Main Street Electrical Parade is the nighttime light parade in Disneyland, which returns home in January 2017. This post offers tips for viewing the classic parade, as well taking better photos of it–and all of the night parades that Disney runs. (So, Dreamlights and Paint the Night, and hopefully SpectroMagic 2.0…someday.)
It’s been a long trip for Main Street Electrical Parade. Before returning to Disneyland, it was in Magic Kingdom. Prior to that, it was at Disney California Adventure. Before that, it was at Walt Disney World. And before that, it was at Disneyland.
Suffice to say, the Main Street Electrical Parade has been around the block a time or two, running in various forms since 1972. Its Disneyland “homecoming” started on January 20, 2017 and runs through June 18, 2017. It has been widely speculated to be permanently retired following its “limited” run at Disneyland. (This post was last updated January 20, 2017 with tips for the parade’s new home at Disneyland.)
So put on that electro-synthesized music and let’s get started!
Best Main Street Electrical Parade Viewing Spots
If you’re viewing the Main Street Electrical Parade before the fireworks (also returning soon: Remember… Dreams Come True!) and you care more about the fireworks, the answer to this is simple: wherever you choose for the fireworks (following our Best Disneyland Fireworks Viewing Locations guide), except off to the side, so you can move into your spot in the middle of Main Street once the parade ends.
If you are viewing before the fireworks but care more about the parade, locations like the Main Street USA Train Station and Main Street itself are excellent locations. My favorite spot for viewing both would be at the end of Main Street on the curb by Refreshment Corner.
If you don’t care about the fireworks, the best spot outside of Main Street is the area around the small world mall (it’s a small world). This location isn’t as popular as Main Street, but it’s just as good. You’re always better off with a curbside location in a less-optimal spot than a second or third row location in a more popular area.
All other locations are varying degrees of okay. Be careful of spots around the Hub and directly in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. People often will camp out in these locations for the fireworks, but these spots do not offer direct views of the parade.
Personally, I like sitting towards the Town Square end of Main Street with Sleeping Beauty Castle in the distance. Nothing beats parade photos with the castle in the background!
In Tokyo Disneyland, Dreamlights takes a different route and the area distance between the end of World Bazaar (Main Street) and Cinderella Castle is enormous. I have far, far less experience photographing Dreamlights, but my favorite spot based on that limited experience and my intuition based upon the angles is on the far side of the Hub, between the entrance pathway to Adventureland and the Crystal Palace (see above).
This location has the parade coming towards you with Cinderella Castle directly in the background. Check out Tokyo Disney Resort Trip Report – Part 6 for a ton of Dreamlights photos!
Note that a lot of the tips here are virtually identical to what’s found in the Tips for Photographing Disney Dark Rides article. If you’ve already read that and have a good grasp of the approach, the only thing you’re going to learn here is recommended shutter speeds and a couple other minor things. That article is much more in-depth and is a good foundation for this one (if you’re not so comfortable with photography yet).
The biggest difference between photographing dark rides and photographing nighttime parades is that you aren’t (or at least shouldn’t be) moving during Main Street Electrical Parade, but the “scenes” are moving.
Also, just like the Dark Ride Photography Tips article, our main piece of advice here is to turn off your flash. Because this cannot be reiterated enough, here’s the side-by-side flash (left) and non-flash (right) photo-comparison of SpectroMagic’s fish float:
There’s no official Disney “rule” against using flash during Main Street Electrical Parade, but you absolutely should not, as it illuminates parts of the floats that are not meant to be illuminated. Photos taken with flash will not correctly capture the “feel” of the parade. It’s a nighttime light parade–the only lights should be those from the parade!
With that said, let’s turn our attention to how to better photograph the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland with point & shoot cameras and DSLRs!
Point & Shoot
Main Street Electrical Parade will be difficult to photograph with a point and shoot unless you have an advanced camera like the Sony RX-100. With lower end point and shoots, you will end up with a lot of blurry and a lot of noisy photos, with a high percentage of blurry shot. You thus need to play the “quantity and percentages” game.
The good news is that some floats are quite bright, so even with a point and shoot, you can capture good photos of these floats! Just don’t expect to take great photos of the free-roaming characters during the parade. They are generally too dimly lit and moving too quickly.
If you are a point and shoot photographer who is familiar with semi-manual settings (and you have a camera capable of them), skip down to the DSLR section. The tips there will generally apply to you, just keep in mind the equipment limitation of using a point & shoot.
If you’re not familiar with semi-manual settings, but don’t mind trying, put your camera into aperture priority mode (“Av” or “A” mode), changing your aperture (“f/number”) to as low of a number as you can, and adjusting your ISO to the highest or second highest number possible.
Alternatively, put your camera into sports mode, or another auto mode that has a name that involves things that move.
For this, it’s important that you have a good grasp on the three elements of exposure, and how to manually adjust settings on your camera. If you don’t have basic technical understanding of the elements of exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO), read Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson before reading any further. If you lack an understanding of how to manually adjust settings on your camera, read its manual (or better yet, one of the intuitively-written Magic Lantern Guides).
In order for great, low-noise Main Street Electrical Parade photos, you need a “fast” lens–a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.8. If you have an f/2.8 lens, that will work, too, but you’re starting to push it. If your lenses have maximum apertures above that, you either need a new lens or be prepared to enter noise country.
Recommended Main Street Electrical Parade lenses are the inexpensive [insert brand name of your camera here] 50mm f/1.8 and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (check out my review of the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 here). I also use my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens from time to time for character close-ups. Unlike dark rides, you have much more latitude in choosing a focal length here, as you can control how far the floats are from you when you photograph them.
Nighttime light parades generally don’t cause cameras color problems, but I still recommend shooting in raw and using auto white balance. Raw gives you more latitude when editing, and auto white balance allows you to adjust the white balance in post processing (if you shoot raw) if the camera “guesses” it incorrectly. That won’t happen too much with the parades.
Use spot metering (Nikon) or partial metering (Canon). This is the metering mode that takes the very center of the frame, rather the whole scene or the center-average. This is important because the floats are very, very bright and the night sky is very, very dark. You want the camera exposing for the floats, not the dark sky. If it exposes for the sky (or an average of the sky and the floats), the floats will be blown out.
I usually also use exposure compensation of around -.7. This keeps my ISO lower and/or shutter speed faster. Plus, it’s easier to brighten shadows in post processing than it is to tame highlights.
Since the floats move, you want an auto-focus mode that tracks. I recommend servo (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon), which will ensure that you’re continuously focusing. Manual focus should not be necessary during the parades. There is plenty of light and contrast for auto-focus to work like a breeze.
In terms of mode, much like with dark rides, I use aperture priority with a wide open aperture (f/1.4 or f/1.8 depending upon the lens) and auto ISO enabled with a base ISO and minimum shutter speed. I recently shot with a Canon DSLR for a few weeks, and I missed the advanced auto ISO feature more than anything else. If you use a Canon DSLR, use shutter priority or manual mode with a shutter speed of between 1/60th and 1/200th of a second.
I usually use 1/100th, and I end up with some blurry photos but I prefer to use shutter speeds that are little on the slow side, since they allow me to keep your ISO down. More blurry shots this way, but the ones that are tack sharp have far less noise than they would otherwise. I like using this strategy plus shooting A LOT to play the percentages.
If you’re using auto ISO, use the camera’s minimum ISO as your base ISO and the maximum ISO as the maximum ISO. Same shutter speeds as above apply. The difference here is that instead of the camera prioritizing raising your ISO as it would in shutter priority (which will in turn raise your aperture), the camera here does not raise your ISO to compensate at all until it needs to drop to that minimum shutter speed.
This means that a float shot with a Nikon in A mode as described above might have an ISO of 400, while the same float shot with the Canon has an ISO of 6400, because the Canon also unnecessarily increased the aperture to f/8.
As mentioned above, I like to take as many shots as possible to play the percentages. A lot of your photos will be junk–this is normal. Taking more photos increases the likelihood that you’ll end up with more technically good shots. I’m usually pleased if around 33% of my Main Street Electrical Parade photos are technically good.
Post processing on Main Street Electrical Parade photos is very simple and not worth discussing in detail. The only ways it deviates from normal processing is that you’ll likely be applying more noise reduction and highlight recovery, and you probably won’t be doing any “aggressive” editing.
If you’ve ever dabbled in light painting photography, you know the potential for creative options with long exposures and lights. Well, think of the Main Street Electrical Parade floats as giant lights for light painting, albeit lights you can’t control.
The key here is to use a tripod, a remote, manual mode (in bulb mode) a higher numbered aperture, and your lowest ISO. This is advanced photography territory, so if you’re still learning the ropes, this may not be the way to go.
As far as where to stand, I like the Main Street USA train station and anywhere else that puts a little distance between you and the floats. Trying this from the “front row” of a seating area is likely to be unsuccessful in a couple of regards. It’s more likely to be crowded and thus your tripod is more likely to be bumped, and you are so close to the action that you’ll simply have a frame filled with streaks of light, without much context.
Context is king here. I’ve seen a lot of bad Main Street Electrical Parade long exposures, and most of the time these shots aren’t good because they lack context.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the “cool effect” of light painting and just do it for the sake of doing it, but without an overarching composition and context to the photo, those shots are just cool for the sake of being cool, and aren’t actually good. Include other guests, the castle or another part of the park, or something that anchors the photo.
A lot of people initially find photographing these night parades to be a real challenge, but with a little bit of knowledge and the right settings, they are actually normally pretty easy to photograph. if you are comfortable photographing dark rides, you should be comfortable photographing the Main Street Electrical Parade. There are a few important differences, but ultimately, it’s just like an easier form of dark ride photography. Good luck!
If you’re interested in improving your Disney photography, check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
Have you tried photographing the electrical parades at Disneyland or Tokyo Disneyland? Were you successful? Any other tips you can offer? Hearing from you is half the fun of these articles, so share your thoughts and any other tips you might have in the comments!