It’s been six years since I’ve visited Chicago; I have since been wanting to return. My Chicagoan friend Ryan recently coaxed me to, and I brought my girlfriend with me! I'm thrilled I went; Chicago is a really exciting city and an awesome place to photograph, especially at night!
Arriving at the hotel in the Loop, I noticed that one of my premeditated photo spots, the Chicago Theater, was about seventy-five feet from the front door of the hotel.I thought it would be a perfect spot for long-exposure city shots capturing light trails. Plus, this theater being so close to the hotel ensured that, no matter what, I will probably go home with a photo. Things were looking up.
The hotel is just one block from Chicago's renowned, and relatively new, Riverwalk. This unique gentrification project brings residents and tourists together to meander, mingle, take in sights and patronize local businesses, particularly bars and restaurants.
The river itself was aghast with fanfare: yachts, cruise boats, kayaks and even a party boat propelled by the feet of its own patrons. They sit in place and guzzle beer, pedaling away. “What a slick business idea” I thought to myself. “Just like self-checkout at the grocery store. They’ve figured out a way to get their customers to do their work, and pay for it!”
Alas, we find the Island Party Hut on the Riverwalk. This was definitely one of the key moments of the trip. Chicago, Illinois: literally as far as one can get from a tiki-like environment of any kind, yet there we were. Servers in Acapulco shirts. Mai-Thais being consumed en masse. Hula music. Grass-skirt themed fencing. Somehow, it all worked.
They do Tiki Party themed Chicago River cruises, I came to find out. Amanda and I sit down on a park bench to enjoy a couple of sugar-packed island concoctions, specifically the delicious “Riverside Rambler”, and people watch.
Watching the spectacle and sipping Riversides, I start shooting the numerous scenes nearby; some involved human subjects in low light and capturing them, even if they’re posing and intentionally holding still (which my subjects, by my own intentions, never are) require a shutter speed of about 1/80th of a second or faster, depending on how confident the photographer is with the steadiness of their hand.
I did what I could to work with the low light and the subjects and lighting at hand, capturing scenes with people in them and trying to use as fast of a shutter as possible without too much grain ("noise") being in the images.
One of my favorite things to do with a camera is experiment with motion, and the effects and depictions of motion made possible by different shutter speeds, particularly with water.
The Navy Pier’s Centennial Ferris Wheel was prominent on the east-facing background at this location, and was lit up, moving intermittently and thus was creating the possibility of some unique images .
We'd eventually walk right up almost to the base of this Ferris wheel (everyone I’ve ever talked to, it seems, hates riding Ferris wheels, but they’re fun to photograph) and shoot it with a wide-angle lens. I like how gigantic it looks in these photos, such as here in “Centennial Wheel”.
I then set up on the bridge that takes Lake Shore Drive over the Chicago River, I thought at the time I was going to find a unique perspective of the traffic and the architecture of the bridge. I ended up pointing the camera towards the southwest and shooting some of Chicago's unmistakable skyscrapers as some swift cirrus clouds jetted by. There was motion all around me: traffic on the bridge, pedestrians and other riverfront enthusiasts abound, helicopters, so the motion in the clouds, which is a clear and prominent part of these images, reflects the general sense I felt being there. Hence, "Chicago from the Lake Shore Drive Michigan Avenue Bridge one Friday Night."
The next morning, we headed to Michigan Avenue to check out Millennium Park. First stop was the world famous Cloud Gate aka “the Bean”, which is a MIND BENDING art installation! I thought I knew what to expect looking at it, but once there in person, it blew my mind! It distorts reflections in seemingly more than three dimensions, and is a must when visiting Chicago. Trying to find myself in the reflection took me a solid four or five minutes. I would love to experiment more, possibly photograph this sculpture at night, next time I am in town.
The Crown Fountain was the next draw. It’s tough to name the last time I saw so many kids in sheer bliss! Bookending a giant puddle (as enticing as that sounds) there are two LED screens on twenty-foot tall masonry fountains which display faces. Every few minutes the faces pucker up, as if the face is about to spit water out, and…it then proceeds to do so! Fun for the whole family! Tromping around in ankle deep water filled with child, and god knows what else. The kids sure seemed to enjoy it.
I noticed a couple of kids enjoying the hidden bonus cascade on the back side of one of these fountains. With the majority of the children caught up in the hoodoo of the LED screens etc. these kids were content with a more private installation, almost hidden from the larger crowd in the bookended space.
After resting up and enjoying some succulent seafood at Pier 35, we return to Island Party Hut for our cruise! We shove off and start to mob down the Chicago River. I enjoyed shooting some unique perspectives of the skyline and Sears Tower from the boat. Due to the motion of the boat, since it is now dark outside, started shooting at high ISO values, which enable me to use a relatively fast shutter speed for these types of conditions, in the neighborhood of 1/80th to 1/100th of a second, creating some sharp looking images, but the amount of “noise” won’t be known until the post-production process.
The cruise boat turns around just before hitting the suburbs, and a couple of Mai Thais later (IPH doesn’t offer the Riverside Rambler on the cruise boats, perhaps my most negative review of the trip) we arrive at the source of the Chicago River for a fireworks display near the Navy Pier. Unfortunately, the motion of the boat made shooting the fireworks kind of a futile effort, as fireworks require a longer exposure to look right. So I put the gear away and enjoyed the fireworks with Amanda. It’s important to put the camera away and just enjoy the moment for what it is sometimes.
Amanda has to work Monday so we part ways on Sunday afternoon. We get lunch in the neighborhood, say goodbye and Amanda heads to the airport.
I walked some of the streets in the area, it had just rained a little and this is generally a great time to take pictures on the streets with the leftover moisture from the rain. I attempted to get a few shots of the Chicago Theater but wasn’t too thrilled with what I was getting…I resolve to shoot this at night: I noticed that they shut off the lights early, I must make it first on my location list, in order to capture the lights of the sign!
I found a location nearby where there is a curve in the tracks for the L Train, and there’s a row of flags in the foreground. I thought this had some potential, the tall buildings, the Chicago Flag, and the L train should “place” this photo nicely, so I waited for a couple of trains to go by until I could capture an image of this scene without too many distracting tourists, vehicles, cops, fire engines etc. in the foreground.
After having dinner with a friend, it was time to start my much-anticipated night shoot of Chicago.
First, I walked around the Chicago Theater looking for a good vantage point. I found a spot near a subway entrance that could potentially use to frame a scene. Things like subway entrances are unique from city to city, so I thought I could use this as an anchor for the image.I went through this entire thought process before I realized the irony here: the subject I was shooting was, in itself, a giant sign of the word “CHICAGO.”
I wanted to capture motion of the traffic in the scene, to bring the viewer into the streets of the Windy City.
I waited for twenty minutes to get what I was looking for, in terms of the type of traffic in the scene. What I was after was a smooth even flow in both directions. Five cars or so would be ideal, with no turn signals or lane changes to make the pattern appear "busy". The scene had a decent amount of light in it (from the bright theater) and I didn’t want to use a ND filter, so I was limited to a nine second shutter.Once I was able to get the necessary elements to come together I captured “Blink and You’ll Miss It.”
Next it was time to head to Castaway’s, a spot that I had picked on my map as I drove by it earlier. It was getting close to 10:00 and, the area closes at 11:00.
The view of Chicago here from the shore of Lake Michigan was commanding and stately! The waves crashing over the edge of the pavement that comprises the shore added a spooky element to the scene.
I liked this location because it, first of all, looks at the Chicago Skyline in a unique way, most pictures are taken from the south side, near the Shedd Aquarium, and I had personally never seen this perspective. I planned on using a long exposure for the traffic on Lake Shore Drive, and the water crashing up on the shore. It took all the time I had left at this location in order to perfect the timing of the lighthouse, on the Palmolive Building (formerly the Playboy headquarters). This gives the final image, seen here in “Gold Coast” a distinctive light beam shining off into the night.
At about 10:52, I pack up my gear and have another Lyft meet me nearby. Got the shot with 8 minutes to spare!With my first two shots seemingly turning out, (never know for sure until they're printed though), I am now on my way to the third and final location.
The Kinzie Street Railway Bridge, erected in 1908 by the Chicago Northwestern Railway, was at that time the world’s longest and heaviest bascule bridge, and sits atop the site of both the first bridge of any type to span the Chicago River and the City’s first railroad bridge. After the Chicago Sun-Times (the only CNW customer east of this location) moved its production facility, the bridge was raised to its current raised orientation and was no longer used. It is still technically considered an active bridge and is thus lowered and inspected at least once per year.
In photographs that I had seen online, it *was* also a very clever place to frame shots with the Sears Tower dominating the background, but evidently recent construction has now hampered this particular view. Still a location with its own vibe and feel, I very much enjoyed my time, using a wide-angle lens to capture the hibernating railroad structure as it poses in front of Chicago’s ever-changing and always beautiful skyline, enjoy the colors and towering buildings in “Kinzie Street Bridge”. Now, my mind is buzzing from visiting and photographing three location in this city that showcase unique aspects of its beauty after the sun goes down. Any time things go as planned, so far from home, it's hard not to be ecstatic. I like to channel some advice I once heard from Ozzy Osbourne on TV, regarding creative energy. Basically, paraphrasing Ozzy's trademarked individualistic interpretation of the English language, when this energy/motivation presents itself…when there’s a flow of energy going through one’s mind…run with it! Keep working! I love Ozzy and will never forget this very important piece of advice. However, I felt like I had accomplished what I had set out to do, which was to explore the Windy City and document some of its unique installations and perspectives during both the day and night.