So you’ve taken “postcard” photos of all the attractions at Disney World. You have shots of Cinderella’s Castle, Spaceship Earth, the Sorcerer’s Hat, and the Tree of Life from every angle and at every hour of day. What’s next? Why not try a new challenge to round out your Disney photo portfolio: character portraits. A few years ago I decided my Disney photo collection was lacking the “human touch”. After all, the Disney movies I’d been watching for years were about characters, not buildings. OK, some of the characters weren’t human, but you get my drift. For my next couple of visits to Disney World I made it a point to photograph as many characters as I could. Try it on your next visit, it’s fun! My emphasis has been on actual human faces, not ones in costumes like Mickey Mouse or Goofy, but the following hints and tips should work on any of your “live” subjects. They also apply whether you or your kids are posing with the characters or not.
A good portrait is a collaboration between two (or more) people – the photographer and the model(s). Well, we’ve got the photographer part taken care of, now we need some models. At a Disney park, we have what could be called a “target rich environment”. Characters are abundant wherever you go, but some parks are better than others. The most obvious place to find characters are at the Character Greetings (duh!). Check the schedule that you get at the entrance for times and locations. My favorite park for portrait photography is Epcot, mostly around the World Showcase countries. Almost every country’s pavilion has someone to photograph. For example, Germany has Snow White, China has Mulan, etc. France is especially good – you can catch Belle and the Beast, Princess Aurora, and Esmeralda close to one another if you’re lucky. It seems that the characters show up in the late morning and are on the job until 3 or 4 in the afternoon (nice work if you can get it!). They’re out posing and signing autographs for twenty minutes or so, then they take a ten minute break before they come out again. So if you don’t see a character where you think they should be, just stick around for awhile. When you see a photogenic character, stand in line and wait. When it’s your turn, they’ll know what to do. I’ll usually snap off 9 or 10 photos, then thank them and let the next person in line start their visit. If you don’t want to wait, you can usually go up to one side of the line and just take pictures. The character will rarely look at you though, because he or she is busy with the persons who waited. The lines at Epcot are usually much shorter than at the other parks. If you don’t have your child there to pose with the character, don’t worry. Get in line and take some pictures anyway! They’re used to having their picture taken. You can tell they’ve obviously been taught the correct way to pose according to which character they are, especially by the way they hold their hands. Don’t be shy – you’ve got some great models in colorful costumes right in front of you!
There are two other good places to get portraits: parades and shows. My favorite parade is Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade at Animal Kingdom. The costumes are colorful and the characters are a bit closer. Besides, I can wait for the parade to end, then go catch it again as it loops back around! I also enjoyed the Stars & Motor Cars Parade at the old MGM Studios until they replaced it with the Block Party Bash (which is still a good opportunity). The parade at the Magic Kingdom is nice but I find it a little too crowded for my taste. For live shows, you can’t beat Off Kilter at the Canada Pavilion. If they see you close to the stage with a camera up to your face, they’ll actually pose for you while they’re in the middle of a song! Would Madonna do that? No, I didn’t think so! The pirate show near Pirates of the Caribbean is another excellent photo opportunity. One last thing: don’t forget regular castmembers such as ride operators, store clerks, etc., if they’re not busy. I recommend that you ask permission first for these non-performing “characters”, but I’ve never been turned down and most are more than happy (and flattered) to pose for a photo by themselves or with another person. You can make someone’s day and meet a new friend at the same time. Again, make sure you’re not interfering with their duties.
OK, you’ve found a character to photograph. Now let’s get into some technical stuff on how to do it. A DSLR (or SLR for you film dinosaurs) is your best bet because it’s more responsive. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get good results from a point and shoot, though. I like to use a telephoto zoom lens with focal lengths starting at about 100mm and ending at about 300mm (or whatever the equivalent 35mm focal lengths are for your camera). A telephoto lens lets you get close to your subject so you can frame their head and shoulders without getting uncomfortably close. The zoom will let you compose different shots without you having to physically move in or out. A telephoto will also make it much easier to get the blurry or less distinct background (called “bokeh”) while your subject remains sharp. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the sharpest part of a photo. I use the aperture-priority mode on my camera so that I control the aperture and the camera does the rest. Choose a wide aperture (small f-number), as wide as the lens will go or maybe one stop down. Not only will that help you get a blurry background, but it will have the added benefit of letting your camera use a faster shutter speed. Use the highest ISO you’re comfortable with. Again, that will allow you to get a faster shutter speed. Most DSLRs today can go to ISO 800 or more and still get great results. Most point and shoot cameras start getting too noisy above ISO 400. The better you know your own camera, the better your results will be. The best way to know your camera is to practice using it before you head to the parks!
We can’t control the weather (yet) but the best times for outdoor character portraits are when it’s cloudy. It might seem strange, but the light is more even and is less harsh. The highlights and shadows on your subject are less extreme which makes it easier to work on your photo when you get on your computer at home. Another benefit of cloudy days is that your subjects aren’t squinting. Even the most beautiful princess doesn’t look quite as good when her eyes are half-closed because of the bright sun. Luckily, most character greeting areas (especially at Epcot) are in the shade, so you can snap away whether the sun is out or not. For parades or outdoor shows, you’ll have to hope for clouds or go to a non-sunlit place (easiest at Animal Kingdom). Consider using the flash on your camera even in mid-day. This technique is called “fill-in flash” and is most effective when your subject is in bright sun because the flash will brighten the harsh, dark shadows, like those under a person’s eyes or nose. It won’t cure squinting, however! All of my portraits are done without a flash, mostly because my Canon 5D doesn’t have one and I don’t feel like carrying one around.
As you can see, the idea is to get a picture where your subject is very sharp but your background is blurry. If you possibly can, focus on your subject’s eyes. This is where your viewers’ eyes will go first when they look at your photo. Of course, that is easier said than done, especially when your subject is moving around in a parade or show. Many cameras have a “servo” or continuous-focus mode so that the camera attempts to focus on your subject even if he or she is moving toward or away from you. I use this feature during parades. Another technique I sometimes use is the machine gun approach. I put my camera on burst mode, press the “trigger” and let ‘er rip. At least ONE photo out of a hundred should turn out good, shouldn’t it? Be careful – this technique will fill up your memory card quickly if you use RAW. For parades and shows, I usually set my camera to JPG and a medium or even small photo size. Try it! Just be sure to set your camera back to where you want it when the event is over.
Now you have some new subjects to photograph on your next Disney trip. Taking portraits is a challenging but rewarding way to have fun with your camera and expand your photographic knowledge. Your experience with Disney “models” will transfer over to your photos of family and friends. Don’t forget to post your pictures on the TMIP forums!
(Ed. Note: Scott Dommin has been an enthusiastic amateur photographer for over 35 years. He served as a Hurricane Hunter in the US Air Force and is a retired air traffic controller. His photos can be seen at: http://www.pbase.com/sdommin & http://home.att.net/~typhoon1/).