Matt Valeriote of Fanatic Photography has established himself as a talented and popular photographer of Disneyland eye candy, with a large following on Flickr and 500px among others. We sat down with Matt to learn some of his secrets and how everyone can become a better Disneyland photographer.
Which attractions or areas do you enjoy photographing most in Disneyland?
My favorite places to shoot in Disneyland are Main Street USA and New Orleans Square. In addition to both lands being gorgeous and highly photogenic, NOS has two of my absolute favorite rides: Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. Both attractions provide endless opportunities for photography, both inside and out.
I should also give an honorable mention to ‘Snow White’s Scary Adventures’ in Fantasyland for being the best lit thing in all of Disneyland at night. You cannot take a bad picture of it. It’s impossible.
How about California Adventure?
Although I am not a very big fan of the ‘Cars’ franchise, my favorite place to shoot in California Adventure is Cars Land. The accuracy to the film, the fantastic false perspective, and the authentic neon lights at night make it one of the most immersive lands Disney has ever created, and by far one of the most photogenic.
What is the most underrated photography subject in Disneyland?
The most underrated photography subject in Disneyland is without a doubt the queue for ‘Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin.’ In my opinion, it is one of, if not the best queue for any attraction in Disneyland, and NO ONE ever shoots it. For me it’s even better than the actual ride. The Toontown of the park itself portrays the bright, bubbly town that Mickey, Goofy, and company live in. In contrast to that, the Roger Rabbit queue depicts the dark, seedy Toontown of the movie ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, and does so amazingly well.
The Imagineers made perfect use of the narrow corridors to induce a vague sense of claustophobia and danger as you make your way through the most unsavory parts of Toontown, where Judge Doom’s weasel goons could be lurking around every corner. If Mickey’s Toontown is Metropolis, then the Roger Rabbit queue’s Toontown is Gotham.
You recently created 25 beautiful photographs of Disneyland for TheHappiest.com. Which is your favorite?
I think my favorite shot of the first batch is the main view of Adventureland. That shot shows off how narrow, yet endlessly deep the land seems to be. You feel like Indiana Jones staring into a dark, ancient temple, having little idea what lies within, but nonetheless determined to press on.
What are the best times of day/night to achieve the most dramatic shots inside the parks?
By most people’s reckoning, the best time of any day to get dramatic shots is the golden hour. This is the period of light that occurs twice a day, just after sunrise, and just before sunset, when the light from the sun literally makes everything start to look gold. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to wait until then to start shooting though.
The further you get from Noon in either direction, the better your lighting will be. As for night, a lot of people will say to aim for blue hour, which comes just before sunrise and after sunset, when the residual sunlight still illuminating the scene becomes blueish.
But I personally like to wait until the full darkness of night has set in before I start my shooting. That’s when the lighting of the park is entirely in the hands of the Imagineers. And, no offense to Mother Nature, but I think they do a better job.
Can you briefly explain what HDR photography is?
HDR, which stands for high dynamic range, is a form of photography that allows the photographer to achieve a broad range of light in their photos that can’t be normally achieved by their camera’s sensor.
Ordinarily, a single photo taken in a scene containing both extremely dark and extremely bright areas will have unavoidably black or white regions in it, since camera sensors can only record a limited range of light information for each pixel. HDR photography overcomes this limitation by way of fusing together multiple shots of the same frame, usually three: a normal exposure, an underexposure (to capture the bright lights that would otherwise be blown out), and an overexposure (to ensure full exposure of the dark shadows).
These can then be loaded into software such as Photomatix, which combines the three shots into one new image, with all of the missing information from the bright brights and dark darks filled in. Used conservatively, this technique can result in photos that more closely resemble what the human eye sees, as opposed to pictures with solid blotches of black and white in parts of the frame.
You have mentioned being inspired by the photography featured on Tours Departing Daily. Where did you build your HDR skills?
Tours Departing Daily inspired my love of HDR, but I didn’t learn it from them. I got a couple of very important tips from them, such as the recommendation to try Photomatix. My first DSLR was also a Nikon D90, specifically because two of the three photographers at TDD shot with D90’s. As far as my HDR education, I started off just messing around with Photomatix and using the built-in presets (mostly the very surreal Painterly preset).
It’s a given that pretty much 100% of beginners in HDR start off wanting to slap the painterly look on everything. But with time, and plenty of constructive criticism from others, I gradually learned the merits of toning that look down and really applying HDR effects with thoughtful precision. My advice to anyone just starting to learn HDR is this: Do not just use HDR like an Instagram filter. When done right, it should not be immediately obvious that you have used HDR at all.
What would be your best advice to a beginner photographer looking to shoot Disneyland for the very first time?
My best advice for a beginner would be: look at your favorite photos of Disneyland from other photographers, and take time to consider why they made the choices they did. Why did they choose one angle over other, similar angles that they could have gone with instead? What conditions did they take the photo in, and why might they have made that choice?
When I started shooting Disneyland, my attention was entirely on the purely technical aspects of shooting (I was struggling to learn to use my first DSLR, the D90). While learning the technical elements of photography IS important, choosing creative frames for your photos is even more important.
The most perfectly shot photo with a dull composition is less interesting than a totally botched photo with an artful composition.
What simple techniques can amateurs use to capture better photographs of the parks using non-professional equipment?
There’s a very interesting series of YouTube videos to watch for those who might think it’s necessary to have pro equipment to get good photos. The series is called “The Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera Challenge“.
It all essentially boils down to making the most of what you can do with non-professional equipment. If you know the camera isn’t going to give you much help, then get the best possible frame for your picture, and things like megapixels and dynamic range won’t be important. Learn the functions of your camera like the back of your hand. And then, after you’ve done that, you have to become MacGyver.
Figure out how to make your cheap equipment act like expensive equipment. This is essentially what HDR is. You could buy a very expensive camera with a high tech sensor to capture a photo with high dynamic range, or you could take several photos with a cheap camera and achieve the same result via HDR.
What is the biggest mistake you see in amateur photography at Disneyland?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the biggest mistake I see in amateur photography of any kind at all is thoughtless framing. We’re all guilty of it when we first start, but the sooner we grow out of it the better.
There’s no such thing as perfection in art, but every photo is taken with a purpose in mind, and it’s important to be thinking about what decisions might serve or defeat that purpose when you shoot.