Chicago Outdoor Photo Locations

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The Best Chicago Outdoor Photo Locations 

by Maggie Rife Ponce

Discover iconic Chicago outdoor photo locations and a few secret gems too.

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Situated on the blue waters of the great Lake Michigan is one of this country’s most photogenic cities. With a skyline showcasing world-famous architecture alongside historic parks and beaches, it’s no wonder people from all over the world visit the city. But the amazing backgrounds aren’t limited to only the downtown. Head in just about any direction and you’ll find why so many people have fallen in love with the neighborhoods of this town. 

So if you’re planning a photoshoot in the windy city and have no idea where to start, check out this helpful guide for some of my personal favorite outdoor locations. You’ll find on this list many of the most iconic destinations as well as a few hidden gems beloved by locals.

Each spot includes highlights, what type of photo shoots it’s a good location for, and how difficult it is to take pictures at the location on a scale of 1-5. 5 being the most difficult.

Highlights: Landscaped gardens, skyline views, variety, near other dynamic views

Good for: Family, Engagements, and portraits. Requires permits for special events, e.g, weddings.

Access: 3

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Situated in the heart of Chicago’s Millenium Park, this 2 ½ acre park is one of my favorite downtown locations for its stunning gardens set against the city backdrop. Designed by the renowned Piet Oudolf, you’ll find vibrant perennials blooming three seasons of the year alongside a water canal where your kids can make a wish. Just steps away from two of the most visited Chicago destinations–Cloud Gate and the Pritzker Pavillion, this verdant garden is a relatively quiet oasis for families, engaged couples, and wedding parties. Once you finish taking pictures, walk across the BP bridge by Frank Gehry to Maggie Daley Park where you’ll find hours of playground attractions. 

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Highlights: Views of downtown with stunning landscape and mutual ponds. 

Good for: Family, Engagements, and portraits. Requires permits for special events, e.g., weddings.

Access: 3

Located in Lincoln Park, just a mile north of downtown Chicago, this destination is popular among families who love to take a relaxing stroll around the pond toward the “People’s Gas Education Pavilion”, known to the layman as “The Honeycombs.”  This unique structure faces south, perfectly framing the John Hancock building. When you finish at the Honeycombs, head further north to visit Mondika and Djeke, the tween gorillas at the free outdoor zoo, or take a ride on the vintage, wooden carousel.

 

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Highlights: Old-growth trees create gorgeous dappled light. 

Good for: Uniqueness, Engagements, and portraits. Access: 3

For that dreamy-dappled light and old-world architecture, check out the South gardens of the Art Institue of Chicago. An intricate system of hawthorn trees creates a sprawling canopy that feels intimately romantic to walk beneath. A central feature of this small-scale park is the Taft fountain framed by Locust Trees and flower shrubs. Head to the rear for a striking reflective composition that will take your breath away. 

 

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Highlights: Striking and unique view featuring both the city and lake. 

Good for: Natural Wedding, Engagements, and portraits. Requires permits for special events, e.g., weddings.

Access: 3

This small park, built just north of Navy Pier is the only spot in the city where you can walk beneath a tunnel of trees while also having both the lake and skyline in your background. Visit toward sunset during which time the water turns into an iridescent scene of shimmering colors and the buildings provide a beautiful rim light for your images.  

 

Highlights: Architecture, urban, and river all in one. 

Good for: Wedding, Engagements, and portraits. Requires permits for special events, e.g., weddings.

Access: 3

The Riverwalk has a quintessential Chicago feel to it thanks to the local restaurants, breweries, and historic landmarks along the 1.5-mile stretch. Enjoy a Fist City Chicago-inspired Pale Ale at the Brewhouse while watching kayakers and double-decker boats drift past. Walk beneath the many (18 in all) that still operate on a daily basis and experience this bustling destination. 

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  • 7. Montrose Harbor

Highlights:  One of the best spots in Chicago for both nature and a skyline view. 

Good for: Engagements and portraits. 

If you’re looking for that famous view of downtown Chicago, but don’t want to fight the crowds, head north about six miles to Montrose harbor. This man-made area is not only a safe haven for boat lovers but also bird watchers, who reverently explore the magic hedge that attracts thousands of migratory birds each spring and fall. Just be aware, that many enthusiasts feel a sense of protection for the space. So if you find yourself at odds with a territorial bird watcher, don’t worry, just head toward the public beach or the stone steps for a scenic lookout.

 

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Highlights: Stunning architecture and landscape create an elegant setting in the middle of downtown Chicago. 

Good for: Engagements and portraits. Best when you make an appointment. Permit cost: $150.

Like New York’s Central Park, Grant Park is one of the most well-known features of the city. If you were to look at a map, the park is home to many of the spots on this list, including the Art Institute of Chicago and Millenium Park, and even more, I have yet to write about. These pictures however were taken along Jackson Boulevard and just south, where the park has classical architecture that feels like many parts of Europe. 

 

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Highlights: Natural light. Hip, vintage.

Good for: Wedding, Engagements, and portraits.

Highlights: Natural light indoors. Architecture, Unique Backgrounds. Historic steps

Good for: Natural FamilyEngagements, and portraits. Requires permits for special events, e.g., weddings.

Access: Inside 4 (call ahead) outdoors 2

No others on this list even come close to the sheer amount of natural light pouring through the mostly glass modern wing of the Chicago Art Institute.  A favorite among local photographers, with colorful artwork and skyline views that make for a perfect opportunity for silhouettes. Just know that inside access can be spotty. Like many locations on this list, discretion is key. Have a plan B, just in case. Or better yet, recreate an old-Hollywood picture on the classic steps outside.

 

 

Highlights: Natural light. Hip, vintage.

Good for: WeddingEngagements, and portraits.

Access: 1

For nature lovers in a city full of concrete, visit the West Ridge Nature Center, where you’ll forget you just parked on a crowded, noisy street. Until recently, this spot was an underdeveloped area in Rosehill Cemetary (don’t worry, no one was ever buried here). In 2015, Chicago Park District began restoring the 21-acre space into an ecological parkland with native species, winding pathways, and multiple water features.

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Highlights: Fun. Unique.

Good for: Engagements, family, and portraits. Requires permits for special events, e.g., weddings.

Access: 2

Along the 606 trail, you’ll find miles of bike paths, art installations, and unique tree-top views of Chicago. Originally an industrial train line, it is now a high-traffic destination for locals out for a ride or resting among its many landscaped areas.

Highlights: Water Feature, Landscaping, Butterfly Garden, Fieldhouse

Good for: Wedding, Engagements, and portraits. Requires permits for special events, e.g., weddings.

Access: 2

Initially designed by William Le Baron Jenney, who is best known today as the father of the skyscraper, but later expanded upon by Jens Jensen who added unique waterway features, this sprawling park on the southwest side of Chicago is a historic destination. Among its nearly 20 acres, you’ll find twisting trails snaking past weeping willows, rolling hills, and one of Chicago’s classic fieldhouses. 

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Highlights: Natural light. Architecture. Covered outdoor section.

Good for: Wedding, Engagements, and portraits. Requires permits for special events, e.g., weddings.

Access: 2

There are so many more places around Chicago to explore and consider for your photography needs. I’ll keep this updated as new ideas pop up. If you have any suggestions, leave them in the comments below. If you’re interested in booking your own portrait or engagement session, contact me here, call 402-304-4057, or email maggie@rifeponcephotography.com.

For a few of my favorite outdoor photo locations, check out the links below:

Then when Chicago cools off, here are a few indoor photography locations I love:

  • 1. Garfield Park Conservatory: Like many on this list, this indoor photo location doesn’t “officially” allow professional photography, but with a bit of discretion and courtesy to other guests, you can take advantage of this indoor oasis.  Built between 1906 and 1907, this is one of the largest conservatories in the nation. Designed by renowned architect  William LeBaron Jenney, a.k.a. the father of the American Skyscraper, this 4.5-acre greenhouse is a masterpiece of landscaping designed beneath an equally breathtaking glass structure. Stepping inside from a gray, dry, freezing January day feels like you’ve been transported to an exotic destination full of verdant pathways, earthy aromas, and layers upon layers of stunning greenscapes.
  • Union Station: Avoid rush hour and you’ll hear your footsteps echoing off the limestone walls of the Great Hall. Designed by one of Chicago’s most famous architects Daniel Burham in the Beaux-Arts style, it reflects the predominant architecture throughout Chicago. Inspired by Roman and Greek forms, you’ll find plenty of cornices, arches, and pediments to pose in front of for a classic, timeless background. The skylight ceiling creates soft, even light, diffused by the limestone walls harvested from quarries in neighboring Indiana. If you do run into issues taking pictures inside, head to the entrance on the west side of the canal where you’ll find cover from wind, rain, and snow among rows of columns.
  • The Chicago Cultural Center: Walking beneath the 38-foot Tiffany Glass Dome designed by J. A. Holzer feels like being inside a scene from a fairy tale story. The Chicago Cultural Center is a breathtaking five-story building with neoclassical Italian Elements. You’ll find plenty of backgrounds to pose against from winding staircases with intricate detailing to echoing hallways and arched windows.

 

Plus a list of my top 20 favorite Chicago places:

  • Headquarters Arcade Bar – Fun, arcade bar
  • Beatnik – Morrocan decor and lush greenery
  • Scofflaw – Cozy, Southern Formal
  • The Freeze – Throwback vintage ice cream and hotdog stand
  • Tied House
  • Mason
  • Ferns Coffee Shop – Electric and vintage.
  • Plein Air Cafe – French workshop inspired. Bright, white, light.
  • The Original Pancake House – Throwback retro.
  • Three Arts Cafe – Ornate and opulent.
  • SuperDawg – Casual, retro.
  • Fat Rice – Hip, Asian-inspired.
  • Three Dots and a Dash – Fun Tikki Bar
  • Fulton Market Kitchen – Eclectic & artsy
  • The Whale Chicago – Art Deco, old Hollywood
  • Etta – High ceilings, open, industrial
  • Bang Bang Pie and Biscuit – Cozy, Farmhouse vintage
  • The Warbler – Mid-century modern, art deco
  • Lonesome Rose – Mid-century modern, light and airy
  • The Hampton Social – California, beach-inspired

Chicago has limitless places to photograph memories. Bad weather? No problem! Our grand city has got you covered with many indoor locations to get you that idyllic picture. Good weather? Of course, that’s not a problem either. With our urban, lakeside, and greenscape areas surrounding us, you’re sure to find an ultimate spot for photographic perfection.

If you do take photos at any of these Chicago locations, I’d love to see what you captured. Feel free to share @maggierifeponce on Instagram. Happy photographing!