Chicago: Hancock Observatory (or 360 Chicago)

South view from top of Hancock Building or 360 Chicago
South view from top of Hancock Building or 360 Chicago
South view from the Hancock Observatory (360 Chicago) at night. Shutter speed: .3 seconds, Aperture: f/5.6, ISO: 1600, Focal Length: 33 mm.

On the north side of Chicago’s downtown is a nearly 100 story building in which you can go to the top and take pictures of Chicago’s skyline. The building is called the Hancock Building and the top floor was previously called the Hancock Observatory, but is now called 360 Chicago. True to its new name, you can walk the perimeter of the entire floor and take pictures in any direction. Photographers should definitely plan to visit while in Chicago.

About the Hancock Observatory

The Hancock Building is a 100-story, 1,127-foot (344 m) skyscraper located at 875 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It was built in 1968 and was, at that time, the tallest building in the world outside New York City. It is currently the fourth-tallest building in Chicago and the seventh-tallest in the United States, The building contains offices, restaurants, and condominiums. It was named for John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, who had the building built and originally occupied it.

What concerns us is the observatory. It is located on the 94th floor and is 1,030 high. The entrance is on Michigan Avenue on the lower level of the building. It was previously called the Hancock Observatory but recently changed its name to 360 Chicago. You can walk around the entire perimeter of the building, so you can see in any direction. They claim you can see up to four states, and a distance of over 80 miles (130 km).

The observatory is open every day of the year from 9:00 am to 11:00 pm. Tickets cost $19 for adults. They have a deal where you can come twice within 48 hours (to see everything in daylight and at night) for an extra couple of dollars, but as mentioned below the best time to visit is dusk for you get daylight, sunset, and nighttime all within one visit.

When to Go

The best time to visit the Hancock Observatory is late afternoon, just before sunset. It is best to arrive at the observatory about 20 minutes before sunset, but keep in mind that it will take at least 20-30 minutes to enter the building, buy tickets, wait for the elevator, and ride to the top. That should put you at the top of the building just in time for sunset. After that, you can hang around for a while as the sky gets darker and the lights come on. That way you get daylight, sunset, and night pictures all in one visit.

South view from top of Hancock Building or 360 Chicago
Another south view shot from the Hancock Observatory (360 Chicago). This was a blend of photos taken with shutter speeds of 1 second, 2.5 seconds, and 6 seconds, at f/9, ISO 200 with a focal length of 17 mm.

What to Bring With You

The only thing you will absolutely need is a camera and a wide angle lens. Although you will occasionally see a detail you might want to capture using a long lens, usually the best shots from this location are shot at wide angle. I personally just bring my usual photo backpack so I have all my key lenses, but if you have a large pack that you don’t want to carry around, you can get away with just the camera and wide angle lens.

Should you bring a tripod? Yes, but be prepared to have it taken away from you (temporarily). On one visit, I brought my tripod to the top and used it with no problem (the picture immediately above was taken from a tripod). I confess I didn’t know whether the tripod was allowed or not, so I kept it low and unobtrusive. On another visit, I was told that I could not even take it up the elevator and had to leave it with security. I have heard that my experience is typical and they are very inconsistent in applying any policy regarding tripods. Therefore, my recommendation is to bring the tripod and see if they allow it. You will probably have better luck getting it in if you bring a smaller travel tripod.

Even if you don’t bring your tripod, bring your remote shutter release. In most locations around the windows, you will see a small shelf at the base of the windows. For long exposures, you can place your camera on the shelf and use your remote shutter release to trigger the shutter without touching the camera. It is almost as good as having a tripod with you.

Shooting in the Observatory

You will enjoy shooting from this place. You have unrestricted movement in any direction. You can walk around the entire perimeter. It is usually not too crowded. Further, as you wait for lighting conditions to change, there is a bar, a place to get snacks, and lots of places to sit.

Just walk around the perimeter to find the best shots. You can shoot in any direction, but I suspect you will spend most of your time facing south. That’s where most of the buildings are. All but one of the pictures in this article were shot facing south. The shot immediately below was shot facing north, and it is an interesting view with the road running up along the lake. I think you will spend very little time facing east (out into the lake) or west (very few buildings of interest).

You will face some challenges photographing from this observatory. The first challenge stems from the fact that you are shooting through thick glass. Unlike most other observatories (such as Top of the Rock in NYC and Montparnasse Tower in Paris) there is no way to get outside and shoot above or between the glass. There is an “open air” observatory, but it is entirely screened in and totally unsuitable for photography. Therefore, you will have to take steps to deal with any reflections. Obviously, make sure your focus is not set on the glass. If you see a reflection in your LCD, see if you can block it with your hand or body. In addition, if you have a shot your particularly like, take many versions of it from slightly different angles. You don’t want to get home and then see it is ruined by a reflection.

The other challenge arises from their (sometimes) prohibition of tripods. There are two ways to deal with this issue, depending on whether you want to use a long exposure or not. If you don’t care about streaking traffic lights or a long exposure, then just increase your ISO as it gets darker. That will allow you to use a shorter shutter speed so you can hand hold the camera (more about this below). However, if you want to use a long exposure time so that the headlights and taillights of the traffic below will appear to be streaking through the picture, you’ll need to stabilize the camera. In that case, place the camera on the little shelf at the base of the windows. Use your remote shutter release to take the picture. Watch out because people tend to accidentally kick the shelf, which will cause vibrations and blur to your photos. That will hold your camera steady so you can use as long a shutter speed as you want – even if they don’t allow you to use your tripod.

North view from Hancock Observatory or 360 Chicago
View to the north from the Hancock Observatory. Shutter speed: 1/4 second, Aperture: f/5.6, ISO: 1600, Focal length: 26 mm.

If you are hand holding the camera, you will be able to use the windows and the edges to stabilize the camera to use a slightly longer shutter speed than you might otherwise use. You might notice that three of my pictures in this article were shot with shutter speeds of 1/3, 1/4, and 1/5 of the second. I was hand holding the camera for each of these shots. Ordinarily I would never use shutter speeds this slow while hand holding the camera (see this article to understand why). However, in each of these shots I had the camera lens pressed up against the glass and was also using the edges of the windows for side-to-side support. You can do the same thing to use a somewhat longer shutter speed for your shots. This is particularly useful as it gets darker such that your camera needs more light to get a proper exposure.

As it gets darker and your camera needs more light to make a proper exposure, you should also feel free to open up the aperture on your camera. You might be worried about depth of field, but you needn’t be. Because everything in your picture will be so far away from you, there is no need for a wide depth of field here. You might notice that most of my shots are at f/5.6, which was done for that reason. That aperture makes images very sharp and there is no need for a wide depth of field since virtually everything in the picture is at infinity.

South view from Hancock Observatory or 360 Chicago
Detail shot to the south from the Hancock Observatory. Shutter speed: 1/5 second, Aperture f/5.6, ISO 1600, Focal length 200 mm.

Composing the pictures is all about finding some center of interest. If you just point your camera out the window and take a shot, you will likely end up with a boring picture. Facing south, try using Michigan Avenue as a center of interest. I personally like to use an extreme wide angle and try to get as much foreground in the picture as possible. If you do that same, watch out for the window edges, which will sometimes end up in your pictures.

Alternatives to the Hancock Observatory

I should note that you can get pretty much the same view from this building without paying the admission fee. There is a lounge on floor below from which you get the same views. It is called the Signature Lounge and it is on the 96th floor. It isn’t free because you will have to buy a few drinks, but if you are inclined to do that anyway then this may be the way to go. Be aware that there are sometimes lines to get in and there is a dress code as well.

Another great view is the Skydeck in the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), which was once the tallest building in the world. You can find all the pertient info about it (hours, pricing, etc.) on its website.