The exhilarating history of roller coaster photography

Capturing thrill seekers through the ages.
Roller Coaster Photography
Thrill ride photography has evolved. Hy Peskin/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are few things quite exhilarating as the thrill of a very good roller coaster. The way your heart races before you hit that first drop and the laughter and/or terror screams as endorphins pulse through your body as you whip around the track for approximately a minute is either euphoric or horrifying depending on who you ask. The last crucial piece of the thrill ride experience is a stop at the photobooth to laugh at whatever ridiculous face you might have been making during the most thrilling part of the ride. “We’ve come up with a highly technical term that we call the OSP, which stands for the ‘Oh Shit Point,’” says Tony Sinkosky, CEO and President of Get the Picture Corp, a ride photography business based in Pennsylvania. “There are so many points on a roller coaster where you are going to get absolutely tremendous facial expressions or negative G-forces where people’s hair is up in the air. Essentially you want to find a place on that ride where you are going to get a real good reaction.”

Coney Island Amusement Park
Loop the Loop at Coney Island Amusement Park, 1910 in New York City. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Thrill Ride Photography in the 19th and 20th Century

Photography has existed almost as long as roller coasters. Both were early attractions in seaside resorts like Coney Island and Asbury Park. It’s no surprise that the two mixed.

The earliest images of roller coasters were often taken from a distance, with photographers focusing on the architectural structures of the rides rather than the expressions of the riders. The reason is likely twofold: early field cameras were too slow and bulky to bring onto the ride itself. And the coaster structures themselves were new and novel enough to make exciting subjects from a stable, comfortable viewpoint.

Prince George and Princess Mary enjoy the fun of the fair
Prince George and Princess Mary enjoy the fun of the fair at the opening of Earls Court Exhibition, London, 1913. From The Royal Jubilee Book 1910-1935 The Print Collector/Getty Images

It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that photographers began focusing on the wild expressions of the patrons. Cameras were smaller by then and photographers working for newspapers or the amusement park’s publicity department could now bring gear along for the ride and shoot during the journey. Photos from the ‘40s and into the early ‘80s capture riders with a wide angle lens and from a perspective of just in front of the thrill seekers.

Thrill ride photography as we know it today is instantaneous Seconds after deboarding a ride, riders can see their faces on a screen and walk away with a print, keychain, or t-shirt faster than you can get a churro. This concept started with the log flume in the ‘80s.

happy young people riding a roller coaster
Shot of happy young people riding a roller coaster. Jacob Ammentorp Lund/Getty Images

“There was a time where you had to pay for it in advance and they would put a flag on your log,” says Tim Baldwin, Communications Director of American Coaster Enthusiasts. “When you would splash down they would take a picture of everyone who had a flag on their log. If you didn’t pay for it in advance, they wouldn’t take a picture.” Why waste film on someone who didn’t intend to buy a picture?

young people riding on roller coasters
Left: Two young women enjoying themselves on a rollercoaster at Southend Fair, England. Original Publication: Picture Post – 409 -October Month Of Fairs – pub. 1938
Right: 1981: The rollercoaster ride ‘The Loch Ness Monster’ at Busch Gardens Centre, Williamsburg, Virginia, boasts speeds of 70mph. Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images; Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images

The Introduction of Instant Gratification

In the late ’80s amusement parks began installing ride cams on their most popular roller coasters. According to Sinkosky, who started his business Get the Picture Corp around this time, parks like Disney and Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH were some of the first places to offer the service. He recalled having helpful conversations with people in the ride photography departments at both parks before launching his company in 1987.

Sinkosky says speaking with both parks helped him understand the risks involved and the potential for profit. “[Cedar Point] told me ‘if I could afford to have this on every ride—I would,” he says.

man and son on Wildcat roller coaster at Riverside Amusement Park
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, right, and his son, Patrick J. Kennedy, ride the Wildcat roller coaster at Riverside Amusement Park in Agawam, Mass., on July 6, 1979. Joe Dennehy/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

His company’s earliest camera for ride photography was a ProMavic with a mechanical shutter that was designed to continuously fire as a ride came by. “We were grinding through these cameras at a rapid rate,” he says. The constant shooting took a toll on the mechanical parts.

Lighting was another early issue for Sinkosky. Initially he could only operate the cameras in broad daylight. “At that time there weren’t any strobes out there that could keep up,” he says.

friends riding roller coaster
Left: Two women enjoy a roller coaster ride at the funfair.
Right: Friends riding a roller coaster Chris Ware/Getty Images; Bill Varie/Getty Images

Eventually his company installed continuous lighting on the rides with cameras and switched to video technology, which allowed them to pull frames featuring all of the individual riders. He developed proprietary software with his business partner Bob Hench to get the images from the camera to transfer instantaneously to a computer in the photobooth outside of the ride. “If we were going to survive in this business we had to become a pretty integrated shop,” he says. Printing the images still took about 3 minutes, but it was the birth of the ride photography business as we know it today.

unposed expression photography on thrill rides
Left: The roller coaster is a rough ride, but do they love it! This unposed photo was taken by the intrepid photographer from a front seat, as the car made a stomach-dropping descent. A companion clutched the camera while he clicked the shutter.
Right: Models from the CBS gameshow, ‘The Big Payoff,’ Connie Mavis and Pat Conway ride The Parachute Jump, originally built for the 1939 World’s Fair, at Steeplechase Park. Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. May 11, 1953. Bettman/Getty Images; CBS via Getty Images

Present Day

According to Michael Shearer, Vice President of Systems & Engineering at Get the Picture Corp, these days most thrill ride photography companies are using a combination of gigabit cameras and high speed firewire cameras. For strobes the industry standard is a product from Unilux called The Big Shot—a weather resistant inspection light that can fire every 33 milliseconds and has a recycle time of 12 seconds.

expression photography on thrill rides
Left: The Coal Cracker Log Flume, 2018.
Right: Miss Cyclone Angie Pontani (left) and Astro Girl Jen Gapay have a front row seat on the Cyclone roller coaster, as they take the first plunge on opening day at Astroland amusement park. Astroland will close its doors at the end of the season to make way for a redevelopment of Coney Island but the 80-year-old Cyclone is promised to be part of the new boardwalk. Get the Picture Corp; Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Where things tend to differ is the proprietary software that companies use to get the images from the cameras to the computers down below. “Twenty years ago we were essentially inventing everything: scavenging parts at radio shack, soldering things together, but now it has become a little more commoditized,” Shearer says. “But there is still a little bit of secret sauce in the signal processing, the interface circuits and certainly in the software.”

kids screaming on roller coasters
Left: Kids on a roller coaster. Right: Two teenagers scream on a turn of the roller coaster at Morey’s Pier, along the Wildwood, New Jersey boardwalk. | Location: Morey’s Pier, Wildwood, New Jersey, USA. Jeffry W. Myers/Getty Images; Kelly/Mooney Photography/Getty Images

The cameras of today have digital shutters and according to Shearer are incredibly reliable, and often end up lasting for years at a time. “Usually the determining factor for when a camera gets replaced is when the ride is struck by lightning and we have to swap one out,” he says. “The latest system that we use is even pretty resilient to that, but back in the analog days, if there was lightning anywhere nearby you would have problems.”

couple at fun fair riding roller coaster
Happy couple riding roller coaster. Westend61/Getty Images

On a high speed ride cameras are typically firing at about 1/4000 of a sec, on a slower water ride the camera may fire at 1/500 of sec.

expression photography on thrill rides
Left: The Skyrush, 2014. Right: The Wildcat, 2018. Get the Picture Corp

Although some companies have began to dabble with offering riders video footage or animated gifs from the ride, according to Shearer, customers like to keep it simple.

“We’ve found the bread and butter of the industry is the still photograph,” he says. “There is something about it that people really love.”