The John Hancock Observatory is a great place to grab a view of Chicago or to grab a drink at the bar of the Signature Room. Although the Signature Room has a great view, it’s a hard place to get a good photo of Chicago. The alternative is to pay the admission fee and go to the observatory floor. It’s a few more dollars than a drink at the bar, but the views are spectacular and you can walk the entire floor with no restrictions. If you are lucky they will even let you set up a tripod (they let you bring them in on Mondays :) ).
How to Get the Shot
The shot above was taken with a Tokina 11-16mm lens but I would bring a range of lenses on your trip. While the wide-angle lens is interesting, my Nikon 80-200 f2.8 also got great use during this trip. It is really interesting to shoot with a wide angle lens and get the entire city but it’s equally interesting to zoom in on different buildings with your telephoto. The image above was shot facing south towards the downtown area, but the east and north views are equally interesting.
The Allerton shot was taken using my Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 telephoto lens. The telephoto is great to get unique shots that you would otherwise not be able to capture. The John Hancock Observatory lends itself to many of these shots looking down and around the city. You will rarely have the opportunity to photograph Chicago from a higher vantage point.
The smoke trails image was shot from the observation deck during the Chicago Air and Water show. The show takes over Chicago every August and if you get a chance to witness it don’t miss the opportunity.
When shooting through windows you may want to consider a rubber lens hood. They are less than $10 and they reduce the glare from the surrounding room. I found mine useful with mid range lenses but there can be some issues with telephotos or wide angle lenses. With wide angle lenses you can expect to get a port hole effect and with a telephoto lens you can’t angle the lens enough to frame your shot. The best bet is to bring a small black towel to tape to the window, but in a place like the John Hancock Observatory the security most likely won’t allow this.
Editing the Shot
All of the shots from The John Hancock Observatory are relatively simple edits. I absolutely love the Nik suite of software and Silver Efex Pro 2 is my go-to software for everything black and white. Both black and white shots in this section were edited with the Nik’s software. The first photo in this section “Make No Little Plans” was edited using Silver Efex Pro 2 and the default High Structure (Harsh) settings.
The second photo of the Allerton Hotel in Chicago was processed with the High Contrast (Harsh) settings as well but I tweaked the photo to add selective blurring. After I processed the photo in Silver Efex I brought the photo back to Lightroom and used the gradient tool to blur the right side of the photo and give it that antique look. I used 3 progressive gradient filters to strengthen the effect. When using the graduated filter if you hold down the shift key while dragging Lightroom or Photoshop will make sure that your filter is straight. Once the first filter was in place I reduced the sharpness to -100 this put a slight blur in the photo. I clicked the new button and repeated this process three times. This stacking of the filters enabled me to strengthen the effect and produce the final image.
It takes a little time to buy tickets and to get past security to get to the observatory. If you are trying to capture a sunset or a storm make sure you give yourself plenty of time. If you have a small GorillaPod Tripod or a Really Right Stuff Pocket Pod bring it and see if the employees let you use it. In my experience, if you bring a full sized tripod they will warn you before you go in the elevator that you will not be able to use the tripod when you get upstairs. I’ve also been asked to check the tripod with security. The moral of the story is, the less obvious you are about your gear, the better the chances you have of being able to use your tripod.
How to Get There
The closest train station is the Chicago Red Line station. From there the John Hancock building is only a 7-10 minute walk. Depending on where you are staying you may be able to take various buses down Michigan Ave or even walk. If your hotel is in the Magnificent Mile area you are probably better off walking or taking a cab.
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