Saturday, July 24, 2010

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 10 of 10) - Michigan Avenue and other Public Ways

First of all, I have to say that there really is a webpage for everything ever invented or even thought of.  Yes, there is a page about the flowers you can find planted around Chicago.

I know this sounds like the strangest idea in the world for shooting living things. But Chicago has a major hang up on the “urbos en hortos” thing. (Which is me butchering Latin for “City in a Garden”.)

Every spring they plant thousands of flowers and plants in the garden plots between the street and the sidewalks on major streets like the Mag Mile and State Street in the Loop.

Near the Water Tower (Chicago Ave. and Michigan) there are gardens of tulips in the spring. Every two months or so through September or October they change the plants to put in something new in bloom. There are lilies and waterfalls in the fall, and a variety of things in the summer. So if you’re here to ‘be a tourist’, but still want to get some good nature shots, take your camera with you as you ‘do Chicago’.

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 9 of 10) - Lincoln Park Zoo Conservatory

Right next to the LPZ is the Conservatory. Basically, it’s a zoo for plants. Like the LPZ it’s free, and it’s a great place to warm up if you do the zoo in the winter. Just know that all your lenses will fog up if you go in when it’s cold out. (eyeglasses, camera lenses…)

The larger front part is pretty interesting – lots of plants I’d never heard of, but that are plenty interesting - but I like to spend a lot of my time in the orchid room in back.

Okay, in this shot.. does anyone else see people? Women in Victorian gowns and bonnets or something? Just me? Okay.

Everyone’s good with tripods and flashes, and there don’t tend to be many people, let alone kids, tripping over you. In fact, you’re more likely to run into other photographers than anyone else.

One of the reasons I like to shoot flowers here is that it’s inside and you can do some slow shutter, narrow appature work without having to worry about the wind blowing your flowers around. Also, everything is pretty clearly labeled so you know what it is that you’re looking at.

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 8 of 10) - The Field Museum

Okay, this place skirts the edge of what I’m covering here, but there are a lot of natural things to shoot. Of course, there’s Sue the dinosaur. Her body is in the main hall, with a replica head. Her head is upstairs in the paleontology area. (It’s too heavy to mount on the rest of the skeleton). There’s a fabulous selection of rocks and minerals upstairs too. Really pretty stuff.

The Field has a really strange rule: You need a tripod permit. Not a shooting permit, just one for your tripod. It’s free and you don’t need to justify that you’re shooting for Life Magazine or something special, but they do expect you to go to the Information Desk and get a permit. Then you’ll haul it around with you all day in case someone asks for it (and I did get asked once, so, you know… get one. It’s free.)

To hit: The ancient Egypt exhibit is very cool. There are real mummies in there – wrapped and partially unwrapped. (So if you’re bothered by that sort of thing, be warned.) In the ‘I’m sure someone thought this was a good idea’ department, there’s this very odd illustration:
So if you have small children, be warned and be prepared for questions about why that man is walking around naked and why the museum thought that a non-historical illustration needed to be that anatomically correct.

To miss:
The Field does some fantastic traveling exhibits. Harry Potter, Pirates! and the like… All of them are ‘absolutely no photography allowed’. Which sucks rocks. So don’t go with the express plans of shooting a special show unless you’ve checked with them (usually on the website it’ll say, but call if it doesn’t) and they say it’s okay.

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 7 of 10) - The Shedd Aquarium

This is probably my favorite place in the entire world, but it’s a tough shoot.

The whole Shedd is a no-flash zone, which makes shooting moving targets – and most marine animals are constantly moving targets - really hard.

Technically, they’re also a no-tripod zone, but I’ve discovered that if you aren’t obnoxious and don’t try to set up in front of a really popular display or during a really busy time, the staff won’t bother you too much. The exception to that seems to be down at “Fanta-sea” – the dolphin/whale/penguin/etc… show. One time I went and set my tripod up so that I could use it while seated (so it wasn’t sticking up in front of people, and I wasn’t standing in the way) and they were fine with it, another time I was asked to take it down. So *shrug*. No one’s ever been nasty or threatened to bounce me out or anything, so I’d say, give it a try, the worst that’ll happen is they’ll ask you to take it down.

The Shedd has some wonderful opportunities to get in while there’s not a lot of other people. Check for events like “Jazzin’ at the Shedd” where you can be one of only a hundred or so people in the entire aquarium for a few hours. Events like this are not ridiculously expensive and can give you much better shooting opportunities.

Are you an educator? Show your ID and get in to everything for free!

To hit:
The penguin exhibit is lit fabulously. You’re shooting through glass, but it’s pretty clean and clear. You can usually get your tripod set up on one of the two observation levels.

Some animals are amazingly still for aquatic life and you can run a long shutter without getting noticeable blur. Look for the map turtle, the lobsters, sea stars and blue iguanas. (Though I think they’re still working on breeding the iguanas, so they’re on and off exhibit somewhat randomly.)

There’s a tank of eels in the Wild Reef that’s tons of fun. If the eels are being still, they’re easy shooting – decent amount of light - but sometimes they’re just too active.

This is a tough shoot, but look to see if they still have the live shark eggs up on the wall. These things are AMAZING. They have three shark cases with living embryonic sharks in them being backlit on one wall. You can see the sharks moving in their cases. It’s awesome. They’re pretty well hidden, though. You’ll almost be out of the Wild Reef exhibit and they’re basically on a wall behind you. Ask a docent if you can’t find them. They’re worth looking for.

To miss:
No matter how much I know the lighting conditions are awful, I always try to shoot in the Ocenarium. This whole area is backlit with Lake Michigan behind the large tanks, so there’s light bouncing everywhere. There’s a ton of light coming in, even on a cloudy day, and it’s really hard to shoot anything like that. Give it a shot, but don’t be surprised if it’s tough. Because, seriously, wouldn't this have been a great shot if it were properly lit?

The shark tank in the Wild Reef is great to watch, but we’re talking sharks – animals that never stop moving – EVER – and are in a huge dark tank. Go watch the animals, they’re fabulous, but shooting is nearly impossible.

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 6 of 10) - Brookfield Zoo

Brookfield is much bigger than Lincoln Park. It’s a pay-admission zoo, and even a pay-to-park zoo, if you’re not a member. However, if you’re big on public transportation, the Metra lets you off just a few blocks from the zoo, so you can avoid the parking fee.

Brookfield is very photo-friendly. They even have a list of shooting suggestions on their website. Obviously, you’ll want your tripod and telephoto/macro lenses if you have them. Being bigger, and admission-based, they tend to have fewer school groups during the day, or at least they’re less concentrated.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to see the whole of this zoo in one day. So you might want to download a map before you go and make a plan.

Flash photography is allowed in certain indoor exhibits at this zoo. The free-flight area of the perching bird house and the penguin/inca tern habitat are a few places where you don’t have glass separating you from the animals, and you’re allowed to use a flash. Watch for signs – places like Habitat Africa and Australia House have a number of nocturnal animals and flashes are not allowed, at least in certain areas. There’s almost always a keeper or docent within sight and they know the rules, so if in doubt just ask someone in a green shirt. Tripods are allowed and even with the carefully controlled lighting to try and make nocturnal animals interesting during the day, a lot of them are still enough that you can get a good shot without the flash and a long (sometimes really long) shutter.

For example, this hyrax was taken in a very dark environment with an 8 second shutter at f4.5 on a tripod.

To hit:
From Memorial Day to Labor Day there’s a fantastic exhibit, simply called, Butterflies! And it’s exactly what it says on the tin. About 20 species, hundreds of specimens, in free-flight around you in a big net house. The best way to get good shots is to get to the zoo a few minutes before it opens, and go straight to there once they let you in. (It’s just on the left of the North Gate) At that point the butterflies are lying around on rocks and the pathway (watch where you walk and put your tripod!) warming up and they haven’t been annoyed into finding hiding places yet. While they’re still cool from the night, they’re still and their wings are open. Great shooting!

The free-flight area of the bird house is great. There are two huge red McCaws on a perch right next to the observation deck, but the more interesting birds are in the trees. You can use your flash and tripod here and either these birds are fed *often* or I’ve developed a knack for going there when they’re being fed, which brings them down from the higher limbs or denser bushes.

Tropic World: This is three separate environments for the various monkeys and apes of the world. You’re up on walkways, so there’s no glass or bars, but the flipside is, most of the monkeys stay pretty far back in the huge exhibit. Bring your telephoto for good shots. The apes tend to stay a little closer to you. Also, watch the signs – they rotate the hippo and the otters in the middle part, so you may want to come back later to get the other animal.

To miss:
The dolphins have returned to the Seven Seas exhibit, which was recently redone, but they haven’t announced an opening date. Breaking news off Facebook: Dolphin shows are scheduled to resume Memorial Day weekend.

Likewise, for the next little while (until May 8, 2010) the bears are off exhibit as they get used to their new home.

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 5 of 10) - Green City and Other Farmers' Markets

Chicago has literally dozens of neighborhood farmers' markets.  Check the link above if you want to see if there's one near you.  I want to check out the downtown ones more thoroughly this summer, but in my experience, the neighborhood ones can be very, very small - like a dozen stalls, and only half of those actually having fruits and vegetables.  So I'm concentrating on the Mother of All Chicago's Farmers' Markets - the Green City Market.

The GCM is across the street from the “Farm in the Zoo” exhibit at Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s outside from May through October (there’s an inside market in the winter, but it’s not quite as good shooting) on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. The GCM and LPZ can make for a really long, but really great day of shooting. Bring a fully-charged battery and lots of memory.  Throw in the Lincoln Park Conservatory and you'll have more pictures than you'll possibly know what to do with in one day.

This is Chicago’s biggest and most well-known Farmers’ Market. Did you watch the Chicago season of Top Chef? Remember the one where the chefs had to make their quick-fire only from things found at the Farmers’ Market? That was this market. There’s a wide variety of foods – fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and breads – as well as flowers, that change throughout the season. I always ask the stand-operators if I can shoot their stuff, and they’ve always enthusiastically approved, often staging things for me (and showing me things like their Eggplant version of Mr. Potato Head).

 Keep an eye out for the quirky. Last year I got this really fun shot of a crate of green beans with a little chalkboard sign that said “Magic Beans - $1.00 a handful”.

I seem to have lost my shot of Mrs. Eggplant Head.  I'll have to see if they make a new one for this year.

To hit:
Okay, this has nothing to do with photography, but the crepe stand is awesome. The fillings change with the season and everything I’ve tried has been amazing. Also, there’s a stand making hot donut holes on the south edge of the market – to die for. (At least they were on the south edge in 2009. I’m not sure if they’ll be in the same spot this year.) [ETA: They are. ;)]

To miss:
The flowers can make for great shooting, but they do attract Very Large bees. Which can also make for great shooting, but I know a kid who got a bad sting, so watch out. Also, if it’s been raining, wear rainboots or other shoes that handle mud well. They throw down hay after a rain, but the grounds stay pretty soggy.

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 4 of 10) - Lincoln Park Zoo

One of the great things about LPZ is that it’s free. It’s open 365 days a year and if you pack a lunch, you can get in and out without spending a penny. Going to the zoo in the winter in Chicago sounds kind of nuts, but a fair number of the exhibits are indoors, and in the winter there are very few people at the zoo. School groups get thick starting in about April, but the good news is, most of them leave before 1:00 or so. So if you really want to cover the whole zoo when it’s less crowded, think of spending two half-days instead of a whole day. Easy to do when you don’t have to pay admission. Once the schools are out for summer it does not get any better. In fact it may be worse, because that’s when the camp groups start showing up. Again, the later you can go in the day, the less crowded it’ll be.

The grounds are tripod-friendly for the most part, but look out for small children, who don’t see you/your tripod. The vast majority of the indoor exhibits are marked ‘no-flash’, and since most of the exhibits are either glass or plastic-enclosed, you probably wouldn’t want to use it anyway. Outside, flashes are fine.

To hit:There’s a duck pond with several interesting breeds of ducks and geese that you can shoot from the picnic porch without glass, bars or fencing interfering with your shots. The ground is concrete and flat, which makes setting your tripod easy. You’ll see it as you walk through the grounds, near where the flamingos are in warmer weather, but the best shooting is from the opposite side where the picnic tables are under the shelter, so it’s worth taking the walk around.

Regenstein African Journey: The pigmy hippo often likes to sit right in front of the glass, with his mouth open, showing off his teeth. And his tonsils, if he had any. Further down, the meerkats are in an open-air enclosure. The plastic partition is about four feet high – so as long as you’re taller than me , you’ll be able to lean over it, again, shooting without obstruction.

(Yeah, this shot is pretty crap; I think all the good ones got lost in the great I-dropped-a-half-Terabite-harddrive crash earlier this year.)   

The monkey house is fun, but it’s very dark, so you’ll need a tripod. Of course, an interesting monkey is a moving monkey, so it’s a tough shot. On the good news side, there’s almost always at least one baby in the exhibit.

To miss:
There is a penguin house, but they have a serious humidity issue and the glass is constantly fogged up and impossible to shoot through.

In the spring and fall they have to soap outside windows (like the ones on the polar bear exhibit and the lion glass observation area) to avoid bird wrecks, which makes them messy and tough to see through, let alone shoot through.

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 3 of 10) - Chicago Botanic Garden

Screwiest admissions system ever. Going to the garden is free. Good deal, right? It’ll cost you $20 to park your car there. Not so bad if you bring three or four others with you, but if you go on your own (and personally, if I’m going to shoot, I prefer not to be worried about if someone else is bored while I shoot the same poppy for half an hour or whatever), it’s a $20 ticket. The website does give public transportation directions, but I’m a veteran of Chicago’s public transit system and it looked a bit daunting to me. I’d lose an insane amount of time in transport and I’d be dragging my gear all over creation… so.. *shrug*.

This is a great place to spend some time learning your camera or a new lens. Obviously what you can see in a huge flower garden will change pretty much monthly. Tulips come in early, but then go out again, roses and peonies come in later, vegetables and fruits flower in the spring and have fruit in the fall…

You’ll run into tons of other photographers out here and relatively few school groups. This place is really big. This place ended up being a big old object lesson for me in Tip #3 - bring your own food. There’s a café attached to the visitor’s center but it’s a little on the pricey side. I normally bring a PB&J, but since I forgot mine, I ended up buying one from them… it was $3 and slightly stale. On the good news side, I’ll remember my own sandwich next time! They do let you fill your reusable water bottle from their tap for free, in fact they don’t even sell bottled water (bottled everything else, sure, but not water) so bring a jug. If you forget, you can get a little recyclable cup, but you can’t exactly troop around with that all day.

The website for the CBG also has a photography section, but it’s a little confusing. The bit that got me was whether or not I needed a permit – for $125. I did not. Unless you’re doing prom or wedding photos or something, you’re good without one. I have not figured out why they list “no alcohol in the garden” as a photography rule. Do we have a rep I don’t know about?

Watch the week’s weather and plan for a bright but calm day if you have a little flexibility. I know Chicago doesn’t get its “Windy City” nickname for its weather, but we can get some good breezes going. Which can really muck with your focus.

For me, at least, this was a huge exercise in shoot the signs. I had no idea how many kinds of tulips there were. Or even that some of the things I was looking at were tulips. (And while I don’t know a LOT of plants, I thought I had tulips surrounded. Not so much.) To the good, they do have a current list of all the plants in a given garden online. ( so if you at least know where you saw it, you can start narrowing it down. (of course, I’m trying to use it in reverse to tell you all where I found my favorite new flower, and I can’t find it. Gr.)

Also, check the website for their once monthly photo walks. They actually have a professional photographer take you around the garden and teach you the best ways to shoot the plants and landscapes. You bring your camera and learn as you shoot.

If you have one, bring your macro lens. There’s some amazing stuff up close. I found a butterfly in the Circle Garden right at the beginning and a bee the size of my thumb was checking out the Bleeding Hearts the same time I was. Not to mention being able to get photographs of grains of pollen.

Don’t be afraid to go off the paths and onto the grass (unless there’s a sign saying, you know, not to, like by the Japanese Gardens) to get up close and personal to things. When I was there the apple trees were in bloom and there were staff people encouraging you to go walk through the orchard.

To hit:
I’m definitely planning to go back in like September when the trees and vegetables and berry bushes will all be bearing fruit. But even now, late April, the flowers on the trees were awesome (OMG, did the apple orchard SMELL good).

The bulb garden was amazing, but already some of the stems were starting to wither. So check the website to see how tulips, daffodils and such are doing.

But I have to say, my favorite part was the English Walled Garden and the Mr. Fokker’s Poppies. Not just because I’m 12 years old some days and the name amused me (they’re also called Anemone coronaria Mr. Fokker), but because they are gorgeous flowers that photographed quite well.

I thought I covered at least 2/3 of the Garden when I was out there last week, but looking at the map I’m finding a lot of areas I didn’t see. Again, you may want to check out the interactive map on the website and make a plan. Big place, lots of flowers. You’ll probably need lots of time.

BTW, please don’t ask me why the one section is called “The Enabling Garden”. I have no idea who or what they’re enabling. :p 

The waterfall garden. There are three bridges that cross the waterfall, which let you set up your tripod and play with that ‘make water move in your picture’ long-shutter thing everyone (that I’ve talked to) has to try at least once.

You know the ones, the ones that go from this...                                   

To this...

To Miss:
They said there’s a greenhouse of tropical plants in the Regenstein Center, but I couldn’t find it. I suspect it’s there, but personally, since I got such great weather I wanted to spend my time outside.

This is very much a YMMV thing, but I didn’t find the Japanese Garden all the fascinating when I went. Not much color or anything wildly unusal.

And like I said, bring food, the café is pretty pricey, even for a place like this.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 2 of 10) - The Magic Hedge

Okay, this is my favorite secret Chicago shooting spot. I lived in my apartment at Montrose and the lake for seven years before I discovered this place – and I could walk to it if I wanted to.

To get there, you drive down Montrose heading east (or take the Montrose bus to the Montrose Beach - it only goes that far east during the summer, though). Cross Lake Shore Drive and keep going all the way to the harbor. When you get to a curve in the road with a road on the right, take the right. (Montrose is one side of the top of a Y, it becomes Simmons which is the other side of the top of the Y, you want the street that becomes the bottom of the Y, which really doesn’t have a name.)

Drive around the curve until you see a whole lot of trees and a couple of signs announcing “The Montrose Harbor Bird Sanctuary”. Otherwise known as “The Magic Hedge.”

Quick history: The army built a barracks here back in the day. They put in honeysuckle bushes to give a little privacy to the bottom floor of the barracks. Eventually they left, the buildings came down, but the honeysuckle hedge remained.

Now over 300 different bird species are spotted here each year. Obviously not all at once or anything, but there are more birds than you can point a camera at. I’ve seen robins, cardinals, thrushes, some little yellow thing I still can’t identify, grackles, gulls and others. There’s also a load of squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits. I haven’t seen them yet – I’m guessing it’ll be June before they arrive – but they’ve also got up signs indicating the hedge is a butterfly spotting point.

Oh, it’s also famous for something else – a place to pick up a prostitute. The websites will tell you that since they put up fences around most of the stands of trees, that that’s been curtailed, but I’ve seen evidence that it’s not terribly true. ;) So, yeah, it's gorgeous during the day, but I'd head home around nightfall.

You’ll see other photographers out there no matter when you go. There aren’t a lot of kids and the bird watchers and high school couples you do see are pretty quiet, so it’s a nice quiet place to shoot. These are very wild birds though and will take off at the slightest noise. A good telephoto is your friend.

To hit:
Go as far east as you can through the trees and you’ll eventually reach the lake. You get a pretty awesome view of downtown from there. (This was clearly taken on a very hazy day.)

To miss:
Watch the ground. If it’s not the aforementioned prostitutes, someone’s still having a good time out there. This is probably the tamest evidence of that activity that I've found...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chicago Done Naturally (Post 1 of 10) - General Tips

A while back I compiled a list of places to shoot living things in Chicago. (wow, do I wish photography and guns didn't share a vocabulary A LOT!).

Today I hiked the Magic Hedge, since the weather *finally* broke, and as I was thinking about the post/s I'd be making I realized that 99.9% of the world, heck, probably 99% of CHICAGO has never heard of the Magic Hedge which made me realize I should repost my Chicago Shooting articles here.

So, here's the tips post...

A couple of general things about walking around Chicago with a camera.

I find it really funny to walk through Chicago with my DSLR. So many people assume you’re a professional photographer or a Serious Art Student. Even when you’re my age – and let’s just call that ‘way past your typical college age’.

The good news is, that means they really don’t bat an eye when you sit on the floor in the middle of the sidewalk on Michigan Avenue to get that perfect angle on the tulip in the landscaping plot.

TIP 1: Use their card in your camera.
The quasi-bad news (I usually don’t mind, but I know people who do) is that they’re unafraid to say, “Hey can you to get a picture of me with my baby/boyfriend/bestfriend/American Girl Doll?” I don’t mind taking shots for people, but I hate fumbling around with their camera as I try to find the zoom, the right setting for the light, etc… So, I’ve come up with a nifty trick when this happens. Ask them if their camera uses the same memory card as your camera. For example, my DSLR uses the little SD memory cards that most point-and-shoots use. So when someone asks me to get a shot for them, and we use the same card, I ask for their card and put it in my camera. I can then shoot with a system I’m familiar with, I can use my tripod and they get the advantage of my DSLR’s resolution on their shot. Win-win, right?

Obviously, if you’re on different memory systems, you’re just hosed. :p

TIP 2: Shoot the signs.

One of the great things about digital photography is that even if only one percent of your pictures come out looking stellar, you really aren’t out anything. You didn’t pay for film or developing or anything like that for that shot that’s absolute crap.

Which means, many of us will take 16 shots of something that’s sitting still and being awesome so that we get that one brilliant picture.

The problem becomes that when you get home and you have this brilliant picture of a purple flower… but you have no idea what kind of flower it is. Now if it’s what I call ‘free range wildlife’, you’re just kind of screwed. It’s time to take your best guess and Google a lot. But when you’re at a park where things are put in specific places, they’re often labeled. So shoot the sign. Then you’re not stuck trying to remember if that was a skink or a chameleon or which yellow fish that one is. I have a little file folder on my desktop where I've put all the signs for any location I tend to shoot more than once, so that if I do forget to shoot the signs on a given day, I have a 'master file'.

When I hit places like the Brookfield Zoo Butterflies exhibit, I shoot all the signage first then get to business with the bugs. That way even if I have a hard time trying to tell which orange butterfly I’ve got (some signs are less than stellarly produced, some particular specimens don't look exactly like the sign), I’m only Googling the 6 orange butterflies of the 20 total on the sign.

Besides, sometimes they have amusement factor. Any Torchwood fans in the house?

TIP 3: Pack a lunch.
Most of the places I cover here have enough to do that you'll spend at least most of a day there. And most of them have cafes, but IMHO, they're expensive and the food isn't that good. Remember your junior high lunch room? It's that same kind of industrial food for the most part. I do like to support the places I shoot, especially if they're free admission, but I'd rather by a t-shirt or a travel mug or something than spend my money on their food. Most places have up signs that basically say, "If you didn't buy it here, you can't eat it in our cafe", but if it's a nice enough day to go shooting, it's nice enough to sit on a bench long enough to eat a sandwich or an apple.

Next Post: The Magic Hedge