The Chicago train system has been a fascination of mine since I first moved to the city. Both the subways and the elevated trains provide this energy about the city. Everything from the the interesting shadows and structures that fall beneath the elevated tracks to the subway system and the tracks themselves can inspire images. I believe that you could build a portfolio of just photos of Chicago’s transit system.
How to Get the Shot
This image was taken on the Quincy/Wells Brown, Purple and Orange line stop in the early fall. I shot this photo from the platform with my camera set up on a tripod. I framed the shot and fired off 3 bracketed exposures to capture the buildings. Then I waited for the train to come so I could capture it in a separate exposure. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) normally won’t let you shoot with a tripod but for some reason I was able to get away with it for a few minutes. Once the train came down the tracks I shot a 13.0 second exposure to capture the blurred train and its streaking lights.
Editing the Shot
When I got the photos on my computer the first thing I did was convert my bracketed photos into an High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. For this particular image I wanted to minimize the HDR “look” and use the 3 exposures to make the final image look realistic with just more detail in the buildings and in the shadows. I did this by tweaking my settings especially the “Lighting Adjustments” slider. Lightning Adjustments in Photomatix effect the how light is distributed throughout the image. If you move the slider to the right you will get a realistic effect. As you move it further to the left it distributes light from areas that were bright in the original image to the shadows and low light areas. This slider is the main reason that you see some HDR images that don’t match with how your brain processes the world around us. Sometimes it makes for a great effect but for this particular image, I wanted to avoid this style.
Next, I layered in the lights and train using photoshop. Once the train image was brought into it’s own layer, I aligned the images using the Auto-Align Layers function in Adobe Photoshop . This can be found in the edit menu. It does a great job of making sure that all of your layers are aligned correctly without having to manually align them.
Next I flipped through the blending modes in the tools pallet to find a blending mode that made the lights of the train come through to the background image. The section of the list that starts with “Lighten” will allow the lighter parts of the image to come through and the section that starts with “Darken” will allow the darker parts of the image to come through. I ended up using the “Dissolve” blending mode which got me 80% to the result I wanted. To finish the effect I grabbed the paintbrush tool and painted the rest of the light trails using a layer mask.
You can try to shoot on the platform with a tripod without the CTA’s permission but more times than not you will be asked to put away your tripod. I’ve gotten lucky a few times but if you only have a weekend in Chicago you may not want to risk the shot. If you go to the CTA’s website you can call to get approval to use your tripod. See the link below for more information.
The other option is to bring a small tripod such as a GorillaPod or something similar. These small tripods are much smaller than regular sized tripods and if you attach it to a railing or such you may have better luck using it on the platform.
How to Get There
Technically you can shoot this shot at any El stop but the stop that I took this photo and the surrounding loop stops have good vantage points of buildings which help create the urban feel of the photo. To get to this particular station, you can take the Brown or Orange line to the Quincy/Wells stop. This stop is on the Southwestern side of the loop. Either the Brown or Orange line should get you to the stop in a relatively short time. If you need to take the Red line you can get off at the Jackson stop and walk 3 blocks west.
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