Focusing on the Magic: What Camera is Best for Theme Parks

Written by Jessica Ma'ilo. Posted in Disney, Disney Parks, Features, Park Wise

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Published on August 29, 2013 at 2:00 am with 34 Comments

Disneyland and Walt Disney World could very possibly be the two most photographed locales on the planet. Pictures have long been an important way of remembering a vacation. But these days, they’re also showing up on social media, digital scrapbooks, photo gifts, products—the possibilities are endless!  So, what camera should you bring to the parks to capture all those magical moments? Let’s take a look at some of the options. Then, let us know what type of camera you choose for your theme park vacations.

Phone Camera

Phone cameras today are light years better than the first versions we played with on our flip phones back in the day.  In fact, one phone even boasts that it was made with the camera in mind first.  Personally, I use my iPhone camera to snap quick pictures to upload to my personal Facebook, as well as my business Facebook pages.  It’s quick, convenient and no equipment to tote around.  However, if you’ve got a phone with a decent camera, chances are you’re also using that phone for social media, texting, wait time apps—oh, and maybe phone calls, too.  This leaves you with the possibility of being stuck without a camera if the battery should die just before you get to Mickey. As a negative, phone cameras usually aren’t the best in low light situations as you often find in theme parks.

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Get Park Wise: Carry a portable charger or your wall charger with you.  Outlets are scattered throughout the parks and resorts for a quick charge, and charging stations are even popping up like the ones near the Tangled restrooms in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

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Tablet Camera

I’m so amazed that we’re in an age where people are carrying around computers in their purses and bags.  I’m also amazed that people use those suckers on dark rides.  Don’t be that guy, or I can’t guarantee the dryness of your tablet at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean.  In all seriousness, these are perfectly fine to use in lit situations, but they are a total eyesore for your neighbors in lowlight environments.  Save this one for character shots or daytime events (as long as you’re not holding your 48-inch tablet above your head and blocking the views of those behind you).

Disposable Camera

This good old standby is still available for purchase and does the job for lots of situations.  We gave some to the kids on their first few trips to waste on whatever they wanted.  My niece’s camera had about a dozen shots of two Mousekeepers happy to strike a pose, as well as their carts.  And about six shots of her finger.  Which brings the issue of not being able to review your photos and not having an “unlimited” amount of images.  However, they do work in a pinch.  Take a moment to reminisce to the sound of *click*turn-turn-turn-turn.

ŸGet Park Wise: Let the kids have a turn with the camera!  You might be surprised and enjoy some great shots, but it’s more fun when the shots are funny.

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Point and Shoot Camera

This is a great option for most tourists.  With a few more options than your standard phone camera, these are often compact and can be slipped into a pants pocket or bag.  Settings are usually easy to understand, so you’ll be able to catch the shot without fiddling around with focus and f-stops.  You’ll also often have the ability to shoot video, so this could be the perfect choice for a trip to the parks.  Again, no flash photography on dark rides, please!

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ŸGet Park Wise: My name and phone number are on my camera, as well as my memory cards.  If anything happens to get lost and a sweet soul finds it, they’re able to contact me to return it.  I’ve also seen photographers who take a picture of their contact information on each memory card so it is the first picture.  Speaking from personal experience, it’s a sad day when you realize you’ve lost a camera, so make it as easy as possible for it to get back to you.

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DSLR/SLR Camera

I haven’t yet taken the old school SLR to the parks, but I do lug around a DSLR.  My reasoning: If I’m going to have this camera, I might as well take it to the most photogenic places on Earth.  Yes, it’s heavier than the other options and bulkier, too, but with a DSLR, you’re able to get a wide range of photos that just aren’t going to happen with the others.  With these cameras also come all of their expensive and heavy accessories.  I keep it to one extra lens and a flexible tripod, but I’ve seen photogs out with an entire studio on their backs ready to capture the magic.  I’m typically just interested in capturing family and friends and anything that catches my attention, so I edit the camera bag as much as possible.

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Get Park Wise: Misters and water rides and rainstorms, oh my!  Have some sort of waterproof solution when traveling the parks with your camera.  Water proof cases are available, but I’ve seen Ziplocs do just as well.

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What do you think is the best camera for theme parks? We’d love to hear your tips.

About Jessica Ma'ilo

Jessica is a special education teacher by day and blogger and Fairy Godmother Travel agent by evening. When not supervising play dates or sleepovers, she can be found creating, sewing or singing. She loves hitting the Disney Parks, and she and her family escape to the World and Land as often as they can. She can be contacted at [email protected], and you can also check out her family blog, Magic, Memories, Mayhem.

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34 Comments

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  1. I find that phone cameras are really bad at capturing anything with movement. (It’ll look fine for facebook, but as a print…not so much) I usually carry a good Point and Shoot (Nikon S8100), and My DSLR (Nikon D5100). The SLR can be a bit to carry (and worry about loosing), so I usually keep the Point and Shoot with me, and will bring the SLR with me when I feel like it (It’ll be stand-by at the Hotel, I’ll pre-plan when I want to bring it).

    The best thing you can get is a good case. For the Point and Shoot I highly recommend a belt loop one (not a clip, unless you like to be checking lost and found for your camera a lot). I recommend a LowePro case.

    For the DSLR, best is to have it on your neck… I highly recommend the OP/TECH Neoprene straps, they are very comfortable, and can take a lot of the “shock” out… basically make your camera “feel” half it’s weight.

    Cameras… I highly recommend looking at the Factory refurbished Nikons (Canon does this also). They’re like new, sometimes better, and a great deal. Any authorized Nikon/Canon dealer should have them, the key is “factory” refurbished (they’ll come in a Factory Case, with a Factory USA warranty). All of my Nikon’s are Factory Refurbished ones (I get mine from Cameta Camera), all have been excellent, and they were 30-50% off a new unit. It’s a great way to get a “higher end” SLR or Point and shoot on your budget. (Or get a cheap Point and Shoot, if you are afraid of damage/loosing it).

    • Lots of great tips! Thanks for weighing in this week!

    • I used to carry my DSLR and two prime lenses whenever I went to Disney because I loved capturing the Magic of a Disney Park through creative angles and perfect lighting…. and then I had kids. After a few trips I learned that the perfect subject was no longer a mysteriously lit streetlamp, it was my 18mo old dressed as Snow White and running up the castle drawbridge and my beloved DSLR gear weighed me down and interfered with the trips so I experimented with dozens of other cameras.

      DSLR – Too Bulky (and my lens bag weighed more than my baby)
      Micro 4/3 – Smaller but still had lenses protruding and getting in the way
      iPhone – Tiny but the quality that looked fine on the 3.5″ screen looked awful at home
      iPad – Just kidding. I’m not a jerk.

      So I ended up falling in love with a Sony RX100.

      Pros:
      - Pocketable (no more hitting the girls on the head with a swinging neck camera)
      - f1.8 Lens for nailing dark shots but enough zoom to get Jasmines face
      - Photopass friendly. (Those poor photographers having to juggle my gear was embarassing)
      - Looks boring. Nobody is going to steal this because it looks like a cheap P&S

      Cons:
      - Price $600. It’s not expensive if you know what it does, but still… $600!!!
      - No WiFi for iPhone transfer (Instagram/FB) The RX100 m2 has it but I cant justify upgrading

      Anyway, I dont recommend this to everyone because of the price and the learning curve. BUT, while my kids are still toddlers then I definitely am glad to leave my DSLR at home.

      • I also wound up with a Sony RX100.

        After trying out several point & shoots, including the Canon PowerShots, I found the quality of the photos they took just weren’t up to my standards. (It was particularly noticeable when I blew up the images.)

        So I shopped around, read a ton of reviews, and finally decided to risk spending $600 on a Sony camera that looks like an average point & shoot (that would cost a fraction of that price). But it was worth it. Fabulous image quality. I can blow up even a small section of a hand-held shot and still end up with a great photo. I couldn’t be more pleased.

  2. While I agree with some points of this article, my take is that you are not up on current tech or the state of cameras on smart phones. I listen to several tech podcast (TWIT,tv netcast: iPad Today, MacBreak Weekly, Before You Buy as well as Andy Ihnatko on the 5-By-5 netcasts) and quite often on all of these shows smart phone cameras are talked about (often in comparing with the iPhone 5)
    Up until recently, the iPhone 5 had the best camera going on a smart phone – Yes, it’s low-light capabilities may not be nearly as good as a DLSR, but overall the results are stellar. But now it looks like the Nokia Lumia 1020 has leaped over the iPhone (at until Sept. 10 when we hear what the next iPhone will be). The new MotoX is also getting excellent reviews (as both in innovative phone and it’s camera).
    True – with a phone you are stuck with it until the contract is up, and many of us will often stick to the brand we’ve had and/or fits in with our overall tech needs (yes, for me the will be another iPhone).
    But there are so many choices for small compact feature-rich cameras such as the small Nikons. Beyond the actual photos, which let’s face it, can easy be touched up in dozens of free or low cost apps, you should look at the following:
    How does the camera fit in your hand?
    How easy or confusing are the buttons and the menus – Do you have to scroll through menus to get to the setting you most often will use or change? (Nothing is worse than not getting the perfect shot because you are fusing with the settings).
    What about when you go on water oriented rides (Splash Mountain) – will your camera be safe and dry, or is it so large you have to carry around a water-proof bag? (With a camera phone all you need is a small zip-lock bag).
    As the old saying goes, the best camera you have is the one you have with you at the time. For me, and unless I am specifically at Disneyland to only take photos that day, that would be my iPhone!

    • You’ll note that this is not a tech article, nor is it a buying guide. It is meant as a basic outline of the typical pros and cons of common cameras your average tourist might take to the parks. You’ll also notice I didn’t mention any brand names.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    • The main disadvantage of relying on a camera for your photos is the lack of memory space and the inability to switch out memory cards. Cameras come with fixed memory. The Apple iPhone come in 16 GB, 32 GB, and 64 GB, which is shared with all your other uses like music, apps, and the OS. With most Android and Windows phones, you can swap out a memory card; however, it is probably a bad idea anyways since your apps are stored there as well. The Apple iPhone doesn’t allow this since there is no slot for memory. Thus, you’ll need to bring a laptop to clear out your photos.

      Camera phones are great with low light, but they are horrible with flash photos. Flash is weak, but mostly unusable. With my P&S camera, I always use my flash in daylight so the faces are lit. Otherwise, the faces don’t come out.

      Lastly, there’s no zoom lense with camera phones. Most zooms are digital, not physical. Thus the resolution gets worse when zooming in.

      Nonetheless, the visit to the theme parks does not require you to have the best photos. Adequate photos are enough.

      • Not sure about the flash in camera phones as I still have an iPhone 3GS (16GB)- However I currently have over 2300 photos on my “camera roll” and another 1000 on my PhotoStream -For you non-Apple users, that’s part of their iCloud system that when you take a photo on one device (such as your iPhone) it will appear both on your iPad and within iPhoto on your Mac as well as in iCloud.
        FYI: Yes, those PhotoStream photos are stored locally on your device, so that means I have a total of over 3300 photos on my old iPhone 3GS – 16GB!

        Yes, these are not “8×10″ quality photos for sure, but how many of us still print many photos – and they are certainly fine for 5×7 prints. Most of the newer camera phone will take higher-res photos for better prints.

      • iPhones are limited, most (if not all other) smartphones can be expanded via microSD cards.
        Camera phones are great if you don’t have anything, but I personally haven’t seen one that’s as good as anything but the lower-end (sub $100) of Point and Shoot cameras. (Even the iphone 5). The problem simply is the lens aperture… the “glass” is too slow. They try to make up for it with some programming (taking multiple pictures and combining them is a popular way smartphones reduce low-light issues/shake) but it is a compromise.

  3. I recommend a good quality Point and Shoot that is designed for low light. There are very few P&S that fits this requirement so shop carefully. (I own a Nikon P310.) Nonetheless, don’t spend a lot. I upgrade to a new P&S every 3 years. The quality of the cameras keep getting better. It is worth it to get the best quality photos that you can afford, which is pay no more than $300.

    Buy a new memory card (32 GB) and extra spare rechargeable batteries to go with your new camera. A 32 GB memory card will last a very long time, even with plenty of video recordings. Amazon sells one for less than $20. Spare rechargeable batteries are needed if you take a lot of videos of your favorite shows and rides. Trust me, my battery ran out after four hours of intense videography.

    A DSLR is not needed in most cases. They are heavy and not convenient to use on rides. It is hard to just whip them out.Nonetheless, they are speedy and take terrific photos in tough lighting situations. I just can’t see myself using it for the entire day in the theme parks. They are best for using when you’re traveling and visiting scenic spots. They are overkill when you just want to take a family portrait with a character.

    The phone cameras are my emergency backup. I try to not use them too much. Quality is a notch below my P&S, but in case of a quick chance for a character photo, I must use what I have on hand.

    • We like to carry a few smaller memory cards as opposed to one large one, but the sentiment is the same. Have plenty of memory if going digital! And, yes, spare batteries are a great idea, too!. Thanks for your tips.

  4. I used to carry a Canon SureShot on my belt. But then I got a Samsung Galaxy S III cell phone, and was just floored at the quality of pictures. Now my Canon just collects dust in a drawer, while my phone takes great vacation pics. It’s nice not to have to lug around a larger camera with a shoulder strap!

    • Great that you found something that does double duty for you!

  5. [...] What camera is best for theme parks … just before you get to Mickey. As a negative, phone cameras usually aren't the best in low light situations as you often find in theme parks. … When not supervising play dates or sleepovers, she can be found creating, sewing or singing. She loves … Read more on MiceChat [...]

  6. I’ve found that the camera on my iPhone 4S works pretty well in low-light situations (dark rides/shows where you can’t use a flash) and I agree it’s great for taking a quick photo on the fly (especially if you want to post to a social media site). I totally agree on the tip of bringing a portable charger or your charging cable with you. I have a Mophie Juicepack battery case for my iPhone and it gives me a 2nd full battery charge when mine is running low. They’re spendy (they run $79-$99… I got mine as a Christmas gift) but worth every penny.

    I also take my point & shoot (I have an Olympus VR-340), which is small and lightweight. Besides having a big optical zoom (which is a MUST for me), it has some cool settings on it for more “artsy” shots and it shoots video in HD.

    But I just got myself a nice backpack for carrying around my DSLR and lenses – I have a Canon Rebel TX – an older model but a good “beginner” one for those who want to get into the DSLR game without spending a ton of money for the latest model. It has a TON of compartments for non-camera stuff, so I plan on taking DSLR to the parks more often.

    • I’ve gotten a few good shots with my phone on Haunted Mansion, but definitely nothing print worthy. Still playing with the DSLR on dark rides. Fun to experiment!

  7. My wife is an avid amateur photographer. She brings her DSLR to Disneyland every time we go. It can be a little cumbersome to haul around all day, but luckily we have two little ones and still need a stroller, and the camera bag fits nicely in the basket underneath. The DSLR is an excellent camera to have with little kids since they tend to move a lot.

    Sometimes it is a burden having that camera with us since it has to get checked when we go through security, can’t be left in the stroller when we go on rides, and it seems much heavier and bulkier by day 3 of a trip. But seeing the resulting pictures that come from this camera makes the extra work all worth it.

    • Yeah, it’s definitely a chore sometimes to lug around the DSLR, but I do love the pictures I’m able to get with it as opposed to just my phone or a P&S.

  8. I use a Waterproof/Shockproof Cannon Powershot camera. It’s just perfect for the theme parks as you can use it in the rain, water parks, etc. And if it gets banged around getting in and out of attractions, no problem. The only issue is that it doesn’t do well in low light and doesn’t have a good zoom. But I love it.

    • I bet you guys need a tons of hard drive space for all the pictures you have taken over the years. My DL pic folder only take up a couple gigs so far.

      • We don’t keep the photos on our hard drives for very long. They all end up in the cloud. :-)

    • We got a cheapo (like, $120-50ish) waterproof to play with at the pool and to use on water rides, but I never seem to remember to take it out of the room. Haha!

  9. Everyone knows there’s ONLY one answer to this. The iPad!

    There’s nothing better than having a Disney moment in the making blocking ten rows of people behind you at World of Color, slowing down lines while trying to figure out why it’s taking a picture with the front camera rather than the back, bumping your envious neighbors while pulling it from its case or telling the PhotoPass guy to juggle their gear with your delicate and awkward glass tablet.

    Memories are made to be grainy and the iPad is the ONLY camera that should be used in a Disney park.

    • LOL. I cringe every time I see someone trying to take a photo with an iPad.

    • Well put.

    • Fantastic!

  10. I’ve come to realize that I want to carry as few devices as possible inside the park. My wife and I don’t have kids, and I loathe carrying a bag into the park. The phone is a requirement, and it already has a camera, so I just use that. Even then, every time I get on Space Mountain or Rock n’ Roller Coaster I am worried that my phone will be crushed, or jiggle out of my pocket, etc. Carrying a separate camera only doubles this anxiety. I bought a Canon ELPH 110 HS a couple years ago because I wanted better photos, it was pocketable, and it had good reviews. While it is certainly better than the iPhone 4S camera, it’s not THAT much better. Plus with a camera you’re constantly having to turn it on, wait for the lenses to come out, etc. The phone’s so much faster. In the end, it just wasn’t worth it to carry both around.

    I too despise people taking pictures/photos with iPads and other tablets. It’s incredibly distracting and I can only assume it must be the only camera these people own.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on the camera debate!

  11. Very interesting article. We can see that there is no solution that fits all needs. The choice of a camera is like selecting a car: some will need a SUV, others a sedan or an electric.
    As I am French, a trip to a Disney park in the US (WDW so far), is a big budget and so an event about which I do a movie each time. My problem was to have a good camera and a good camcorder. And that was not possible due to budget issues. After years of using a moderate camcorder (Canon HF100), I switched to a Sony Alpha 58 (my wife got the Sony 850 DSLR). So, I have a rather decent DSLR-like camera (in fact it has an electronic viewfinder) which is quite good in low light and also a better camcorder as the Alpha 58 (as well as a lot of new DSLRs) can record in 1080p in AVCHD. I know the issues about the cameras pretending to be a camcorder and the Alpha 58 is not the best (still some moiré issues). However, I am quite happy of the bargain for the price. Compared to an “only camcorder”, I have a real viewfinder: meaning not this awful LCD screen that is 20 cm or so in front of you that I can’t use to frame correctly, but this is because I am 47 and “old school”. I know that some camcorders have a real electronic viewfinder, but these are rather expensive. With the Alpha 58, I got also a strong colorimetry (that I can work properly with FCP X or Da Vinci) and a very good performance in low light thanks to the APS-C size of the sensor (on camcorders, excepting expensive ones, the sensor is small and so the performance in low light can be very frustrating). So far, this is my solution: using the new generation of video enabled DLSRs to have a way to make film and photographs without having to switch and handle too much equipment. Of course, after, everyone is going to make a choice based on its needs… and budget!

    • Thanks for weighing in this week! We make a DVD of each trip, too, and I’m actually in the market for a new video camera. My DSLR takes very nice video, but I want to be able to snap while someone else videos. Decisions, decisions…

  12. I think it really depends more on what sort of photos you wish to take in the parks. If you just want some nice pics of family and friends enjoying themselves in the parks, a good camera phone (and I hate to admit it) will do just fine, as will a decent compact P&S. If you want to take REALLY good pictures, low light pictures, or artistic stuff, you need to lug the DSLR as well as a mini tripod and maybe an extra lens or two. How much stuff do you really want to carry? I go for the DSLR, but always wish it wasn’t so cumbersome. Plus I take ziplock bags to keep it safe. The only thing you should not use, and in my opinion should be banned are IPADS. They are the worst possible thing to take a pic with and they are always, always in everyone’s view. If you whip one out in a dark ride to capture that, don’t be surprised if someone barks at you the entire ride. Just leave it in your bag and stop irritating everyone around you. Camera phones are bad enough with the lit screen always on. Nothing worse than going on Pirates and having a boat full of Iphone screens lighting up the boat.

    • A lot of my same thoughts, as well. Thanks for commenting!

  13. Using your camera phone for everyday mindless social media use is fine. The two go hand in hand. A pseudo camera for pseudo important info.
    But if you’re spending a ton of money on a vacation, why rely on your camera phone to document such an important event?
    I think people embrace new technology without putting any thought into it’s proper (or relevant) use. Like mindless lemmings, they just follow the rest of the group off the end of the cliff.

    • Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing.