Guest Post by Luis dos Santos: Chicago’s Architecture From an Out-Of-Town Photographer

Today’s guest post comes from phenomenal architectural photographer, Luis dos Santos. If you missed the interview with him this past weekend, check it out here. Even though this was Luis’ first visit to the windy city and we’re down here on a regular basis, I think that we can all learn something from his take on our favorite city. Take it away Luis…



Last year I had the chance to visit Chicago, a trip that I had postponed for some time. I remember when I was preparing and scouting some of its most interesting landmarks to come across Chris’ blog. It was full of amazing photos and great source of information for anyone interested in photographing this city. When Chris offered me the possibility to write a guest post, I thought it would be a great possibility to share my experience and places that I visited in Chicago and give something back to him and the readers of his blog, who might as well be planning to visit Chicago some day.


Chicago is a very photogenic city, its motives range from the very first skyscrapers such as the Rookery building, to some of the most modern and tallest buildings in the world. Staircases from Frank Lloyd Wright’s design to the Bauhaus inspired lines of Josef Paul Kleihues’ designs, rooftops, cityscapes or interiors, it doesn’t matter what kind of architecture you are interested in, Chicago always seems to have a very interesting motive waiting around every corner.



The photo above was taken in downtown near N Orleans street just after sunset, with a 17mm tilt-shift lens, in my opinion the ideal lens to bring to Chicago. The camera was set on a tripod and I shot a set of 5 brackets to capture the brightest lights of the skyscrapers and the details in the shadows. This photo consist of a vertorama: a first set of brackets was taken with the lens centered at the neutral position, and after I capture another set of brackets, this time with the lens shifted up to capture the top of the buildings. In the post processing I tried to emphasize the electric nature and energy of the city by using cold blue tones for the architecture and bright, desaturated colors for the lights.




I discovered this vantage point almost by accident. On that day I had planned to visit John Hancock’s building, but the Chicago weather decided to show some of its temper and the view from the top was very limited, something you don’t wish when visiting a rooftop. So I decided to change my plans and take a shot of John Hancock’s building, instead of from it, and his rooftop offered an unobstructed view to the skyline that is quite different from the typical ones. The clouds were moving quite fast, so i had to limit the time of the maximum exposure of the HDR to about 3sec, while taking a panorama of 5 photos in portrait mode and stitching them together with Photoshop.



Next day the weather cleared up, so I took the opportunity to visit another landmark, the Willis Tower — former Sears tower. The tower was completed in 1973 and that time it was the tallest building in the world, surpassing the World Trade Center towers in New York, and even today The Willis Tower is the tallest building in the United States and the seventh-tallest freestanding structure in the world.

From the 103rd floor (about 412m above ground) breathtaking views such as these are just a couple of clicks away. Full size tripods are not allowed there, so if you decide to visit this place make sure you pack a small one which you can put on the floor without obstructing the passages. Here you can see the John Hancock Center glowing green against a backdrop of lake Michigan, about a mile and a half away.




Back to street level, and into the Cultural Center, a neoclassical building with some Italian Renaissance elements, which I vividly recommend. It’s two domes — including the amazing glass Tiffany Dome by J. A. Holtzer in the Preston Bradley Hall — and staircase offer so many photo possibilities that one can easily spend an entire day photographing it. The staff is very photographer friendly, and didn’t mind me using a tripod there. This photo of the dome, which is the largest of its kind in the world, is again a vertorama taken with the 17mm lens.




The theological seminary of the university of Chicago is a hidden gem. It was designed by Herbert Riddle in a neo-gothic style and built between the years 1923 and 1928. Riddle was also the architect for Mather Tower in the Loop, as well as many buildings in New York. Inside it one can find the Hilton Memorial Chapel, Clarence Sydney Funk Cloisters, Graham Taylor Hall, the Library, West Lobby and Stair Tower, and Lawson Tower. Given the light conditions inside the buildings, these rooms lend themselves perfectly to HDR. From all of them, my favorite was this magnificent staircase, where I took again a vertorama and during post-process I tried to preserve the delicate balance of the warm tones of the light against the cold stone walls.





For lovers of interior modern architecture, the staircase inside the Museum of Contemporary Art is renowned for its unique shape and can offer something quite different for your portfolio. Here I tried to capture its shape using a 14mm ultra wide angle, a good choice when photographing inside limited interior spaces. That, together with a rather unusual frontal perspective — most photos of this staircase are taken looking either straight up or straight down — allowed to create a different look. In terms of processing, for this kind of modern architecture, I usually try to emphasize the white parts and its clean lines by using the natural contrasting black areas of the image.


Unfortunately, it is a herculean task to condense Chicago in a couple of photos. My advice for someone going to Chicago would be to definitely bring your camera with you, if possible bring a good wide angle lens too, and have fun photographing it. You will have a great time there and come back with very nice photos — it is simply impossible to take a bad shot in this city.


Thanks Luis! I want to be like you when I grow up! MAke sure you check out the rest of Luis’ work and follow his adventures at


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When I’m not staying up all night figuring out the details of our next Out of Chicago Conference, you’ll find me at the park with our son and daughter, playing my guitar, out on the golf course, or following my favorite (Detroit) sports teams. I love Chicago, but I’ll always root for my Tigers, Red Wings, Lions, Michigan sports, and Pistons.

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  • Great article, very helpful. Great set of images. Definitely some places to check out the next time I’m in Chicago.