I’m an amateur photographer and a huge fan of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights, which happens to be where I take most of my photos. I’ve received a lot of flattering comments about my photography from this year’s event, HHN XX: Twenty Years of Fear, and I’ve been asked to share some tips on how I get my results.
I currently use a Nikon D90 DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex camera) with either a 50mm f/1.8 or 55-200 mm f/4 lens. A lot of these tips will apply whether you use a point-and-shoot or a DSLR, but I’ve personally found that I appreciate the extra control that a DSLR gives me.
Getting a great nighttime photograph at an event like Halloween Horror Nights can be challenging for a number of reasons. Lighting is low and subjects are almost always moving, often producing under-exposed or blurry photographs. But the right combination of camera settings, techniques, and people skills can yield some surprisingly good results.
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. I’m no photography expert, but I’m slowly finding appropriate camera settings that work for me. Your mileage may vary depending on your desired results, your own personal style, and your camera. Here are the settings that seem to work for me:
ISO: When the event started, I had my ISO set at 3200. I’ve since found that this generates much more noise than I’d like, so I’ve started dialing it back to 2500. There’s still some noise (it seems inescapable at higher ISOs), but it’s acceptable.
F-stop: My most commonly used lens is a 50mm f/1.8. Most of my HHN nighttime shots are taken at the largest possible aperture, regardless of what lens I’m using.
Shutter: My shutter speed is typically in the 1/30 to 1/50 range. For me, this is slow enough to get lots of ambient light, as well as capture the background behind my subject.
Flash: I use the built-in flash when I’m photographing moving subjects. I know that there are anti-flash purists out there, but I’m not one of them. With a wide aperture and relatively slow shutter speed, I’ve found the flash to be really important to freeze your subject in place. Without using it, I typically get a lot of motion blur (either from the subject’s movement or from my own hands shaking).
When you’re considering taking a photo of a scareactor, try to mentally compose the shot beforehand. Take a look around the scene. Are there any interesting set pieces, lights or signage that you can incorporate into the background of your photo? Your scareactor may be the primary focus of your shot, but background elements can make photos much more interesting.
Once you have an angle that you like, try to approach the scareactor so that they’re naturally facing the right direction. It’s easier to move yourself into optimal position than to “direct” your subject.
The primary purpose of a scareactor is, obviously, to scare as many people as possible. This means they’re constantly moving, making it more difficult to get a good, crisp shot.
If you’re trying to get good, static shots of scareactors, get their permission first. I typically wait until any large groups of guests have passed by, then I’ll step up and ask, “May I take your picture?” If the scareactor is willing, they’ll stop for a second and give you their best pose. If they’d rather you not photograph them, they’ll keep moving. Don’t be offended if they don’t stop for you, they’ve got their reasons. It can be tempting to chase scareactors around, snapping photos as you run, but you’re certainly not going to get the best shots that way.
Try to be considerate of the scareactors: they’re working in a dimly-lit, bustling, crowded environment. Many of them wear masks or otherwise have their vision obstructed, and their eyes are adjusted to the darkness. Random, unexpected camera flashes can temporarily blind. Don’t jeopardize their safety for a photo.
So, a considerate scareactor has stopped and is posing for you. What now?
Don’t make them wait! Have your camera ready and snap the photo as quickly as you can. If your settings are wrong, take the picture anyway, say “thank you,” and step away. You can always tweak your settings and ask for another picture during a lull in the scaring. Don’t keep the scareactors waiting any longer than you absolutely have to.
I took roughly 400 photos at HHN XX’s Opening Night. I ended up deleting half of them right off the bat due to blurriness, bad composition, no flash, too much noise and various other reasons. Out of the 200 or so remaining, only a handful turned out really nice. Be prepared to take a lot of pictures and be prepared to throw a lot of them away.
I hope you’ll find these tips useful the next time you’re roaming around theme parks at night.
Remember: every shot you take, be it good or bad, is practice. Don’t be afraid to experiment, it’s the best way to find out what works for you. Happy photographing and I’ll see you at HHN XX: Twenty Years of Fear!