Monday, January 7, 2013

Secret Portrait Spot at a Small World

Every night at Disneyland, just when it gets dark, there is a countdown and then the facade of the Small World ride suddenly bursts with bright and colorful lights.

It's a great background for a photo but in all the years we've gone to Disneyland, I've never been able to capture it satisfactorily until now.

The shot above might look like a studio composite/overlay job but it's not.  Actually I did composite it, but only because I had to combine the best facial expressions.  It is otherwise captured in camera.  Here's how we did it.

In previous years, I've tried to get a shot of us in front of the Small World lights.  Here are a couple.  This one is from December 2009.

For this one I used a Nikon D80, and then used a bare off-camera SB-800 flash triggered with Nikon CLS Advanced Wireless Lighting in TTL mode.  I first set the exposure for the background, tried to get the subjects in a dark spot, then used the flash to bring up the subjects' exposure to normal.  Even though the shutter was dragged to 1/25, it's fairly sharp because the subjects are lit only by the flash, so the effective "shutter speed" for them is the flash duration.

This one is from December 2011:

Here I used the LX5.  This time, to illuminate the subjects, I used the Lastolite Brolly Grip handheld umbrella.  The light looks nicer thanks to the Brolly Grip, but there was a little too much ambient on them, which meant that I risked blur with the slow shutter speed (1/10) and indeed that's what happened.

Fast forward to 2013.  This time I looked around the Small World and found the perfect spot for a portrait.  In front of small world, there is a shop.  Behind the shop is a small veranda.  There was no one there and it provided a clear vantage point from which to see the Small World lights.  Not only that -- the shop's exterior wall is painted in a relatively neutral color.  I could easily bounce the flash from it.  Perfect!

From there all I had to do was frame the shot, set the exposure for the ambient, then let TTL take care of illuminating us.  I used a Nikon D600 (reviewed here) with the Nikon 28-105 3.5-4.5D (reviewed here) on a Dolica carbon fiber tripod (still reviewing).  I set the self-timer to fire 9 shots then just hoped for the best.

In post, I adjusted the color temperature of the light on us to make it look warmer and thus more similar to the actual lights.

We had time to take another portrait of just me and my wife.

There you have it.  Get your Small World portrait before this becomes common knowledge!  And you heard it here first. :)


  1. Awesome family portrait Mic! It actually looks kind of like a studio set up with the lighting as the background lights are actually giving you guys a nice rim light along the edge of your cheeks.

    So was the SB-800 mounted on the hot shoe and pointed backwards at the store wall?

    I picked up a Lumiquest Softbox III recently to try some impromptu studio style head shots. Doing more off camera flash has opened up my eyes especially as I discovered dragging the shutter to expose for the background/ambient light and using the flash to "freeze" my subjects.

  2. Thanks Francis. Yes I was glad the rim light came out nicely.

    Yup, the SB-800 was mounted on-camera and bounced against the exterior wall of the store which was almost beside the camera making it quite easy to bounce off it.

    The Lumiquest SBIII looks like it has a lot of potential, though I have a similar softbox and to be honest I haven't been able to use it much. But David Hobby has several nice examples from his SBIII.

    Best regards,

  3. I'd been considering the SB III for some time, but seeing David Hobby's examples prompted me to pick one up. I'm very pleased with the results so far provided you go in knowing it's for head or head/shoulder shots.

    Works great with kids (if they'll hold still) and particularly babies as they're not so mobile at that age! I've tested it out on my relatives little ones and it's quite impressive the results you can get with a relatively small softbox (you do need to hold it in close to get a nice soft quality of light - a few feet - as David Hobby explains in his review). It's pretty compact and now I usually bring it with me in my camera bag. Your daughter would be a good subject to try it out on before she gets more mobile :).

    1. Thanks Francis. For me the issue was that the light was still a little too hard for my preference. So, for off camera flash in candid situations I have been using instead the Lastolite Brolly Grip. But I can see the SB III (or in my case, the Fotodiox 8 x 12) has a lot of potential because it is quite portable compared to the Brolly Grip paired with the 42" trifold umbrella - perhaps I'll use my 8x12 softbox again to experiment with it. Thanks again for the suggestions!

      Best regards,


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