Fireworks and Nighttime Long Exposures...
This is my all time favorite shot (and my home PC desktop background for about a year running). You can hardly tell it's Disney or shot in the Magic Kingdom, but it is. This was from September 2003, so just barely before the current Wishes show. Was right near Dumbo and the sub lagoon (remember that?), facing away from the Castle.
Best tips for shooting fireworks (and most all night shots) is to be absolutely sure to use a tripod. A full size tripod is probably not much fun to haul around the parks, but mini pocketsize tripods sure work great. They're easily small enough to through in a backpack, or even keep in your pocket all day. Usually the downside with the mini tripods is that you need to be sure there's somewhere convienent to set it up. Fortunately in the parks there's always tables, flattop trashcans, walls, raillings and so forth to set a tripod.
Now that hopefully you're convinced on the tripod, next thing to always do is either use a remote shutter release or delay timer (a 2 second delay seems pretty common). That way the jitter induced by actually pressing the shutter button doesn't get introduced into the picture.
Now for more specific fireworks tips...
I've found that when shooting fireworks, it's pretty critical to close your shutter all the way down (higher the F stop # the better). This lets less light into the lens, and helps you get more pictures of fireworks and less pictures of smoke. Now since you've closed the shutter way down you'll need longer exposure times. I've gotten good shots with the exposure times ranging from 1 to 15 seconds. This shot was a 4 second exposure. The exposure you'll need is going to be a function of how fast the fireworks are being shot off. Shooting the Disney shows I've found that while you may be able to shoot 10 second shots early in the show, you'll need to be able to adjust the exposure quickly on the fly, as by the end of the show there will be so much going off that you'll be down to about 1 second exposures so as to not completely overexpose and get a very white frame.
And lastly, hope for some magic in timing and aiming... All the Disney fireworks shows sure seem to like to alternate between large high explosions, and ones that are closer to the ground. I certainly can't memorize or anticipate the order of the shows, so just have to keep re-aiming and paying close attention to what I'm getting. I do find that it helps to fire the shutter (with the 2 second delay) when I hear the shells launch, and usually do decently well at getting good shots if I can accurately guess the altitude and have the camera pointed at the right spot.
Main Street Town Square Panorama
Taking Panoramic pictures is a pretty unique challenge, and sometimes lots of fun, especially in that there's so many new ways to screw things up. There's two different way things can go wrong... when you're taking the pictures and when you're putting them all together in the computer. Though hopefully that doesn't discourage anyone as it's pretty rewarding when it all works. And if you're like me, a significant portion of your attempts at shooting panorama's will result in panorama's not worth showing, but with these tips should help.
So, first off for taking the pictures... This is easily the more important part, as surely if this goes wrong, there will be nothing good to put together later. Fortunately lots of digital camera's these days have a panoramic assist mode that can help you, I know all the Canon's camera's I've used lately do. In this panoramic assist mode, the camera will take store the images it takes together on your memory card, will lock exposure when you take your first picture, and most importantly show a portion of the previous image on the camera's LCD to help you line up when you're taking a new picture. This last one alone can be a huge help. You don't need this particular shooting mode to be able to get good panoramic pictures, and I'll describe the full process as if you weren't using it, or don't have it on your camera.
If you're still with me, first thing to work out of course when looking to shoot a panorama is to find what to shoot. Things that can help improve your odds of getting a good shoot would be scenes that have relatively consistent lighting across the entire scene (so that one exposure setting can be used for all the source images you shoot), interesting and detailed scenery across the full scene, and the least amount of movement possible (as this can interfere with the imagery assembly that will be done later). Fortunately the parks can offer lots of good targets for the first two, but finding shots without lots of people moving around can be tough (I didn't even try to get everyone on Main Street to stand put on the above image, though that would have really helped).
For the lighting, consistent lighting across the full scene may mean less opportunities such as when the sun's low in the sky, as if you lock your exposure at one extreme, other parts of the panorama may come out over or under exposed. Or it may turn out to be a very interesting shot, but it's certainly a complication. The photo assembly software (more later) can have a hard time assembling and blending shots with different exposure sets, so your best results will come with a consistent exposure across the scene.
If you're not using a panorama assist mode on your camera, you'll almost certainly need to be able to go into a manual settings mode to lock your exposure. Fortunately many digital camera's can also be used a good light meters, on the Canon's that I use, pressing the shutter button midway while in auto mode, will show the exposure time and f-stop that the camera picked. Doing this across the full range of your image (or just at the main subject) will let you pick a best value to use for the full image. Again, that's only necessary if you're not using the panorama assist. If you are, you'll need to be aware that if you're in auto mode the camera will set exposure for the first image you shoot, and you'll be stuck with that across your full range, so you may end up manually setting exposure there too.
Okay, so now you've got your subject picked, and exposure set, now it's time to shoot. Before you start, unless you're doing something peculiarly interesting, you'll probably want to be sure you're zoomed all the way out (since a panorama by definition is going to be a pretty wide angle shot anyway). And if you're just starting out, will probably want to shoot landscape panorama's in 'landscape' mode, as this will cover the scene in the fewest shots. Though if you're feeling bold, or have a scene that won't vertically fit in landscape mode, there's nothing stopping you from turning the camera sideways, and shooting a landscape in portrait mode... Other than the fact that you'll probably be shooting 50% more shots, and have about the same increase in chances to screw things up. But this can get you panorama's with significantly more vertical pixels if you're careful.
Now that you're really ready to shoot... if you have a panorama assist mode, you'll probably find this to be a big help, as after your first shot, the camera's LCD display will show half of the previous 'neighbor' image to help you line up your next picture. This can help ensure that you have plenty of overlap for the software to work with, and if you're shooting handheld help prevent a problem that often happens when I shoot panorama's... drifting the camera up or down a little each shot, so that by the end of the process the horizon's possibly moved substantially in the frame. If this happens, you'll end up discarding a significant portion of the frame from the beginning and end of the shots in stitching, making this one of the easy ways to screw things up.
If you don't have a panorama mode on your camera, don't let that stop you from trying, I've taken a number of successful panorama shots on camera's without that mode. As already mention you'll likely want to lock the exposure, and when you move from shot to shot, try to be very mindful of maintaining a consistent horizon line across your pictures, and shooting with about 50% overlap between images. That fifty percent number doesn't have to be perfectly maintained, as most all the stitching software can compensate for that, and is better to err on the side of too much overlap than too little. Also, I'd try to work somewhat quickly, the less things that move from one shot to the next the better.
Now that you've shot your source images, you're ready to put them together and see how it worked out. I've used about a half dozen different pieces of software, and have mixed. Some shots that I took would work out great with one package, but not others, some seemed to do okay with any, and many times operator error when shooting prevented me from getting anything good.
Of the packages I've used, I've had the best results with AutoStitch. Especially nice is that this is by far the easiest package to use, as it handles most everything for you. Only setting to watch for is the one for output size, so that you get a large enough output image. And as a bonus, besides being very easy, is also free.
Another package that I've tried with some success is Panorama Factory . This is a much more sophisticated program, one where you'll definitely need to pay close attention to the documentation. In using this one, you'll need to describe your camera (many are pre-defined), manually selecting stitching points between the neighboring images, and be able to exercise fine control over your final output image. It has a 30 day demo and is PC only.
A pretty similar package on the Mac is PTMac . This is another one where you'll be manually picking matching control points between images, to help it rectify your many images down to one. I've had about as much luck with this one as with Panorama Factory, which is that I've had some success, but not as much as with AutoStitch. But have certainly seen instances where AutoStitch doesn't produce satisfactory results and another package does.
And finally, last package I've tried is the PhotoMerge option in Photoshop. Maybe it's something unique to the way I've shot my pictures, but I've had the least luck with this one.
Though Photoshop, or pretty equivalently Gimp are pretty necessary for final cleanup of the images. With any of the Panorama stitching packages, you'll most likely want to crop the final image, resize it for viewing, and/or clean up any ghosting. Ghosting is what happens when the two neighboring images are merged in a way that the software can't quite determine how to handle. Fixing ghosting is beyond the scope of this tips page, you'll need to be pretty decently experienced with your image editing software to be able to master this touch up. I can't say I have any fool proof tips for avoiding ghosts in panorama's, other than practice shooting and processing some all the way through. Having final images with unacceptable ghosting is the way I most commonly screw up shooting these.
After all this, if you've ended up with a great panorama, congratulations! I've thus far just used mine online, but am interested in trying to get prints made. Only site I know that offers what looks like good panoramic printing services is EZ Prints . They offer 6" and 12" tall panorama's printing, by whatever width your print ends up at. The Main Street panorama would come out five foot wide by one foot tall, for example.