Photographing Chicago CTA Trains: My Obsession… and some tips & tricks for shooting.

April 16, 2018

Chicago Trains: Photography Tips and Tricks by Tracey Capone

CTA Orange line leaving the Merchandise Mart in the Loop in downtown Chicago. Photography by local artist Tracey Capone.
N1 8” © Tracey Capone Photography 2017

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.

Brown line loop train heading towards the Merchandise Mart. Chicago photography by local artist Tracey Capone
406” © Tracey Capone Photography

 

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.

Chicago CTA Blue Line train headed towards O'Hare in the Wicker Park Neighborhood. Photograph by Tracey Capone
Blue” © Tracey Capone Photography

 

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.

Two Chicago CTA trains running along the elevated tracks along Wabash. Chicago photography by Tracey Capone
Midway” © Tracey Capone Photography

 

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.
Photograph of a Brown Line CTA train from above. Chicago photography by Tracey Capone
To the Mart” © Tracey Capone Photography
  • 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.
A CTA running along the elevated tracks in front of the red CNA building in downtown Chicago. Photography by Tracey Capone
2817” © Tracey Capone Photography

 

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.

Enjoy!

 

Sig




Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.


Also in Photography Blog by Chicago artist Tracey Capone

Sunday Morning in Montmartre: Two People, One Camera and No Plans in Mind
Sunday Morning in Montmartre: Two People, One Camera and No Plans in Mind

June 27, 2018

The other day in my post about Venice, I talked about the magical light that pulls you in as you walk around the back canals. I can honestly say it is a light I have never seen elsewhere, until one Sunday morning on our recent trip to Paris. My husband, Joe, and I stayed in

Read more Sunday Morning in Montmartre: Two People, One Camera and No Plans in Mind

Continue Reading

The Art of the Festival (Introduction: How to Thrive, Not Just Survive, the Art Festival Scene)
The Art of the Festival (Introduction: How to Thrive, Not Just Survive, the Art Festival Scene)

June 26, 2018

Lugging everything to the location for hours of setup: your tent, your display gear, the work. Here in Chicago, this typically happens in hot and humid weather, with the chaos of everyone else setting up at the same time, plus the noise of the city,  so you’re a sticky, sweaty ball of confusion and

Read more The Art of the Festival (Introduction: How to Thrive, Not Just Survive, the Art Festival Scene)

Continue Reading

Gondola along a back canal in Venice. Italy photography by Tracey Capone
Travel Photography: Visiting Venice, Italy

June 25, 2018

As I'm preparing for the summer art festivals, and going through my photographs, I'm taking some time to remember my favorite trips of the last few years, including this visit to Venice.

Read more Travel Photography: Visiting Venice, Italy

Continue Reading

Take 10% off your first purchase...

...when you sign up for the monthly newsletter from TCP 

Get a heads up on new work, sales, art festivals and more.