Photos from Chicago's John Hancock Observatory

Last night I went to visit the John Hancock Observatory with my sister. The last time I was there was in 2006 I think, somewhat a long time ago. I recall the views from JH being far superior to those from the Sears tower– now called Willis tower. Plus I’ve seen some pictures on 500px taken from JH and wanted to try my hand at those views.

Signature Room or Observatory?

I did some research before going and read that Signature Lounge is the better place to visit than the observatory deck. As many pointed out, the lounge/bar area is free to enter, but there is a one drink minimum per person, which can be expensive since all their drinks are expensive. It’s like $5+ for a soda! Since I was with my sister, we ended up paying $21 for drinks.

But after visiting Signature Lounge, I was somewhat disappointed. It does have great views of the south, west, and north side of JH, but it’s a lounge with people sitting/talking everywhere! There’s very little room to set up your gear for long exposures. I don’t believe they allow tripods, so I brought my gorillapod with me for small, quick setups that isn’t a fire hazard. I use a Joby GP3 GorillaPod SLR-Zoom Flexible Tripod + BH1 Ball Head Not to mention that their windows are pretty dirty because it is an eating/drinking area.

I recommend paying the $18 for the observation deck. I went on a Wednesday night during a cold winter when it was very quiet. There was plenty of room for me to set up my stuff and maneuver around. Also, as a big big plus, the railing and heater were great for placing the GorillaPod right next to the window!

Verdict: If you want to do more serious photography, go with the Observatory. Signature Lounge is nice if you just want to hang out with a view.

Problem solving the Observatory deck

Although the observatory is better than Signature Lounge for photography, it’s not a cake walk. What many don’t realize is that there’s so much lighting inside at night that reflects off the windows– effectively ruining a clean shot of the city of Chicago.

I took probably close to 100 shots before I realized what I needed to do to work around this.

  1. Use a DSLR + GorillaPod setup as close to the window as possible.
  2. I used my coat and asked my sister to use her coat to block the light from bouncing off the window by surrounding the DSLR with the coats. Maybe a black or dark blanket would be nice next time.
  3. I removed my UV lens filter from my camera to further reduce any unwanted light bouncing around.
  4. Get a second hand– a friend/family member to help out. Trying to block out the reflected light on your own may be difficult.

And of course, have fun. I wasn’t ashamed at all about squatting down on my hands and knees to reposition my rig and try for the best shot. I’m sure that on future visits I could get some better shots with different weather and lighting conditions that’s far beyond my control.

This is what my initial setup was like at the observatory. My DSLR was on a gorillapod with my coat on the railing trying to block out the light reflecting.

John Hancock Photo 1

Below are my pictures. They were all on taken on a GorillaPod on my Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II lens. They’re all HDR photos, edited in Adobe Lightroom/Photoshop.

Chicago Winter at John Hancock

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John Hancock Photo 1

West of John Hancock

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John Hancock Photo 2

Lake Shore Drive from John Hancock

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John Hancock Photo 3

John Hancock Photo 4

Update September 10, 2020 - Changed links to

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