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How & Where To Take Your Perfect Chicago Holiday Photos

By Chicagoist_Guest in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 15, 2016 8:12PM

Whether you’re visiting Chicago or enjoying a staycation this holiday season is perfect for you to fill out your Instagram with holiday-related photos. If you're looking for the inspiration to create image that will be the talk of your social media profiles, here are some popular holiday locations around Chicago and tips on how to shoot at them. Most of these tips will be for readers with DSLR cameras, but they can be easily adapted to smartphones with the Program 4 application.

By Tyler LaRiviere

Photo by Tyler LaRiviere/Chicagoist

Chicago’s Christmas Tree

Chicago's staple holiday image is the official Christmas Tree in Millennium Park. Now the best time to photograph the Christmas tree is at night, as the thousands of lights that are on the tree will really pop out.

I recommend you bring a tripod if you’re shooting at night so you can stabilize your camera to prevent camera shakes or blurry images. You can also most certainly photograph the Christmas tree without a tripod by simply increasing your ISO and decreasing your shutter speed to no lower the 1/60th and opening the aperture to as wide as possible. I also recommend you use Image Stabilization if your camera or lens offers it so it’ll cut down on image shake.

The best angle to shoot the tree is facing west, so you can use the buildings that populate Chicago’s skyline to tower (yes, pun intended) over the tree and add context to your image. Experimenting with long exposers can get some interesting effects as well if you zoom the lens while your camera's exposing you’ll get a funky effect that looks similar to the Warp Speed effect in Star Wars.

But, some things to note when photographing the Christmas tree: Don’t us a shutter speed higher than 1/200th of a second, as this is around the same frequency as the streetlights and the tree's lights. This will cause a flicker effect in the lights making them appear either brighter or darker. Also, Millennium Park closes to the public at 11:00 p.m., so get there earlier!

Photo courtesy of Christkindlmarket.


If you're visiting downtown you may come across Chicago’s Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza, where traditional European holiday trinkets, food, and drinks are served. This open-air market offers much to photograph. The best time to visit depends on what you plan on photographing. If you're looking to photograph your food or drinks, it’s best to come during the day as it offers the most light. But if you want to photograph the shops and the innumerable trinkets that are out for display, then come at night when the only illumination is the shops' own lights offering more dynamic and contrasty photo opportunities.

Finally, if your not really into the blind consumerism that Christkindlmarket is known for, then just photographing the day to day scenes can also be interesting. This is where you the photographer have to make a decision—will you focus on the workers laying out pounds of glazed nuts for display, or a young child in awe of the vast quantity of hand-carved toys, or something else? My biggest tip is, if you notice something but aren’t quick enough to capture it, be patient—more times than not the same thing will happen again eventually.

Holiday Decorations

Maybe being downtown just isn’t your thing, and you either want to explore neighborhoods you’ve never been to or walk around the one you live in. More times than not you’ll find a few if not dozens of house strung up with Christmas lights and holiday decorations.

Be sure to bring a tripod, as the best time to photograph holiday decorations is at night. Just like shooting the Christmas tree above, use the correct shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. And be sure to experiment and try different things. Currently Kenwood, Pilsen, Little Village, and Logan Square have great decorations going on.

But please be aware of your surroundings if you plan on hunting for Christmas decorations. Be courteous to your neighbors and don’t trespass on their property. Thankfully in most cases the sidewalk and the streets are public property. Finally, don’t reveal too much about the house you're photographing so you can protect the privacy of that person. Don’t include their house number, car’s license plate number or themselves or their families unless they are OK with it.

Photo by Tyler LaRiviere/Chicagoist

Lincoln Park Zoo Lights

Though many of the animals are put away for the winter, the Lincoln Park Zoo offers a spectacular light show for all ages. This running tradition at Lincoln Park Zoo now expands across the entire zoo complex and offers many great photo opportunities.

The Zoo Lights offers much for many different photographers. Some lights displays would be great for family photos or portraits, like the multi-colored light tunnels around the park. Other displays are great for grand landscapes, such as the central lights display that flickers on and off to the beat of Christmas music. Other great scenes to photograph at the Zoo include the old-style snack vendors, carousel, ice rink, and an ice sculptor who sets up shop occasionally to carve animal shapes into a block of ice.

And since the Zoo Lights are best enjoyed at night, bring a tripod and increase your ISO, decrease your shutter speed and open up your aperture. In fact shooting at a shallow depth of field can create nice blurred light orbs that would look great with a portrait. And just like with the Christmas tree, the lights do operate at a pretty low frequency, so shooting at too high of a shutter speed can cause a flicker effect.

Finally be mindful of the crowds. Taking an image devoid of people will be incredibly hard but with a tripod, you can use a really high shutter speed—i.e. 30 seconds—so that all moving people virtually vanish from your photo. You can also take a few images of the same scene at different points of time and use Photoshop to combine the photos and erase away people that may not appear in other photos, for more information, just search “how to remove crowds in Photoshop” on YouTube.

Photo via Tony Webster on Flickr

Chicago’s Skyline

Like every city in the world, Chicago has a very distinct skyline and the skyline during the holidays can be quite lovely. To start, a lot of Chicago buildings will feature colored lights during the holiday’s—most often green and red. An example of this is the Willis (Sears) Tower and the Hancock Building's mast. Other buildings like The Blue Cross and Blue Shield building will have messages written in floor lights on the building's facade, often times holiday or occasion-specific.

There are three prime locations around Chicago to capture the whole of Chicago’s skyline. Facing west, these include the Adler Planetarium Skyline Walk near Adler Planetarium, Navy Pier, and facing east from the Ashland Green/Pink Line CTA station, where a bridge connects the inbound and outbound platforms. This bridge offers a great eastern view of the city and includes the CTA tracks in the frame to make your image distinctly more Chicago.

Remember your tripod, and be sure to go out early when photographing the skyline due to the Lights Out program in Chicago, where most tall buildings turn off all non-essential lights in the buildings after midnight so it doesn’t affect migratory birds.

Final Tips

When out and about photographing in Chicago during the holiday season, the cold is your enemy. The same way the cold can wear you down, it can also wear down the battery of your camera and cell phone. So be sure to either bring spare batteries or a portable battery charger. When bringing your camera back into a warm environment it will fog over at first, but that will go away once your camera warms up, so don’t try to wipe it away; that can damage your lenses special coatings.

With snow on the ground and more snow in the forecasts this December, remember that light reflects off of white surfaces, so scenes will be brighter than normal. Compensate accordingly. While it's snowing, be sure to either manual focus your camera or, if you have to use your auto-focus, take a few extra shots just in case your camera focuses on the snow and not on your subject. If you want large, out of focus snowflakes in your photos, then be sure to use a higher focal length like 85mm or higher, because anything lower the snowflakes will be hard to see.

Finally be sure to weatherize your camera. Holding your camera will warm it up slightly so any snow that accumulates on your camera will melt and can seep into the camera damaging it. Either make sure your camera is weather sealed, or use plastic to wrap your camera up to protect it from moisture.

If you have any questions on any of these tips and tricks or have any other questions regarding photography then please contact me on Twitter @TylerLaRiviere or via email at