Sure, you know how to use Disney's PhotoPass service. You go into the parks, have a PhotoPass photographer take your picture, get your card or Magic Band scanned, and then the photos appear online. Easy, right? Well I can tell you that there is much more going on backstage.
I was a PhotoPass photographer for a little over a year and a half at Walt Disney World. In my time, I worked at three parks, four resort hotels, and with about 35+ characters (yes, I counted). And while the typical guest gets their photo taken and walks away, there are literally thousands of people making sure that your perfect Cinderella Castle or Mickey Mouse photo makes it from the camera to your photo album.
Editor's note: Like any Disney service, PhotoPass evolves at a rapid rate. Some things will have changed since Alyssa worked as a photographer, but we still think her recollections offer a fascinating insight into how much effort and technology goes into what seems like a relatively simple offering to guests.
A PhotoPass photographer's day starts when they make it to their backstage work location and clock in. They are assigned four pieces of equipment - a camera, a flash, a PDA, and a scanner, as well as extra batteries for each. It's each photographer's responsibility to set everything up and to make sure it's working. If you see a photographer in the park looking like they are loaded down with enough equipment to launch a space shuttle, you are half right. The camera and flash are connected to each other and have carefully approved setting for each location. For example, you need a lower shutter speed if you are photographing people at night or in dark areas. There are also different setting for some of the indoor character locations, depending on the lighting, although there is a general outdoor setting that works well in most locations during the day.
Another important part of the photographer's equipment is the PDA and the scanner. The PDA is connected to the camera by a cord and looks like a large Blackberry. It is then wirelessly connected to the scanner. When I started working as a photographer in August 2012, the PDA would be the piece of equipment that would scan the PhotoPass cards. However, in late 2012, as test Magic Bands began to appear, the scanner was added. Not only can it scan QR codes on the plastic PhotoPass cards (and most recently QR codes generated in My Disney Experience) but it can also scan the chip inside Magic Bands and the Memory Maker cards.
Once the equipment is set up, the Photographer has to sign into the PDA. Every photo that they take will have their name linked to it, although their name can't be accessed by the average guest. The Photographer will usually take a few test shots backstage to make sure everything is working correctly before receiving their assignment.
It may not surprise anyone familiar with Disney's keen attention to detail, but each photographer is assigned a specific location. There could be anywhere from a couple dozen to nearly a hundred photo locations designed by the Disney entertainment department for photographers to stand, depending on the park. The most important ones will always have a photographer, including popular character and icon locations (Cinderella Castle, Spaceship Earth, etc.). These are mandatory, and a photographer's schedule could be specifically made to make sure each location is filled. During peak seasons there are more locations added to accommodate the massive crowds, although they are spaced out so large groups don't accidentally become part of another group's photo.
Sometimes photographers are given the chance to roam around an area. For example, you may find some photographers walking around World Showcase in Epcot. However, they are usually assigned a specific perimeter. For the most part, each photographer has multiple assignments in the day organized by a computer system that looks at each Cast Member's schedule and when their assigned breaks are. It's most common to be assigned one location for a few hours, be given a break, and then assigned to a new location. This is great in the hotter summer months and the (few) freezing winter nights because the managers try to rotate people between outdoor and indoor locations. Sometimes, however, a photographer is only given one assignment a day and will return to the same location even after taking a break. An example would most of the photographers around Epcot's World Showcase or photographers who are in remote locations, like Rafiki's Planet Watch in Disney's Animal Kingdom.