On some level, Chicago is easy to photograph. It’s full of amazing photo opportunities – from towering skyscrapers and iconic statues to expansive parks and urban beaches. These one-of-a-kind spots are a treat for shutterbugs and professionals alike.
On another level, Chicago is actually quite difficult to photograph. There are so many amazing photo opportunities that it’s often hard to know when and where to shoot. With that in mind, I put together a list of the eight best photo spots in Chicago. These spots offer photographers of all interests and skill levels opportunities for high-quality photos of the city.
1. The Bean
Cloud Gate, known locally as “the Bean,” isn’t much of a secret. It’s one of the top tourist destinations in the city – and for good reason. The statue’s warped stainless-steel façade distorts some of the city's most famous buildings. It’s a great spot for abstract and cityscape photography. It’s also one of the best places to take a selfie.
Insider’s Tip: You should arrive at, or even before, sunrise if you want to beat the crowds. With a little luck, you may have the Bean to yourself. With a little more luck, you may see something rare, like a snow-capped Bean.
2. Ping Tom Memorial Park
Ping Tom Park sits on the South Branch of the Chicago River approximately 1.5 miles from downtown. From this vantage point, the river seems to lead right to the Sears Tower. As if that weren’t enough, an old train bridge – the St. Charles Air Line Bridge – helps frame the skyline. It’s an ideal spot for drone and cityscape photographers.
Insider’s Tip: Unlike some of the other places on this list, Ping Tom Memorial Park is accessible year-round. It’s a particularly good spot to photograph summer sunsets.
3. Near South Side
The Near South Side may be the most under-appreciated section of the city. It's home to places like Adler Planetarium, Burnham Harbor, Northerly Island Park, and 31st Street Beach. These spots offer breathtaking views of the city but have much less fanfare than many of the other places on this list. In addition, each of these spots offers leading lines and unusual foreground elements.
Insider’s Tip: Burnham Harbor and 31st Street Beach are ideal for drone photography. Adler Planetarium and Northerly Island are better for cityscape and landscape photography.
4. The Chicago River
The Chicago River is one of the most popular photo spots in the city. The "main stem" is lined with architectural icons, like the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, and Marina City. It’s also home to some of the city’s most famous events – from the annual river dying ceremony to the Chicago Ducky Derby. Not surprisingly, it attracts photographers all interests and skill levels.
Insider’s Tip: The Outer Drive Bridge offers some of the best views of the east end of the river. The LH Rooftop offers some of the best views of the west end of the river.
5. North Avenue Beach
North Avenue is one of the most beautiful beaches in the United States – a bold statement coming from a native Californian. The beach sits roughly a mile north of the Hancock Building and offers unbeatable views of downtown Chicago. The curved pier and the accompanying lighthouse make this spot even more interesting.
Insider’s Tip: North Avenue Beach can be difficult to photograph at sunrise and sunset due to the position of the sun relative to the city. Despite obstacles with light and shadows, it’s a “must-photograph” destination.
6. The Playpen
The Playpen may seem like an odd choice for this list. For much of the year, it’s a perfectly ordinary section of the Chicago Harbor that is overshadowed – both literally and figuratively – by the city’s skyline. However, for a few weeks in the summer, the Playpen hosts one of the city's biggest parties. It attracts thousands of people, who arrive on boats, jet skis, and kayaks. It’s surreal.
So why is the Playpen one of Chicago’s best photo spots? Once a year, hundreds of boats tie together – or “raft up” – to form snake-like shapes. These shapes make the Playpen an ideal spot for drone photographers.
Insider’s Tip: The Playpen is not a year-round destination. You’ll need a solid plan – and a bit of luck – if you hope to photograph the boats.
7. Chicago Harbor Lighthouse
The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is easy to spot. Its weathered exterior and ominous red light are clearly visible from Navy Pier and the surrounding lakefront. But it's hard to photograph – and even harder to get to. To photograph the lighthouse, most people rely on a drone or a telephoto lens. In either case, it's worth it. The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is one of the most interesting spots in the city.
Insider's Tip: With a little planning, you may be able to capture the moon as it rises behind the lighthouse.
8. Lincoln Park
Lincoln Park is a playground for photographers. It’s home to many of Chicago’s most famous photo spots, including the Bridge over South Pond, the Education Pavilion, and the South Lagoon. It's also home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoos in the United States. In short, Lincoln Park offers something for just about everyone.
Insider’s Tip: The Lincoln Park Zoo hosts a holiday lights festival, known as ZooLights, which runs from mid-November to early January. It's well worth a visit.