The D(i)S(ney)LR Series: Shooting Indoor Character Meetings
This will be a 2 part article! Next week we'll tackling EDITING these photos!
Feeling pretty good about working with natural light? Great. Now it's time to up the difficulty factor and move INDOORS. NO SUN. So... best practices for the character interaction locations that are pre-lit by Disney (so not just casually running into a princess walking down the hall). This will generally work for Princess Fairytale Hall, The Grotto, Town Square Theater, Epcot Character Spot (but not World Showcase Epcot indoor character interactions, those are their own thing with even worse lighting to deal with), Mickey & Minnie at DAK, Mickey & Minnie at Hollywood Studios, and Launch Bay. This is NOT character dining (which is not pre-lit).
There are good and bad aspects of having these locations prelit. Good: the ambient light level is high enough that it generally means you will be fine to shoot without a low light lens or flash. Bad: there tends to be lots of stylized lighting and colored gels that mean COLOR CORRECTION WORK in post. Disney lights these locations to look cool to the naked eye, not the camera, because all their photopass photographers shoot with flash (ew). DON'T PANIC. It's not quite as point and shoot as a daytime parade (you'll have to work a little harder in post), but it's still not too challenging to get the results you want if you're patient.
Where to Shoot
Some of these locations are easier starting out than others. Epcot Character Spot tends to have pretty even lighting (Joy & Sadness's location is one of my favorite to shoot- it's well lit and the colorful backgrounds make for incredibly vibrant photos). The Grotto is the bane of many people's editing existence. Still, the approach to shooting them is generally the same. For me, I'm going in with a kid, and I'm going to shoot the kid interacting with the character; my main intention is to shoot candids. If I'm just walking in by myself to get portraits, that's another thing.
So as far as where to position yourself in the location: stay flexible. Don't be afraid to move. And GET. LOW. Especially if you are with a kid. The photopass will generally pick a spot right in the middle and stay standing for the whole interaction. Don't just get the same stuff the photopass is getting. I like to be on eye level with my kid, which generally means I'm crouched (and most characters will do the same to make a better interaction with the kid). The photopass or attendant will generally urge you to move past them and stay to the far side of them during the interaction. With that said... I'm a photographer. I'm going where I want to go. I'll stay out of the Photopass' way, but I'm not limiting where I'm going based on not crossing over. Let me tell you, the flash from a Photopass camera has ruined plenty of my shots, so turnaround is fair play.
An exercise in futility, honestly, since you're going to have to do a lot of work in post on this (just wait until the next article when I show you unedited RAW files). Still, give yourself the best start by using the Incandescent setting in camera. Usually, this will be closest. If you want to take some test shots experimenting with the Fluorescent settings, too, be my guest. None of them will be perfect.
Exposure & Focus
Depending on the capabilities of your DSLR, you can still shoot with no flash in these locations even with a stock lens (ie, aperture no bigger than 3.5 or so). When I first started going into Fairytale Hall, I'd crank my aperture as wide as I could go and my shutter speed would be too slow. Why? I was terrified of cranking my ISO and having grainy pictures. My pictures were blurry. My kid would be out of focus when the princess was. It was so annoying. So I crank my ISO (within reason) and that gives me a lot more freedom with my aperture and shutter speed. Because my photos are candid. My kid is moving. The character is moving. I HAVE TO HAVE THIS CUSHION. If you are just going to walk into Fairytale Hall and have the princess pose perfectly still for you? You don't have to have that same flexibility.
(As a reminder, these camera setting are on a Nikon D600- different models' ISO settings might look/respond differently.) I've shot Fairytale hall on a prime. I've shot it on a 50mm and an 85mm. I don't particularly recommend the 85mm for indoor character interactions; your field of view is limited and sometimes you just can't back up far enough to get it to do what you want. The 50 is manageable; you'll generally end up staying back by the Photopass. I would only recommend these if you're not trying to get candids. I've been the most happy with my shots when I've got a wide-normal zoom (in other words, the stock lens that comes with most cameras). I've used my 28-105 and my 28-300, and my focal length generally stays between 28-60 while I'm shooting. So that 18-55 lens? It will work. It will work GREAT. You'll have the perfect flexibility to get candids of your family interacting with their favorite characters.
The first thing I do to my camera (assuming the lens I want is already attached) is crank that ISO. DON'T BE SCARED. For all these locations, I'm anywhere between 3200 and 5000. My camera also has an in-camera function for High ISO Noise Reduction which I turn on anytime I'm at 3200 or higher (I still clean it up further in post, but it doesn't hurt).
Aperture- IT DEPENDS. #1 rule- if your lens has a variable aperture (I know I have said this before), make sure your aperture is no bigger than where it would end up if you are zoomed all the way in (like a 4.5). It's hard enough to compensate moment to moment for exposure when shooting a fast paced character interaction, you don't want to also be dealing with your aperture stepping up and down while you change your focal length. Again, unless you are only going to take posed, still photos, you want and NEED some room with your Depth of Field to work with (or you'll never get both the character and the kid in focus). I would LOVE to be able to shoot an f8, but that won't happen without a flash (and I refuse), so I usually end up somewhere between a 4 and a 5.6. I might adjust it during test shots depending on where I need to be for my shutter speed.
Shutter Speed- Just like with shooting FoF, this is the easiest setting to ajust on the fly to allow for variations in lighting as you move around, Still, you need to make sure that you're staying above 1/125 (trust me). Again, static posed princess? Feel free to go slower. With a kid talking a mile a minute and a princess trying to keep up? 1/125. Bare minimum. If they are going to do twirls with the princess? HIGHER, MAN, HIGHER!!! I've gone up to around 1/400 (but this also means a higher ISO and a wider aperture so... there's give and take here).
Focus- Manual focus during a character interaction with a kid is BEYOND futile. I would actually say that, if you are doing the posed princess picture, you'll probably be happier with manual focus. Auto focus (particularly in the hall) can get a little confused with all the moving people, decorative curtains, etc. (I have handfuls of photos where the focus is on the background instead of the character and my kid). It doesn't help that there are TWO foreground subjects you're trying to focus on, generally of mismatched height. Your safest bet is to try and keep your kid and the character as close to the same distance away from your camera as possible. If autofocus keeps moving to the background, try centering the character OR your kid in the frame, locking the focus, then reframing (I end up doing this so much I don't even notice anymore). Even with static posed photos and close ups, center the face in the frame, get that focus point right on the eyes, lock it, THEN reframe and shoot. I know that sounds tedious, but with practice you'll be able to do it in a second or two. The more you shoot, the more used to the buttons your fingers will be. My focus lock is my right thumb, right next to my shutter speed adjustment. I don't have to look at it, I just do it. Just be careful that you don't change your distance from your subject once you've locked that focus.
What makes a good character interaction photo? I'm always looking to capture the moments of honest emotion: candids. Sure, I'll get the posed photos in the end, but it's the real moments of joy or humor that are my absolute favorites.
I know I talked about shooting wide and cropping in for outdoor parades and shows, but I'm much more reluctant to do that in these interactions. Those wide focal lengths (18-28) produce a distortion/warping of the frame that is MUCH more noticeable when you are this close to your subjects. Portraits in particular tend to be very unflattering on those short focal lengths. Generally speaking, I'll start on the wider end of the spectrum for the character interaction while everybody is getting comfortable, but I'll be pushing in closer to 35-50 every chance I get. This is why I tend to move around but stay back by the photopass: so that I CAN zoom in to get those moments without cutting anybody off in the frame.
For me the most important part of shooting an interaction is capturing that memory, that perfect moment. We're no longer artfully framing a parade float against fluffy white clouds. This is about CAPTURING THE MAGIC OF DISNEY in a photo. So... I know this might sound counter intuitive, but don't bury your face in the camera. Be present. Know what's happening. This is not the time to be locked into your viewfinder. Frame up your shot, but poke your head out and don't be afraid to snap a shot even if you aren't looking at it through the viewfinder to see if it's perfect. GET THE SHOT. Get that moment. As long as you've done enough test shots to get your exposure reasonably good, you can fix most other things in Lightroom.
So that's what we'll talk about next week.