photo adventures — 24 hours of chicago

light is the most important element in photography, a word with Greek roots that roughly translates to “drawing with light.” at the beginning and ends of the day, the sun’s light is indirect soft, perfect for light drawing. during the middle of the day, however, the light is direct and harsh, and for this reason photographers tend to avoid shooting then. shooting at night presents substantial difficulty as well — how do you draw with light when there’s barely any light to draw?

chicago is a special place, though. there are an abundance of rich interiors of buildings both old and new to explore during the middle of the day when the light is harsh, and the city’s lights provide ample drawing opportunities even in the middle of night. because of this, i’ve often commented that you could shoot all day and all night without running out of excellent photo opportunities with great lighting.

this weekend, i put that theory to the test. from sunrise on saturday to sunrise on sunday, i wandered throughout chicago, soaking up the city’s light. i challenged myself to find one photograph that i liked during each hour of the day. the following are the results. enjoy!

a couple notes before we get started: first, thanks so much to Lindsay, Devin, and Patrick for keeping me company during this adventure. it was really nice to have some friends to chat with and help keep me awake! and second, i wanted to shout out Chris Smith at his site and book have been my primary source for photo locations over the past couple years, and i utilized both heavily when planning this trip. if you’re interested in seeing chicago, even if your goal is just sightseeing and isn’t photography-related, i highly recommend his site.


the second half of the adventure started with dinner and drinks at Au Cheval. while Devin and i were waiting for Lindsay and to be seated, we soaked in the atmosphere. Au Cheval has a really cool vibe (and great food…i definitely recommend it), and i wanted to get at least one shot that captured it.


we stuck around on top of the parking garage long enough to watch the sunset. the building on the righthand side of the above shot was blocking the direct view of the setting sun, but the adjacent glass buildings offered glimpses of the show.


the next stop was the Cityscape Bar on the 15th floor of the Holiday Inn just off the river. the bar itself was only so-so, but the views were pretty great. every time i see the skyline from a different perspective, whether it’s in a helicopter or just a few floors above ground level, i notice something new.


after the Cityscape Bar, Devin headed home and Lindsay and i made for Millenium Park. we wanted to see Cloud Gate and Buckingham fountain before the park closed at 11. i’ve taken so many pictures of the bean by now that i’m forced to really work in order to find a new, interesting way to shoot it. recently, i’ve been taking long exposures as a way to eliminate the tourists from the shot (if you keep the shutter open long enough and people in the frame are moving somewhat, they’ll disappear from the final image).

this helps, but the subject still isn’t anything novel. i wanted to do something a little more with this shot, and when i started editing a few moments ago i had the idea to fade the exposure from bottom to top, simulating a graduated ND filter (i.e., the bottom is exposed normally, but shot gets darker closer to the top). this has the effect of keeping interesting detail in the foreground, especially the bottom of the bean and the surprising lack of tourists, but it makes it impossible to see the top of the bean. combined with the fact that you can see the city’s lights on the bean, this makes it seem almost as though you’re looking at the skyline itself, rather than a reflection of it. the skyscraper on the very left side of the shot isn’t a reflection, but that’s not immediately obvious when you take a first glance at the shot. cool stuff.


after shooting the bean, we hustled over to Buckingham Fountain to catch the final lightshow before the closing of the park. i only got a couple shots off before they turned the fountain off, but thankfully this one turned out quite well.


initially, i was going to shoot some car trails on top of this bridge, but there was no legal way to get there since the park was closed. and by this time, i didn’t possess the requisite energy to jump fences and break laws. so i plopped my tripod down underneath the bridge and made do.

unfortunately, i wasn’t thinking very clearly by this point and i forgot to switch my ISO setting from automatic back to 100, and my camera jacked the ISO all the way up to 12800 for this shot. since i had a tripod, i would have preferred to take a longer exposure with a lower ISO to prevent the introduction of noise and give me some more car trails. i was able to keep the noise from being much of a distraction by the way i processed the image, but it definitely limited my options.


thankfully, i remembered to switch my ISO setting to 100 before taking this shot (rather, series of shots…i merged three exposures in HDR Efex Pro to produce the image shown above). long exposures and HDR processing both have a tendency to amplify noise, so a low ISO is key when you’re shooting for both.

earlier, i mentioned that i have a hard time shooting the Riverwalk during midday because whatever i produce will be a disappointment compared to what the shot could have been during blue hour or night. i think this image emphasizes that point nicely.


Lake Shore East Park was a short walk from our location at the far eastern edge of the Riverwalk. this was a natural next stop since we wanted to give our feet as much of a break as possible before we began the trek south to Adler Planetarium, where we planned to watch the sunrise. i’ve been to this park a few times, but i hadn’t spent much time on the northern edge where the fountains are. the lights created a lot of very cool effects, and i had a really good time shooting here. i’ll have to go back sometime when i’m not about to fall asleep…


after a quick Dunkin Donuts refresher, we headed south towards Adler Planetarium. on the way, i grabbed this shot of a Michigan Ave fire escape. as i set up my tripod, i knew that i was going to crop the shot exactly as shown above. i think photographers sometimes get caught up in thinking the world was created with a certain aspect ratio, and to crop in any other way is blasphemy. obviously, i don’t carry that belief. instead, i simply consider aspect ratio to be one of the tools we possess to communicate our interpretation of the scene. this image would be boring at a 3×2 aspect ratio, but it comes alive at this somewhat ridiculous 7.5×1 aspect ratio.


heading out to Adler Planetarium, i was expecting a gorgeous sunrise over Lake Michigan, with the sun’s rays glinting off the Chicago skyline. i wasn’t expecting this. wispy, swirling clouds partially veiling a crescent moon and sparkling Venus while a couple perches on the edge of the lake and absorbs the pre-dawn oranges and reds. i wasn’t expecting it, but i’ll take it! it was a perfect ending to the 24 hour adventure.


i had been awake for over 24 hours and had walked about 18 miles during that timespan, but there was no way i was going to go call it quits before watching the sunrise. i threw on my 10 stop ND filter and played around while the sun crept over the horizon. this shot was taken several minutes before the sun came up, but there was enough warm light to give the city some color to contrast the deep blue of the sky and lake.

some final thoughts: our world is an incredible place. there’s so much beauty, some of it natural and some of it manmade. unfortunately, my day-to-day life has a tendency to drag me away from that beauty. i really do enjoy my day-to-day life, from the work to the Netflix binges to the nights out with friends. but i worry that, as i age, i’ll spend more and more of my life absorbed in the day-to-day and less of it living in awe of the world’s beauty. Ben Franklin quipped that “many people die at age twenty five and aren’t buried until seventy five.” i just turned twenty four, and i’m hoping that in a year i can confidently assert that i don’t fall into Franklin’s majority. these photo adventures will help me do so.

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