Walt Disney World typically ranks among the most photographed places in the world. If you’re going the parks, you’re going to take photos, probably lots of them.
Prior to one of my first family trips to Disney World, I invested in some camera equipment along with a hefty stack of books about how to use said camera. My intent was to create glorious images of my daughters enjoying their time at the most magical place on earth.
Ah, the best laid plans …
I had somehow forgotten that I’m actually the mom of three constantly moving and maddeningly opinionated children. Meticulously composed/lit/focused/processed photos are simply not going to happen during my family vacation – and they might not happen on yours. But that doesn’t mean you should give up entirely. Here are some practical photo tips for real world families who want to capture their vacation memories.
Before Leaving Home
Your photo game will benefit from a little advance planning to make sure you have the tools you need and know how to use them.
What Camera(s) Should You Take to Disney World?
When you’re traveling with kids, consider leaving the DSLR at home. I own a workhorse Canon D70 and half a dozen precision lenses and some flashes and other indispensable accessories. When my kids were small, I took all that to the parks with me. This meant that I was carrying 20 pounds of photo gear, 20 pounds of diaper bag, and 30 pounds of preschooler back and forth across Fantasyland for days on end. My physical therapist could buy a Ferrari with the money I’ve spent to get my back back into working order. If you’re not carrying anything else but your camera, go ahead and take that SLR to the parks. If you’re toting kids and their gear, your phone camera is probably fine, or invest in a good pocket model instead. You’ll make up the expense in savings on Advil in just one trip.
Consider an upgrade to your phone. If you’re using your phone as your primary camera, think about whether it has the capability to get the kind of shots you’ll want on vacation.
Plan for your kids to take some photos. Hand over your old phone or buy an inexpensive pocket model. There are many waterproof digital cameras on Amazon for about $75. (Now you don’t have to brainstorm a birthday present.) That 75 bucks will entertain your kiddo in the pool for hours, allowing you to enjoy a fruity beverage and another chapter of that page turner novel on your Kindle. And who knows, Junior might even get a decent shot or two. You’re welcome.
Label your camera. If you’re using a camera, put your name and cell phone number somewhere on it. When you inevitably lose the camera, a good samaritan will return it to you. Similarly, use a Sharpie and write your cell number on all your memory cards. If you’re using your phone, be sure to enable the “find my phone feature” (or similar) and perhaps show your email address on your lock screen.
You can never have enough camera batteries. If you need an extra memory card, you can buy it at the parks. But the odds of them having your exact model of battery fully charged is zero. Go on Amazon, buy some extra batteries for your camera. Do it now, I’ll wait. When they arrive, charge them all and put them in your Disney backpack.
If you’re using your phone as a camera, you absolutely must bring an external charger, or two, with you into the parks. No more vacation camera power worries.
Check on your available storage. If you’re using your phone as your camera, before embarking on your trip, check your available storage. If you’re close to maxing out, now may be the time to invest in some cloud storage, offload unused apps, or otherwise clean house. You don’t want to miss capturing a magical moment because you’ve unexpectedly run out of memory.
Brush up on your camera techniques. If you’re planning to use your phone as your primary camera, now’s a good time to review all the things you can do with your phone’s camera. Do you know how to zoom? How to take action shots? Can you use a timer for selfies? Do you know optimal photo composition techniques? Maybe spend an afternoon watching YouTube videos on best photo practices for your camera model.
Have a Backup Plan. Even if you have plenty of storage, you’ll want to back up your photos early and often on vacation. Someday you’ll have time to make your photos sing. Someday you’ll de-red the redeye, balance the white balance, correct the colors, and PhotoShop a smile onto your crabby-pants cousin Al. But that day is not today. In the meantime, make sure you don’t lose your photos. Take an hour to send them to the cloud, download to your laptop, and turn on your Time Machine, or copy them to a flash drive. When you’re an empty nester you’ll be able to make beautiful photo gifts for your children, but if you lose the images that will never happen.
Make sure you know how to turn off your flash. It’s rude to take flash photos inside attractions, flash photos at night are nearly impossible to pull off, and daytime photos rarely need a flash. You’ll want to be careful with your flash when you’re in the parks.
What Photos to Take
What’s going to make a good picture? Here are tips on who, where, and what to snap pics of.
Who’s In Your Photos?
Think about what you’re wearing. I’m not saying you have to make matching tee shirts or color coordinate everyone’s outfits, but honestly, those kind of details can make a meh picture into a good picture. At the very least, think about whether you want certain logos on tee shirts or whether a shirt should be tucked in.
Photograph different combinations of your family members. I have twins. There are approximately 57 zillion photos of them together. There are approximately 6 pictures of either of them with other family members. Mix it up. You’ll never know when you’ll want to prove that little sis really did have a happy moment with big bro. Or someday little sis may decide she wishes she had a photo of just her and big sis (awww), without annoying big brother in the frame (grrr). Capture all the options.
Take photos of individual family members. When your child is older, she can frame the picture of herself with Mickey next to a photo of her own daughter with Mickey at the same age. See, you’re crying already. This won’t be possible if the only picture of her with Mickey has the annoying brother in it. (What’s with him, anyway?)
Take photos of the adults. Yes, we may think we need to lose 10 pounds. Our hair is a fright from the Florida humidity. Those shorts do nothing to conceal the cellulite. Trust me, I know. But I assure you, your children don’t see this. They think you’re beautiful and will someday cherish that photo of mom hugging them in front of a giant golf ball, cellulite and all.
Nothing good can come of photographing your kids naked. Junior rips off his diaper to run free at the EPCOT fountain. It’s hysterical, yes, but resist the urge to capture the moment in JPEG. Someday he’ll be president, or at the very least have a mother-in-law. No commander-in-chief or hubby-to-be wants prying eyes on his tiny tot schmeckle.
Ask a helpful cast member if you can take a photo with them. This will not only help you remember a great moment, but also the great people behind the moment. And you never know, you may run into that cast member cast on your next trip and be able to forge a long-standing relationship. Or even better, give them a shout-out on the Cast Compliments account on Twitter and they’ll get some love from the world at large.
Ask adults’ permission before posting/tagging their image on social media outlets. It’s only polite.
Location, Location, Location
No one looks good in bright sunlight. Move to the shade. It will look like you’ve been to the spa and gotten 8 hours of sleep in comparison to a shot in the sun.
Pictures of little kids next to absurdly big things are cute, always. The juxtaposition of a toddler with Goofy, the Toy Story toys, a plus-size turkey leg, or the oversize icons at the Pop Century resort brings a smile every time.
Take the obligatory posed-in-front-of-the-icon photos. A photo of your family standing in front of Cinderella Castle is not interesting or imaginative. Take that picture anyway. Someday, when your child tells you that you never did anything for him, and you’re sure he’s spending more time with his therapist than he is with you, you can console yourself by looking at that Castle picture and remembering that there is evidence that you tried your darnedest and really did bring him to the most magical place on earth. Besides, what else are you going to put on the mantle?
Spend the money on the ride photo. You have the means to take your own pictures so yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous to spend $25 on one PhotoPass picture or to spend $170 to buy a Memory Maker Package. Do it anyway. You will never look more vulnerable and happy and frightened and silly and human than you do when you’re dropping into the abyss at Splash Mountain. And remember that the pictures taken by Disney staff may be the only ones you get that include the entire family.
Your camera has a better memory than you do. Take advantage of your camera’s, well, photographic memory. Snap shots of your room number, your rental car, your parking space, your child’s outfit of the day (in case he gets lost), and anything else that’s mission critical, but not part of your daily routine. When you inevitably lose or forget these items, your camera will have your back.
A photo of a thing is sometimes as good as purchasing a thing. When your child is beggggging you for a souvenir, suggest that you take a photo of it. Sometimes that alone is enough to avert a meltdown.
Take a billion photos. Perhaps even two billion, really. It’s hard to get good photos, someone’s always blinking or looking the wrong way or pinching their little sister. The more photos you take, the more likely it is that somehow an actual quality image will sneak in there among the mayhem. In fact, I absolutely forbid you from taking any fewer than a dozen shots any time your child is standing next to Mickey.
It’s OK not to photograph/video some things. Here’s the contradictory corollary to the item above. If something truly amazing and wondrous happens, try to be in the moment rather than reaching for the camera. When my oldest daughter was six, she was pulled on stage at the Biergarten in EPCOT to chat with the bandleader. My husband and I both remember this as a star-making moment where she showed intelligence, diplomacy, wit and charm, dazzling her way into the hearts of thousands. I’m sure if we had a video of this, we’d see that instead of being the next Emma Stone, Princess Kate, and Hillary Clinton all rolled into one, as we remembered, she was really just a stammering little kid. I LOVE my version of it. I’m glad there’s no video to prove me wrong.
Okay fellow shutterbugs, what are your favorite real world photo tips? What’s your Disney photo strategy? Let us know in the comments below.
Originally published September 25, 2020. Updated April 22, 2021.