Photographing Chicago CTA Trains: My Obsession… and some tips & tricks for shooting.
I have been posting a great deal from my latest trip so I decided to mix things up a bit and focus on a local obsession of mine: CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) trains.
When I moved to Chicago, in 1999, I didn’t have a car so it was sink or swim learning the Chicago Transit network as quickly as possible. Of course, trudging to a 9 to 5’er to spend my day in a cublicle didn’t exactly give me a fond appreciation of the “chariot” carrying me to my slow and painful daily death. However, having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, riding the SEPTA system maybe twice in my life, I admit, I was intrigued.
Fast forward to 2011, when I left my full time job to pursue my passion as a photographer.
Much of my work focuses on my home city so, as it such an integral part of our city, I spend a great deal of time photographing the CTA and with each photograph, my appreciation grows. (Fun fact about the CTA: it is the nation’s second largest public transport system boasting, on average, 1.6 million daily rides. When I say integral, I really mean it!)
My approach to shooting most of my subjects, including trains, isn’t straightforward. I want my work to provide people with a unique perspective on every day objects that they might not notice otherwise. In all the years of riding the trains to work, seeing them up close and at eye or street level, I never appreciated what a work of art they are, especially coupled with Chicago’s amazing architecture or colorful street art. Using specialty lenses like Lensbaby and playing with light, position and color, I hope to show others their true beauty.
I am often asked how I get my train photographs to look, “toy like.” The answer? Shoot from above. I have spent more time than I can tally in parking garages and on train overpasses to get myself above my subject.
When you find a sweet spot of focus, in this case on the train, and blur everything else around it, it creates a miniature or “toy” like effect. (For those of you in the Instagram Know, you have probably seen the Tilt Shift filter when editing photographs… same idea, just the real thing.) Specialty lenses, like Lensbaby, are made specifically for this type of shooting and are a great deal of fun to play with.
A few more tips on photographing trains, whether it’s public transportation or otherwise:
- Always be safe. No shot is worth getting hurt, or worse, so don’t climb trestles or walk on tracks just to get the “perfect angle.” Any number of things can happen, including putting others at risk, so a tip, if you have to check to make sure no one is watching, don’t do it.
- Don’t get in the way. Most public transportation entities are happy to allow you to shoot so long as you don’t become a disruption. Don’t stand on a crowded platform and block entrances or stairwells. (especially with a tripod) Not only will you upset a lot of people but you could also get yourself kicked out.
- Watch your gear. Not long ago, a local photography group was shooting downtown. One of the members had his camera on a tripod, turned his back momentarily and someone came up and stole the whole thing. Watch the hour you’re out, bring a buddy along if needed, and always make sure your gear stays in your sight line.
OK enough with the obvious “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out Mom Pointers…” lets get in to some real tips.
- Shooting from parking garages can provide you with some very unique perspectives, especially if you change levels but maintain your position. You would be surprised just how much your photograph will change by getting higher or on even level with your subject. Both, “To the Mart,” the photograph below, and “406,” at the beginning of the post, were shot from the same spot but on different levels. I love both photographs but being up higher allowed me to pull the surrounding buildings in for some added color as well as incorporate the train snaking around the bend.
- Do you want to capture movement or freeze everything in your shot? When capturing movement, you can either freeze the subject and blur the background or vice versa. To keep the background in focus, use a tripod and a slow shutter speed, allowing the subject to move through your shot. For a blurred background and focused subject, you will still use a slow shutter speed but you will pan your subject, in other words, follow it with your camera. I still suggest using a tripod as it will help keep everything level. This technique can be trickier than the other and can take some practice but it can yield some amazing photographs.
- Try using specialty lenses like Lensbaby for creative focus. I use the Lensbaby Composer II with either an Edge 50 or a Sweet 80 optic. The Edge 50 optic creates a slice of focus and blurs everything else out. The Sweet 80 allows me to select a sweet spot of focus and gently blurs everything around it. Lensbaby lenses take some practice but, just like panning, can yield some amazing results.
- Use the area around you as a backdrop or props. Dead on shots of trains can be fun, but using the surrounding architecture, tracks and trestles can provide creative options that take your photograph next level. I love the pop of red from the CNA building in my photograph below, “2817.” It provided such a beautiful and colorful contrast to the silver train without overpowering the entire photograph.
Photograping trains, especially moving ones, can be challenging and take practice but the possibilities are endless when you think outside the box and shoot from different perspectives.
My entire, ever growing, collection of Chicago train photography can be found here in my online gallery.