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How to Take Outstanding Theme Park Photographs: Secrets from Kris Van de Sande

Kris Van de Sande is a European photographer, well known for his vibrant depictions of themed environments. Many park fans admire how his pictures document physical decoration, but also how they illustrate the raw magic, adventure and immersion that is found among the details of places like Disneyland and Efteling. It is no surprise that theme parks have hired Kris for their own projects:

“Last week I was at a theme park shop, and I saw my pictures on the cover of a park map, on a magnet, a post card, and the cover of their new photo book. That was just insane. I walked through another park a few days later and I saw my pictures used on their posters.”

So what exactly does it take to capture a show-stopping theme park photo? In this article, Kris will reveal some of his top tips, from how to take snaps on a roller coaster, to the best way of taking pictures on a fast-moving dark ride!

The Importance of Colour

Kris describes himself as “a big fan of working with colours” and uses them to enhance the all-important storytelling that brings every great themed experience to life.

“Colours tell a story, and I try to tell a story with each picture, so they are complimentary. When I light scenes for commercial work, I use colour gels on my flashes for example. Also, theme parks are mostly known for vibrant colours. I mean, just look at Disneyland Paris' Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty Castle). It's a lovely shade of pink to offset the grey skies we know so well in France. So it's a very forgiving subject.”

Taking Pictures on High-Speed Thrill Rides

Many of us have taken our chances on the odd slow-moving roller coaster, trying to find an action-packed angle or spot a panorama that no other photographer will have captured before. Of course, this is a difficult and high-risk task, so what are the thrill ride “dos” and “don'ts” from a professional's perspective?

“Safety. Safety. Safety. If the operators say you can’t take pictures: don’t. Get a decent strap and wrap it around your arm, and don’t let go of the camera. Know the ride, and know what to expect and anticipate the movements.

“Apart from that, a higher shutter speed will shoot a great vantage point. If you want to show the movement, get a lower shutter speed. For coasters, you’ll need at least a 1/500s to get a sharp image. “Know that when I shoot on-ride pictures for parks themselves, we have no regular guests on-board, and the camera is rigged with clamps and rope to the trains. It’s not a situation you can get away with as a guest.”

Taking Pictures on Dark Rides

Kris has a series of high-quality videos on YouTube, providing a deeper look into his methods

We've all had times when we've wanted to capture our favourite scenes on the most memorable dark rides, but the pictures have come out blurry and, well, dark! Luckily, Kris is quite the expert when it comes to this, and he encourages riding multiple times for some of the best shots.

“The more the merrier. I try to visit on school days throughout the week in the off-season, where even the most popular attractions are walk-ons. I shoot everything on a 35mm f/1.4 first, to get a nice overview, followed by getting closer with an 85mm f1.4 lens. If time permits, I can go to a wider 24mm f/1.4, or my 14-24 f/2.8. There’s a nice Sigma light sensitive wide angle lens that came out that I might trade my 14-24 for, to get those nice epic wide-shots.”

Another issue that we tend to face on a dark ride is bothering the guests around us, particularly if they're in our cart when we're focussing on getting a good shot.

“I try to be considerate and ask for a separate boat/car, but when I can't, I'm placing my shot first. I've never had a single complaint, but then again, a few clicks is a whole lot less conspicuous than a phone with the light turned on.”

Taking Action Shots

You might imagine a magnificent splash like this requires perfect timing, and although Kris is capable of getting it “on the first go, with one frame per second” when he has the right camera, there is an easier way!

“I’m shooting with very high-end gear, so I have the luxury of shooting 14 frames per second on full resolution. So all that mattered with the train splash was the framing. That’s the real tip I can give you: take a zillion photos. Know what your gear can do, and most of all, what it can’t do. Then grow your skills to try and get that shot anyhow. When you’ll upgrade to better gear eventually, it’ll help you to get even better shots.

“One of my friends had been rocking a small Nikon D40 as her main camera for a whole lot of time, and her pictures were pretty damn good, especially for shooting with an ancient starter. When she moved to a full frame camera, magic happened. “It’s 90% you, but good gear enables you to go the last mile.”

Making a Career of It

Even with outstanding pieces in his portfolio, you might wonder how an artist like Kris was first able to find work with some of the world's major theme parks. After all, if there's one job we don't often see advertised in the newspaper, it's 'Theme Park Photographer'…

“I’ve been lucky enough to work for some of the biggest parks in Europe. Basically, it all happened because of one single person. It’s always someone that opens a single door, that leads to a hallway with many other different doors. I got the chance to photograph some press images for the Belgian PR department of Disneyland Paris. My contact moved to Disney Channel, and I got in contact with several event organisers who he worked for, who in turn worked for other theme parks. They hired me to shoot their events, meaning that I got hired by the theme parks themselves. I know some clients have hired me based on work I shot for another theme park. So it’s all very organic.”

Kris may have thousands of theme park pictures, but capturing one ride doesn't mean he's finished with it forever. “I still want to do them over and over again to get even better. Recently I spent several nights in a new attraction of a major theme park, capturing every detail for record-keeping. The last time I rode it, I took about three photos and just enjoyed the attraction, maybe even more than before, knowing that I had already 'got' it... For now.”

You can follow Kris' theme park projects on Twitter, Instagram and on his website here!

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