How to Take Pictures of a Ferris Wheel at Night

Carnivals. Cotton Candy. Arcades. Rides. Ferris Wheels. These words conjure up thoughts of fun, good times, and simple pleasures.

Nikon D600 & Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S lens @ 5 sec, f/22, 28mm, iso 100 on tripod.

To a photography enthusiast, it conjures up an opportunity to shoot long exposures at night to capture the dazzling lighting effects of the newer Ferris wheels. Read on to see how I harvested the light…

For this outting, I took my Nikon D600 DSLR coupled with my trusty Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S zoom lens and a tripod. I chose the “superzoom” so that I would have just about any focal length I need at my disposal, and of course the tripod to steady the camera for long exposures. (A 18-55mm cropped sensor/DX kit lens or a full frame/FX 24-85mm kit lens would do fine.)

To put things into context, here’s an establishing shot showing the Ferris wheel (at rest) and time of day. It was about 30-60 minutes after sunset on a warm evening in mid-December in Orlando, Florida. It was a seasonal carnival setup within the Waterford Lakes Towne [shopping] Center. Just ideal weather really, since it’s the best time of the year here in Central Florida.

Ferris wheel at rest. Exposure 5 sec, f/22, 28mm, iso 100 on tripod.

Here is the same perspective, same exposure, with the Ferris wheel in motion.

Same position with Ferris wheel in motion. Same exposure @ 5 sec, f/22, 28mm, iso 100 on tripod.

Note my exposure settings: Manual exposure mode, ISO 100, shutter speed 5 seconds, aperture f/22. Why? I am glad you asked:

1. Exposure Mode. Dial “M” for Manual. Why? Because at night, the exposure meter can really be fooled by the variety of lights in the frame. Set it to Manual and then set your ISO, shutter speed, and aperture as I describe below as a starting point.

2. ISO. Use the lowest ISO setting. Set this first, and set it to the minimum value possible to maximize color fidelity. For example, 100 is my base ISO setting on my Nikon D600.

3. Shutter Speed. 5 seconds. After a number of trials and error, 5 seconds worked best for me given the typical slow rotational speed of the Ferris wheel.

4. Aperture or f-stop. Use a small aperture which is equivalent to a large f-stop for maximum depth of field and to help push the exposure to about 5 seconds. With some older DSLRs, the base ISO is 200, in which case, push the f-stop higher to f/29 or f/32 (smaller aperture) to make up for the more sensitive ISO. Try a number of shots.

Make adjustments based on the ambient light, the speed of the Ferris wheel, and other factors. (Your mileage will vary.) That’s the creative part of photography. Run with it. Improvise.

Once you have dialed in an exposure to your liking, here are some other considerations:

5. Use A Tripod. There’s no way around it. You must use a tripod for these longer exposures. The sturdier, the better when it comes to long exposures.

6. Framing/Composition. A straight on shot is nice, but can get boring. Try different compositions, perspectives, angles. See the shots in this post for ideas. Use the rule of thirds. Or not. I like the composition of first photo in this post best. It’s asymetrical. It’s in your face. It incorporates curves and leading lines. Composition is very much a personal choice. An artistic choice. There is no right, no wrong.

Fairground in the foreground. Exposure @ 5 seconds, f/29, 55mm, iso 100 on tripod.

7. Timing is Everything. The Ferris wheel changes its light colors and patterns every so often. It’s spinning motion starts and stops to let passengers on and off. To capture these dynamic light patterns, you have to get accustomed to the light programming and trigger your shutter at the beginning of each pattern. To minimize camera shake when you trigger the shutter, you can use a wireless remote control, like the Nikon ML-L3 remote control for about about $25. Just set the shutter mode to “remote” and trigger away. To minimize camera vibrations due to the reflex mirror, you can even lock the mirror up so subsequent shutter triggers would capture the exposure without triggering the mirror to move up and down, as such mechanical actions can introduce minute vibrations. Consult your camera user manual for details of this feature.

8. Lens Flare. Here’s another composition where I composed the Musik Express carnival ride as an interesting foreground element to balance the Ferris wheel. However, some stray light came in from camera upper right and caused green streaks of flare in the upper right quadrant of the exposure below. This occurred even with my lens hood on mounted on the lens.

Note the flare in the upper right quadrant due to stay light hitting the front element of the lens, even with lens hood mounted. Exposure 5 sec, f/22, 28mm, iso 100 on tripod.

To prevent this stay, I simply used my hands to block the stay light. I did such a fine job, my hand photo bombed the exposure (top right corner).

I used my hand as an impromptu lens hood extension, but it became part of this shot. Oops. But surely the lens flare is gone. Exposure 5 sec, f/22, 28mm, iso 100 on tripod.

After some trial and error, I was able to block the light, but not intrude in the final image. Ta da!

Ah, third time’s a charm. No stay light flares, no hand lens hood extension. (Okay, okay, if you look at my file numbering, it actually took me more than three tries.) Exposure 5 sec, f/22, 28mm, iso 100 on tripod.

9. Last, have fun! Remember what good thoughts are conjured up by the words: Carnivals. Cotton Candy. Arcades. Rides. Ferris Wheels. Experiment with your exposures. Keep that shutter open even longer. See what happens. Get creative with your composition and framing. Go nuts. And the most important thing? Is to have fun while you are harvesting the light. Of course.

A Word on Security: Interestingly, I was visited by the mall security officer. He spotted me after having just setup for a few minutes. He came up to me and questioned if I was affiliated with the mall and tried to politely shoo me off the property.When I explained that I was only taking pictures of the Ferris wheel, he relaxed a bit but still wanted to radio it into his supervisor. After a quick check, he let me continue, but asked me to refrain for taking photos of the security team. I smiled and confirmed that I would comply, and was happy to continue shooting. It was not my first encounter with private security officers while photographing. But so far, they have been understanding.

[(Ô] HtL | like us on facebook

Comments are closed.