Behind the Scenes of the Out of Chicago Photo Conference

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If you are a photographer who lives in the U.S. Midwest, then you’ve probably heard of The Out of Chicago Conference.  These words, taken from their website, say it best: “Out of Chicago connects passionate photographers with their photography heroes through intimate photography experiences in amazing locations.” You can see all of the details HERE!  

I have dreamed of attending the Out of Chicago Conference since I first heard of it in 2015.  After making a connection with Out of Chicago’s founder, Chris Smith, at a local conference in the summer of 2017, I took the opportunity to go check out the Out of Chicago event in July of 2018 as a volunteer.  I had so much fun and learned so much that it was a given that I would return this year.  As my good fortune would have it, I was able to volunteer a second time.

Last Year...

This year’s event differed significantly from last year’s.  Last year there were at least a couple of hundred attendees.  Also, the three days were stuffed full of lectures and classes on photography and editing techniques and included a few walks through the city, designed for learning with the professional photographers on hand.  We learned from photoshop experts and great photographers such as Scott Kelby and Aaron Nace.  

Image of Author and Photoshop Expert Aaron Nace of Phlearn and his model assistant
I got to spend time with Aaron Nace of Phlearn and his lovely model assistant at the 2018 Out of Chicago Conference

vs. This Year...

This year, the Conference took a much more direct approach to Architecture and Street Photography with fewer classes and many incredible walks through Chicago’s urban landscape accompanied by pro photographers such as Angie McMonigal, Anne Belmont, Nenad Spasojevic, and John Kosmopoulos.  We also got to enjoy some fantastic insider experiences including a backstage tour of the Chicago Theater and a Private Sunrise Event at the Hancock Tower’s 360 Chicago Observation Deck.  There were fewer people and fewer indoor classes, and one could not ask for more than the excellent walking experiences throughout the city.  Like nirvana for a photographer, this weekend is everything one could want in a networking and learning environment!

So without further ado, here is a summary of my first day at this year’s Out of Chicago Conference, including a few of my favorite photos taken in Chicago.

Out of Chicago 2019 - Day 1

Selfie on Amtrak from Holland to Chicago
Selfies are not my forte, but here I am, happily on my way to Chicago!

Today started with a bang!  The alarm buzzed and six and I left the house at precisely 6:40 am. I don’t know what I was thinking!  My train was scheduled to leave at 6:49, and this was not enough time for me to get there and get parked.  Sure enough, as I pulled up, I could hear the train whistle.  That darned train does not stop for long, so I grabbed my bags from the back of the truck and ran across the street.  Just in time, I approached the platform to climb aboard.  Chicago – here I come!

Once I was seated, I looked around to discover that the train was not at all busy. Sadly, in my haste to get aboard, I forgot my carefully packed bag of snacks.  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so I trekked up to the front of the train and found the snack car.  I treated myself to some mini donuts and a bottle of water to replace the forgotten snacks.  Amtrak makes it so easy to work while traveling.  They have outlets near all the seats and convenient tray tables, which allowed me to get a little work done on my laptop before dozing off for a wee nap.  Soon enough I was pulling into Union Station in Chicago!

The Trouble with Chicago, Lyft Style

The first thing on my agenda?  Order a Lyft to get me to my hotel.  Unfortunately, in Chicago, the GPS seems to be just a bit off.  The little avatar that shows where you are is continually wiggling and moving. GPS confusion is a bit of a problem for Lyft drivers because there are so many people walking and waiting everywhere.  The town is so busy that the drivers don’t know where you are standing to wait.  My driver arrived, but of course, he was across the street and around the corner.  I had to dodge across the road and get to him before my two-minute warning was up. I pretended I was a real city girl and ran across the street against the traffic light.  But I made it climbed in and headed for the Hotel Blake.

An Adventure in Chicago Hotels...

Unfortunately, Hotel Blake was not expecting me. They did not have a reservation in my name. The men at the front desk were amiable but very politely said that they were booked solid with everybody else but not me.  I checked my email.  Sure enough, about an hour before I had arrived, I had received a note.  It stated that the Hotel Blake was full and that I had a room reserved at the Travelodge instead.  The very nice men at hotel Blake said, “no problem. It’s only a few blocks down the road and walking distance.”

So I loaded up my bags and proceeded to walk the three blocks down the road. I arrived at the travel lodge, and my first observation was that three blocks in Chicago make a big difference. This hotel did not seem nearly as pleasant. The front desk man, although friendly, was a little bit smarmy and I was less than pleased. But never-the-less, I handed over my credit card and headed to my room on the 10th floor.

I Was NOT Prepared For This!

The nasty hotel room in Chicago, complete with broken air conditioner and view of a brick wall.
The nasty hotel room in Chicago, complete with broken air conditioner and view of a brick wall. By the way - that window was bolted shut.

The room was small but boasted two beds, a tiny kitchenette, bars on the windows, a broken air conditioner, and the lovely fragrance of armpits mixed with feet.  I sat down on one bed and immediately lost balance and rolled to the middle.   The beds were shaped more like hammocks than beds, and they sunk in the middle. “No worries,” thought I, ever positive.

I needed to use the bathroom, so I went searching. I found it but tripped over the loose tile on the floor and caught myself by the stained shower curtain. When I finish the task at hand, I sat more carefully this time on the bed and turned on the television. Imagine my surprise when the TV wasn’t working either. I decided that even though I don’t like to bother people and I always try to be extra-forgiving, I just wasn’t comfortable in this room.  The broken TV, the smell, and a non-working air conditioner were just too much.

Sweet Solutions!

After making a few calls, I found a much more beautiful and safer room at the Palmer Hotel.   It was a little bit further down the road from the convention center, but hey – I need the exercise.  I made my way over to the Center, signed in for my volunteer duty and let the day begin.

A much safer, cleaner, and prettier room is pictured.
A much safer, cleaner, and prettier room made me feel much more ready to tackle the weekend ahead!

And the Day Officially Begins!

During the first portion of the day, from 11 until 3, I was stationed at the check-in and registration desk where people could come and pick up their packets and ask questions. I found a kind gentleman who was also volunteering, and together we conquered the many people that were arriving.

I enjoyed chatting with the salespeople from the Olympus camera company who were in the vendor area.  They introduced me to their product and explained how their cameras work even with smaller sensors than what I currently have. The cameras are much lighter and smaller and are very tempting.  My new friends Shelley and Matt signed out an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II to me with a 7 to 14 mm lens to be used later this evening on my architectural boat tour.

Even if I don’t end up buying the Olympus, it will be a fun opportunity to try a different kind of camera. At 3 o’clock, when my volunteer shift was complete, I headed to the Palmer Hotel to check-in. This hotel, nestled in a busy portion of the city, is much more comfortable.  It sits atop a shopping mall of sorts that contains a Crocs store, A Patisserie, Starbucks, a jewelry shop, and a gift shop. It also boasts a lovely cocktail lounge and restaurant area.

Blaze Pizza for the Win!

I found my room, got comfy, took a little rest, and headed out to find something to eat as I had not eaten since my donuts at nine this morning. For food, I headed back down the road to the Blaze Pizzeria, which sits next door to the University Center.  Blaze Pizza is especially unique because they make 10-inch thin-crust pizzas in about 5 to 7 minutes. It’s a bit like Subway in that they custom-build your pizza right in front of you. They have soft drink lids made for use without straws, and that made me so happy.  As a culture, we are becoming more and more aware of how much damage plastic straws are causing in our environment. I’ve been saying for some time that restaurants would need to come up with a straw-free lid.  I was delighted to see my first example of that exact thing.

Straw-free lid and pizza from Blaze Pizza in Chicago

I ate my delicious pizza and headed back to the University Center.  My new friends from the Olympus company were happy to chat over a Corona with lime.  The keynote speaker, Jason M Peterson, was up next.  He was quite a character and spoke to us about iPhone Photography and how it affects today’s Photographer.  I found it so fascinating seeing how much of his work was captured using only an iPhone and some editing.  You can check out more of his work HERE on Instagram, where he has over a million followers.

An Exciting Evening Ahead...

After the keynote speaker, I met up with my little group of three people: John Kosmopoulos, me, and one other conference attendee, to head to the Architectural Boat Tour.  I was pretty excited about this opportunity.  I love taking the Water Taxi through Chicago and looked forward to hearing about the architecture of the city on this specialized tour.  Unfortunately, the weather had different plans for us.

We called for a Lyft driver, sifted through a bit more GPS confusion, and finally found our car.  All three of us loaded up and headed out. Almost immediately after we got in the car, heavy raindrops started to plop onto the windshield. By the time we arrived at our drop-off spot, we were in a torrential downpour.  My weather app had notified me that we were under a severe flood warning.  Now was not the optimum time to step onto a boat.  The three of us discussed it and decided that we would take a hard no on this experience and head back to our rooms for the evening.

Delightfully this freed me so that by next morning I could meet with another group of photographers and head for the Hancock building at 4 am. So I ate my white vanilla bean cheesecake that I snagged from the Sugar Bliss Patisserie located downstairs and settled in for some sleep before 3:15 am.

Tomorrow is Day 2 of my 3-day adventure, complete with an evening at the Buckingham Fountain and fireworks with Nenad Spasojevic, his lovely wife, and a couple of new friends!  You can read about it HERE.

A delicious vanilla bean cheesecake from Sugar Bliss Patisserie in Chicago
My delicious vanilla bean cheesecake from Sugar Bliss Patisserie in Chicago
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4 Comments

    • Thank you, Kristina! I love it there, too. I am just a quick train ride away, so for me I can hop over there for just a day anytime I want!

    • Thank you, Malika! It is wonderful to shoot new scenes with experts tagging along to answer questions. It is definitely a great way to improve your craft!

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