Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Considerations on How to Photograph a City: Chicago

If you are an amateur versus a "snap-shop" photographer you may be interested in experimenting with taking character images of the next city you visit. Yes, the "I was there" snap-shot such as your sweetheart in front of a famous structure is a fun record to prove to others you were there but you can go beyond that. 
Often the extra shots are simply wide angle street shots trying to get everything into one image. Ok, do take those as it will give folk a sense of the city setting and general layout. But I encourage you to consider spending some time thinking "what is this city all about" either in the nature of the structures, transportation, or other dominate features. I had this opportunity during my first visit to Chicago. 
On my arrival, nothing stood out for me - all I saw was the typical urban sprawl. However, as we approached the city four things got my attention: stunning high-rises, rusty bridges, old character buildings, and an inter-city river/canal. Now, I didn't shun my partner and hosts and run off taking pictures. Rather I simply focused on those four factors as we toured the city. Mind you, there were special moments where I needed a little extra time to get the right shot. (Viewing note: Click on any image for a larger view.)
1. Context. First, give folks a context for your images. As you can see, my first image (above) is a panorama of the city. I chose a location that would demonstrate the essence of the city - a multitude of stunning tall structures. 
2. Reflections.  Often buildings are so condensed that it is difficult to capture groupings of them. My second image is a similar shot but taken within the city capturing some of those same buildings but from a reflection of one of them. Note that I took it at an angle. This creates some drama in a potentially static image.
3. Look up. To accentuate the height of the structures, use a wide angel and point up. Don't forget to fill the frame with the building leaving only a little sky. In this case, the parallax (converging lines) caused by looking up creates the visual drama. Seen in a larger size, one can almost experience vertigo ... just what I want. These building are tall.
4. Structural artifacts. Rust is endemic to Chicago. It is an old city surrounded by water and rust is a natural consequence. Whether it is the rapid transit rail system or the bridges, the rust jumped out at you. With this image I chose to take a tight shot of the control booth adjacent to a lift-bridge as I wanted to make a statement about the rust, not the bridge.
5. Different point of view. The city is full of bridges - steel gridded bridges. Though I could have taken a telephoto shot down the river with one bridge in the front and several more in the background (out of focus), for my first image I chose to be on the bridge with the city peering though the bridge structure. Hopefully you get the feeling that there are lots of bridges nestled right in the middle of the city.
For my second image I chose a graphic point of view. This one was captured while going under a bridge on the "River Cruise". I didn't pre-visualized taking this one, rather, it jumped out at me while on the cruise. This was the third bridge we went under. It took me that long to think what image may work and to select my lens and adjust my camera settings. Notice again the off angle point of view. I used a fish-eye lens that caused the bending and the expansive view (the bridge was very close and therefore, demanded a extremely wide angle point of view). Also note the sun in the lower right that added some drama and created wonderful shadows.
6. The Old. One of older buildings in Chicago is The Merchandise Mart. Pictures of it are a dime a dozen so I wanted to try something different. This image was also shot from the river. I chose a dramatic angle filling 3/4 of the image with the building and the rest with only sky ... i.e., no other building. I liked the contrast between the parallelograms on the building and the numerous small, puffy clouds in the sky. 
7. Iconic Buildings. 
Now you can't think of chicago without thinking of Donald Trump - not that I want to. However, the size if his ego is reflected in the structure he built in the heart of the city. I chose to capture his building in the context of the city. It is positioned amongst the old structures (see the city hall on the right) and in full view coming from the south arm of the river. He has definitely made a statement.
Summary. These are just a few of the images I captured during my trip. I encourage you to experiment with making your own statement about the cities you visit. First consider, "What is the essential character of this city to me?" Secondly, "How can I capture it in an interesting and visually dramatic fashion?" Do this to please yourself; You are the artist and are making a statement. But, of course, take a few "snapshots" to please those who have more basic photographic tastes. 
And here is my final image. Do you get the feeling of the city's structures?

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