it work for you.

There are four areas that you need to focus on to be able to shoot well on the Dark Rides and get good images from those shots. They are your equipment, the camera settings you use, your shooting technique, and your post processing. The Wizard Of OZ


As I said, your equipment matters and main part is the camera. Why the camera matters is due to its sensor. For the dark rides you need to have a camera that has a good enough sensor to be able to shoot on a high ISO and not have too much digital noise. A few short years ago camera sensors topped out around ISO 800 to be able to get useable images without too much digital noise, and iso 1600 with quite a bit.

Today there are quite a few that can shoot up to iso 6400 and get useable image, and a few like my D3S that can shoot at an incredible 104,000 iso. Though the most useable top end iso for decent images seems to top out around iso 25,000 on that camera. If you have a camera that can shoot at an iso of around 3000 you should be able to shoot on most of the dark rides and get some good images. But that is if you have a fast enough lens.

The camera lens you choose is just as important as the camera you chose. The most popular choice of lenses for the Dark Rides is a superfast prime lens. A fast prime means one that lets in a lot of light due to a really wide aperture, something like a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8. The reason for that is so you can get as much light onto the sensor as you can with a wide aperture and keep your shutter speed up in really dark conditions.

Now if you have a newer camera with one of those amazing sensors you can get away with using a zoom on those rides. I prefer using a zoom on these rides because when I am locked within a small area on the ride, the zoom allows me some extra freedom to compose TTL versus having to compromise. The zoom of choice by most people on these rides is usually a standard fast fixed f/2.8 zoom, which is considered a professional lens. But the f/2.8 is one full stop slower than an f/1.4 aperture, which is its only downside.

Both Nikon and Canon now have a line of newer f/4 lenses which have built-in image stabilization which helps a lot when you are on shooting on these moving rides. Let me say though, that the VR or IS will help steady YOU holding the camera, it will not help steady moving objects in the frame. That is the downside of these lenses versus their f/2.8 counterparts, they are a full stop slower.

I love both my 16-35mm f4 and my 24-120mm f/4 Nikons, both have silent wave motors and image stabilization along with what Nikon calls a Nano coating which is supposed to give better color and contrast. Notice that both of those lenses have a nice wide end, which is something I love because I really love being to get the whole scene into the frame.

There is one more thing that helps tremendously with the lenses to, whether you have a prime or a non-VR/IS lens, and that is having a lens with a silent wave motor. These lenses focus faster and more accurately without a lot of ‘searching’. The old screw driven lenses can take forever while focusing around trying to lock on, which can easily make you miss shots.

I would suggest not using a variable aperture zoom lens on these rides since the aperture will change or get smaller as you zoom which will limit the amount of light you can gather.

Camera Settings A scene on the ride

After you have decided on your camera and lens combination the next thing to do is set up your camera for dark ride shooting. As much as I use manual settings for daylight shooting, for these rides I always go full auto.

Here are my settings or my shooting workflow I should say;

For me this first step is already done since I shoot RAW all the time. I am telling you this because it is a very important key ingredient *smiley face*. Set your camera to RAW, if you are shooting JPEG on these rides you will never fully realize your cameras potential, or yours. RAW is a must for dark ride shooting! As I said I shoot RAW all the time, and I shoot 14-bit RAW over 12-bit RAW, and the reason for that is easy. 14-bit captures more information than 12-bit. Well duh right? But the difference between the two isn’t that noticeable until you start trying to open the dark areas in a shot. There is SO much more information that is captured in the shadows with 14 versus 12 that it is crazy amazing. When you start to process your shots you will see.

I then set my ISO to the highest setting that I can get a useable image at, for me it is either iso 10,000 or iso 12,800. I have found that with a fast prime you can use an iso as low as 1600 depending on which ride you’re on.

I then set my camera to Shutter Priority. In this setting the camera is going to keep the shutter speed you choose and only adjust the aperture if it needs to. I usually start at 1/40 second and adjust as needed on the rides. This is where once you get on the ride, shoot a test shot or two and peek at your LCD to see if you’re getting enough light. The slowest I will go is 1/20 second depending on the ride. If you use any other auto mode the first setting the camera will change to get a correct exposure is your shutter speed. And that can be as low as 1/8 of a second or slower, which unless a ride is stopped you will not get a sharp image, even with a VR lens.

I next set my auto focus to AF-C, which is continuous focus. I also use a single focus point with the 51-segment metering. The reason I use the single focus point is because then when you are riding and composing you can move that point around in the frame to help get focus lock. If you use a multi-point system, it is going to lock on the closest thing to your lens if it even locks at all.

The next thing I make sure I do is set my release mode to continuous. That way I can fire off quick bursts by just holding down the shutter. On my camera I have a low and high setting. I set it for high which will give me more frames per second. There is a drawback to using that though, I am guaranteed to have at least one frame out of focus. The faster the shutter clicks off, the less time the AF detection system has to shoot through the mirror to send info to the CPU even with the shutter slightly depressed.

And now for the final piece of the workflow puzzle…I set my exposure compensation to a +0.3. Why? The reason is simple. I want my exposure to be a tad bit over exposed if possible. I have found that by over exposing the shot by 1/3 a stop I am opening up the darker areas, and it may not be that noticeable until you get into the post processing that you will fully appreciate this last thing.

Shooting Technique

Now that you have the right camera lens combo and all of the settings set correctly you are ready to get on the ride. If I can I prefer to ride as a single, that way I don’t hit anyone in the head as I am spinning around, lol. But it also helps when you have no heads to shoot over. If I am on a ride like the Great Movie Ride I will try to sit on one of the sides if possible. That way you have at least one sight line clear from any moving heads or point and shoot cameras coming into your frame. Don’t you just love how people have to hold those cameras at arms-length to use them? HA!

Once you’re on the ride you must get yourself situated and ready to shoot. Camera holding technique is critical on these rides since you are moving and some rides can be a little bumpy. I try to eliminate as much movement as possible by keeping the camera as close and tight to my body as possible, which means both of my elbows are tucked in to my side super tightly, and sometimes I am bracing myself against the side of the car/ride. Basically you are making yourself a human tripod. I know I have a good wide base on the ride with my bottom (ha), so by keeping everything in close and tight it is easier to steady myself while shooting.

When the ride is moving I am constantly getting ready for the next shot. As soon as I can see it I am readying the camera and trying to get focus lock. If you wait until you are up on the scene you are too late, the chance of focusing and composing is in too tight of a window. Having the camera release mode set to continuous high, or as I heard a Photopass Photographer call it ‘Rapid Fire’—way too funny, it allows me to capture several frames of that scene. I believe in the rule of 3’s, so I always try to shoot 3 shots of each scene to insure a good one.

Now as I stated earlier, I use auto focus on these rides. I set my camera to AF-C which is continuous focus, and I use a single point auto focus area which lets me control where I want the focus to try to get a lock on. Also by having the single spot focus I can move the spot all through the frame of the camera and help it lock onto something.

Most AF systems use a contrast detection system to lock focus. So I always aim the single spot toward some light and slightly press the shutter to lock it before I trip the shutter. Let me say that again because this is the real key to using auto focus…AIM FOR THE LIGHT. I am always moving that spot around within the frame as I am composing to help the camera out and I am always locking focus as I am composing on these rides. Even after I fully press the shutter I never release it all the way until I am done shooting a scene. That way I am making the camera constantly find/keep focus.

Post Processing

This is where the real fun begins, once you get home and download all of those wonderful Dark Ride shots to your hard drive and then back them up either to a second hard drive, or to DVD’s you are ready to begin the fun of Post Processing your shots. I use Adobe Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw, & Adobe Photoshop CS5 for ALL of my post work with a splash of NIK and sometimes Topaz for the final touches. Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) is where all the work begins though.

Once I’ve opened an image through Bride into ACR, most times the image will look darker than I remember.

This is where your trained eye will be able to “see” an image for what it can become instead of just passing it by. What I am looking for when I scan through my shots are the highlights, details, sharpness, and of course composition. And even though you cannot see much here, there is a ton of information in those shadows!

So I will use the AUTO button to ‘open’ the image up, if this doesn’t work due to how many highlights there are then I will just open it by using EXPSOURE and BRIGHTNESS.

This allows me to see EVERYTHING that the sensor picked up. This is where using RAW 14-Bit is SO important! If you used 12-Bit or worse, (ackk) JPEG, you won’t have all of this wonderful information to work with. On the darker rides/scenes when you do this the image may look a lot worse than this.

Once I have the image opened up and I can see everything, it is time to CROP and STRAIGHTEN the image, if it needs it. Even though I pride myself on getting the composition right TTL when I shoot, on these dark rides it is almost impossible to get a TTL crop since you are shooting in almost total darkness and the ride is moving. So I always post correct.

Once I crop/straighten the image I am now looking at several things within the image. One is obviously how much DIGITAL NOISE I feel I need to correct for, and the other is the WHITE BALANCE. Now here is a secret, they both go hand in hand. A lot of the noise lies within the blue channel, so when you start to color correct and get the WB down some of it will blend in.

Disney uses so many different lighting configurations that it can play havok with correcting, which is another reason to use RAW when shooting.

As you see from the above screenshot I have adjusted the TEMPERATURE and TINT only so far. I also darkened the image a little too by lowering the exposure to help me get a feel for how the final image will look. What I was looking for here in this scene is lowering the reds and getting the wood/shadows to have a more natural color feel.

Once I am happy with the Temp/Tint settings I go into the SELECTIVE COLOR to work the real magic.

As you see here I am now working with the SATURATION to tone down the colors that I feel are too strong in the image. I will also work with the LUMINANCE settings to help adjust the colors. I rarely will need to adjust any HUE’s, though I do here and there. Each ride is different, as is each scene. Once you work with some images from each ride you get a feel for what you will need to do to color correct and then your workflow will pick up.

**Side Note: Do not be afraid to adjust ANYTHING while you’re in ACR! You cannot ruin the original image! You basically are working within a layer and ALL of the information/settings/changes you are making to the image is being saved in a ‘side-car’ file. The original RAW image has not been touched. So play away!!

Once I have gotten the color looking good I move onto the CURVE to make some fine adjustments. The curve tool is really wonderful in ACR, there are two ways that you can work with it. I prefer the easier SLIDERS while in ACR. My first adjustment is always in the SHADOWS, this way I can darken them and take away some more noise. Remeber noise hides in the blue channel, but mostly the dark areas is where you see it the worst. Once I am happy with the SHADOWS I will adjust the DARKS, then BRIGHTS, then HIGHLIGHTS. And as you see from this CURVE, I am giving it a classic ‘S’ curve.

If I am happy with the overall shadows/darkness of the image, but feel I have some areas that are showing too much noise I will use the ‘PAINTBRUSH/ADJUSTMENT’ tool to darken those areas. This tool is the miracle of ACR. It allows me to paint areas that I want to ajust–to my own choosing and as fine as I need to be.

Once I feel I have gotten the image as good as I can it is now time to open it up in PHOTOSHOP. Once I have it opened in CS5 I usually go right for the NIK. NIK software is amazing. I allows me to add filters/layers to the image quickly and easily.

My two favorite filters for the Dark Rides are the PRO CONTRAST and the TONAL CONTRAST filters. Now this is going to sound crazy at first, but with this filter I put noise back into the image. “WHAT?!?!” you scream, “You just took it all out in ACR”. Yes I did, well most of it anyway. What I took out or smoothed out was the color noise, which looks really ugly. By doing that I also smoothed my whole image and now it doesn’t have much texture or depth. So I want to put some noise back in to give it that needed depth. What I am putting back into it is GREY NOISE, which in the days of film was called GRAIN. NIK allows you to use sliders also to control how much and where you want it to be applied.

Once I am happy with the amount of noise I press “OK”. This will open the filter in a new layer. Cool huh? Now I can see the whole image with the applied filter. But sometimes I don’t like what that firter does to the whole image. Now I could have used a ‘brush’ adjustment in NIK, but I feel I have more control by applying it to the whole image then using a MASK to fine tune it.

As you can see here I have used a MASK on both of my NIK layers to fine tune them. Once I am happy with this I will look at the image one more time to see if I am done. Sometimes I may save it as a TIFF and then re-open it in ACR for any fine tuning, color fixes, ect.. that I may want. But basically I am done at this point. I save ALL of my files as a .TIFF so that I have the best to print from or use for any web publications. It is easy to downsize, i.e. go from a TIFF to a JPEG, but you cannot do it in reverse.

The final image! Total workflow time, including me saving the screenshots, 10 minutes. It can go this quickly when you have good ‘negatives’ or RAW files to work from. That is why you try to get the settings as close to correct as you can in these harsh conditions. It makes your post work go so much easier.

One last thing when it comes to shooting technique, PRACTICE! Learn your camera and where all the buttons are. I go into the bathroom with a nightlight plugged into the wall next to the sink, turn off all of the lights and practice getting focus, and changing settings. This way, when you are on the ride you are ready for anything.

Thanks for reading.


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