Who knew that the Windy City was also such a photogenic one? From the Majestic Mile to Chicago’s namesake theater, this midwestern city packs a whole lot of architectural intrigue and natural beauty within its bounds.
Whether you just want to stroll around the Loop with your camera or venture to the banks of Lake Michigan and capture this city’s beauties from afar, we’ve got you covered.
Likely Chicago’s best-known green space, Millennium Park is a civic center located in the Loop near Lake Michigan’s shoreline. It covers over 24 acres and was built between 1998 and 2004 to celebrate the coming of the third millennium (though it was completed a bit late). Often considered the world’s largest rooftop garden because it sits above a parking garage, this space is home to a number of cultural attractions, making it one of the city’s most beloved hubs.
Once there, head to Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an architectural feat designed by Frank Gehry. Using a wide-angle lens, capture the enormity of the curved, sweeping beams that enclose the otherwise open field. Photograph at dusk to get a snap of the changing sky and the glow emanating from nearby skyscrapers.
In addition, pay a visit to Crown Fountain, an unusual — but playfully photogenic — sculpture that incorporates both video and water. This attraction is best visited on a hot summer day, when you’ll be able to capture the movement of crowds, splashes of water, and vibrant images projected on the sculpture’s massive LED screens. Experiment with long-exposure shots to record the area’s lively activity, a variety of viewpoints to capture interesting reflections, and perspective to snap stills of the video feed at just the right moment.
No visit to Millennium Park is complete without a peek at Chicago’s shiniest attraction — Cloud Gate. Over the years, the mirrored, legume-shaped structure has been (very aptly) nicknamed “the Bean.” And, while its installation in 2005 caused a host of headaches — imagine assembling 200 stainless steel plates that weigh a collective 100 tons — the structure has become emblematic of the Windy City itself.
Unfortunately, the quality that makes Cloud Gate so attractive is precisely what makes it difficult to photograph. Its reflectivity means that a mid-day photo op will yield a shot of swarms of camera-wielding crowds. Millennium Park opens at 6 a.m. daily, so if you want to get a clear, unobstructed shot of the Bean, that’s when you should arrive. That said, no matter what time of day you’re there, use a wide-angle lens and pay close attention to exposure. Experiment with different perspectives as well — after all, the structure’s curved surface offers myriad views of the park and the towering structures beyond.
The Chicago Theatre
The neon glow of the Chicago Theatre’s marquee is second to none. Part theater, part landmark, and part Chicago institution, the building stands proudly on North State Street in the city’s Loop district, as it has since its construction in 1921. Complement your visit to the Windy City with a snapshot of the theater’s iconic sign and marquee, the grandeur of which only hint at the opulence found within.
Though you can photograph the exterior of the theater at any time of day, the building yields a more dynamic photo at night. To capture a great night shot, head across the street, set up a tripod, and adjust your settings to aperture priority mode — or even manual, if you’re feeling frisky. Once there, keep your ISO at a standard range, open your aperture (choosing a seemingly “smaller” f-stop, like f/1.8), and set your exposure between 10 and 15 seconds. You’ll be able to record the glow of the marquee without the high levels of “noise” (grain) that usually accompany a low-light shot. If you wish, lengthen the exposure time to 20 or 30 seconds to capture the rush of Chicago traffic as well.
If you can (and you should), explore the interior of the theater as well. It’s a stunning tribute to French Baroque architecture and makes for some fantastic shots. The same principle applies to photographing here, though you’ll likely need a shorter shutter speed — think 5 to 10 seconds. Even with this in mind, photographing in low light is an art, so don’t be afraid to experiment with slightly different exposure times and f-stops until you have a photo of your liking.
The Rookery Building
It’s no surprise that one of Chicago’s most photogenic buildings is also one of its most historic. The Rookery Building, located on South LaSalle Street in the Loop, was designed by John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham — two of Chicago’s most prominent architects whose firm, Burnham & Root, was catapulted to fame for its success designing structures for the World’s Fair in 1893. Though the building once served as a location for the prestigious duo’s offices, it’s is now filled with other offices, shops, and event spaces.
Most locals and visitors who stop by do so with a camera in hand, and for good reason — the building boasts spectacular views for architecture photographers. Stand on one of the two first-floor balconies and photograph with a wide-angle or fish-eye lens to capture the enormity of the building, its gorgeous structural beams, its airy atmosphere, and its fine ironwork railings. For an especially aesthetic shot, head to the stairwell, which provides a seemingly infinite tunnel-like view if you look straight up. Adjust your exposure to capture either a light and airy image or a moody one, and pay attention to your framing — there are a lot of treads, railings, and balconies that need to align for the perfect shot.
There’s no more picturesque way to navigate the Windy City than by its famous “L” (short for “elevated”) train. Some portions of the long-running line were built in 1892, making it one of the oldest metro systems in the United States, second only to New York City’s elevated lines. The construction of the “L” is also largely credited with creating Chicago’s condensed downtown area, for which it is well known. Currently, the “L” carries upwards of 800,000 passengers per day and is both a feat of engineering and a hallmark of the city’s past.
To photograph the “L,” head to Wells Kinzie Parking Garage for a view of the train’s snaking s-curves. When capturing it from afar, remember to adjust your settings to shutter priority mode and choose a quick speed (1/250 to 1/400) so that your image doesn’t come out blurry. Experiment with landscape and portrait orientations to achieve the most interesting composition as well, and try to time your shot with the most interesting light and shadows of the day around noon.
South Pond Pavilion
Head to Chicago’s Lincoln Park and you’ll experience a departure from the city’s sea of steel. The area — one of Chicago’s most historic North Side neighborhoods — acts as both a reprieve from the downtown skyscrapers and a cultural melting pot due to the immigrant communities who settled there after the Civil War.
Today, the neighborhood is also home to the South Pond Pavilion, located within Lincoln Park Zoo, which was inspired by the geometry of a tortoise shell and meticulously crafted out of bent wooden beams. What’s more: the area’s accompanying boardwalk was created from recycled plastic bottles, bringing the area out of Chicago’s past and into its environmentally conscious present. The structure itself yields stunning shots, whether they’re of the city’s buildings framed by the curvature of the arch or the pavilion’s lattice-work. For the best lighting, visit during the early morning or evening, when the sun shines through the structure and creates fascinating shapes on the boardwalk floor. To add more visual interest to the photo, consider including a human figure, an unusual perspective, or the interplay of light and dark within the frame.
Did we miss anything? Let us know which corners of Chicago are your favorite to photograph!
Header image by Neal Kharawala