In Conversation: Meet the Photographers of Above and Across Chicago (Part 1)

In Conversation: Meet the Photographers of Above and Across Chicago (Part 1)

Above and Across Chicago includes 125 images by 15 independent photographers from Chicago and beyond, capturing the city’s architecture, iconic skyline, and Chicago’s known landmarks from the sky. Featured photographers include Kwe Bentum, Dominika Brzykcy, Nick Crawford, Max Leitner, Cocu Liu, Lichao Liu, Jason Lumsden, Terry Maday, Daniel Moreno, Adam Pearson, Alberto Santiago, Daniel Schindler, Alex Sheyn, David Sowa, and Sonja Weiss.

Get to know Lichao Liu, Terry MadayDaniel Moreno, and Adam Pearson below.

Above and Across Chicago will be available late spring 2024 and is available for pre-order now.  

How long have you been a photographer and what initially drew you to the profession?

Lichao: I am actually a trained architect. The passion developed for photography comes so naturally in reflection of my love for traveling and architecture

Terry: I am not a photographer - but I am a director of photography. Sounds funny and kind of pretentious, but that’s the title. I work with clients to bring stories to life through video.

Daniel: I have been taking photos for the past 10 years. I think I was particularly attracted to photography through the world of movies and filmmaking. I remember that my first intentions with a camera were on the video side but then I found myself fascinated by the capacities of still photography and I started to develop this photographic instinct. I was very compelled by the fact that photography was a very personal and individual form of communication, in contrast with the moving picture that it tends to be a choir of people to be able to create the final product. Since then, I have never stopped, and photography just feels like a natural and intrinsic part of me.

Adam: I have been a photographer for 5 years and was drawn to photography in an unconventional way. I received a cheap drone for a birthday gift, which ended up not working so I returned it. I used that money plus a little more to buy a better drone with a camera on it. I flew for about a year, taking pictures and videos here and there. After a while, I wanted to explore more landscapes and learn how to enhance the photos I was taking of those landscapes. From then on, I was hooked and wanted to learn and absorb as much about the art of photography as I could.

What made you interested in aerial photography in particular? And have you ever delved into other subjects?

Lichao: Seeing the urban-scape and natural landscape from high above always provides a differently fresh perspective. Some of the magics can only be revealed when certain altitude is reached, such as some macro-land formations, or the fun mechanical systems hidden from the rooftops of skyscrapers. But I still love taking photos the traditional way, carrying the camera while I am traveling. 

Terry: We utilize many different camera platforms to achieve a variety of shots; static tripod compositions, fluid gimbal movement, even old school dolly and track. Each of these techniques provides a unique feel to the footage. But drones? It’s hard to imagine a bigger game changer. The perspectives are surprising and inspiring on nearly every flight - I love this platform and so do our clients.    

Daniel: I arrived at aerial photography many years after already being taking photos. This interest sparked living in Chicago and the amount of possibilities that this medium brings. Chicago being a city full of high structures, the drone allowed me to play from every angle looking for different ways to build this puzzle. Suddenly the camera was no longer bound by the reach of my own body. It opens a new way of seeing my surroundings, opening up a bird eye view where the imagination was the only boundary.

Adam: As I mentioned, I was interested in drones first, but shortly after I loved what I could see from the air while staying grounded. Having an irrational fear of heights helped me appreciate the view even more. I inherited a Canon Rebel from my Dad after he passed away and started to learn how to use it after I booked an Alaskan Cruise. Turns out Covid had other plans and that cruise was canceled, but I kept using that camera and haven’t stopped. 

What is your process like for shooting a new location? Do you try to match the feeling of the place with the image that you produce, or is it much more spontaneous?

Lichao: Whenever I am about to visit a new location, I always do a bit of image research on how other people have captured the place. But how I feel on-site is the most vital, which determines how the final composition and the atmosphere of the frame would turn out. Just go with the flow.

Terry: I blend time of day with creativity and spontaneity for sure, but I am also focused on safety and logistics. Where can I take off and land safely? How long will I have to wait for the train to pass through frame? I have a good idea of what the intended shot should be while I’m on the ground, but once the drone is positioned above, it is fun to explore options. Looking straight into the sun can create some beautiful flares. Looking straight down onto a structure or neighborhood can create a new perspective. Shooting motion footage with drone is much more time consuming and takes more planning because you are flying from one spot to another with specific timing and framing. Shooting stills is much faster and allows me to capture more options in a shorter amount of time. 

Daniel: I feel that I approach photography in two different ways depending on the instrument that I am using. If I am with my regular camera, I enjoy walking around without destination and capturing spontaneous moments, but when it comes to aerial photography it is very beneficial to plan ahead and scout locations and framings. The weather also is an important factor as well as fly time cause the battery life is limited. When all these elements align is when I am able to capture the photos that I envisioned. So I will say that in the last few years I have been more methodical on my way on how to approach my photos.

Adam: There is a lot of prep work that goes into new locations, and of course, some luck. I start with a mix of Google photos of the location and Google Earth. I try to match those images up with a more precise location using Google Earth. With these two resources I am able to get a general feel for the area and what kind of composition and mood I want to capture. If the composition requires lining up the sun or the moon, I use a couple of apps to help with positioning. The luck comes in with weather and atmospheric conditions. Some locations don’t need any help when it comes to weather or atmosphere depending on the subject. Others rely solely on a great sky, or clear conditions with little atmospheric interference. Overall, working with the conditions I have is where spontaneity comes in, I always try to make the best of any situation.

Tell me a bit about your editing process.

Lichao: The editing process for me varies greatly on what devices the images are taken, as well as what the images are eventually shot for. It could be as quickly as a 3-min phone-app edits that mainly focused on overall color-balance of the image with minimum editing of its RAW file, or for larger-format prints, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop will be involved. But overall speaking, I rarely alter the original atmosphere of the photo, but sometimes try to emphasize certain layers or colors to make the image sharper and bolder.

Terry: The key to editing is to shoot multiple frames with Auto Exposure Bracketing to protect all areas of the image - especially when shooting high contrast images.

Daniel: A photo is not completed until the editing is finished, I try to reflect the colors and feeling that I was seeing the moment that I captured the photo, trying to evoque that particular moment in time and make you feel like you are seeing it in real life, with your own eyes, while also pushing my own aesthetic and visual signature. My photos are an expression on how I was feeling in that particular moment and I try to re-enforce that with my editing.

Adam: I typically review my shots within 24hrs since I still have the feeling when I took the photo. Sometimes I can edit the photo right away, other times I can’t and have to wait. Waiting sometimes helps me not rush into the edit, which when I do, I find can ruin the mood or purpose of the photo. As for the process, that’s my secret but I have my basic workflow to start and then adjust any elements accordingly. I enjoy revisiting photos because to me, they are a moment in time and recreating that memory brings back the excitement from when I shot it.

What is it about Chicago that inspires you to photograph it?

Lichao: Chicago is such an ideal city for anyone who is passionate about modern architecture. Its multi-layered components (the lake, the beaches, the buildings) combined with vibrant neighborhoods and dramatic seasonal scenes/weather patterns draw me to go out and explore even it is -6F outside. 

Terry: I have lived in Chicago my entire life and it becomes a challenge to discover a new perspective. I was on Michigan Avenue shooting a top down above Cindy’s Rooftop when I turned the drone to face south and framed a view of the city that surprised me. I discovered a small cluster of buildings to the south that I didn’t know was there; the composition included architecturally significant stone in the foreground and modern skyscrapers in the background which blended the old and the new. I love sharing images that feel new, even to a lifelong Chicagoan.

Daniel: Chicago is a city that feels like a photographer's dream, is a perfect playground where all kinds of photography can emerge and develop, starting from the incredible architecture going all the way to the extreme weather conditions, everyday, there's something worth photographing in this city. I started my photography journey way before moving to Chicago seven years ago, but this city made me fall deeply in love with photography in a way I hadn't felt before. From the street to the sky, with the snow and the frozen river to the vibrant summer colors, every second feels like a picture to me, just waiting to be captured by my camera, and after all this time the feeling of excitement about taking photos in this city is bigger than ever.

Adam: The location on the lakefront, the architecture and the iconic views of landmarks from any angle. I think Chicago has the best mix of the hustle and bustle of a big city and the quiet retreats of nature. Some of my favorite shooting locations are where I can intertwine nature with Chicago architecture.

Do you have a favorite Chicago moment or memory?

Lichao: I have 4 favorite Chicago moments for 4 distinguished seasons: Spring for Tulips, Summer for Pritzker Pavilion Music festivals, Fall for Millennium Park and Bean landscape, Winter for iced pancakes and iced reflections of the Michigan lake. 

Daniel: I must say that I am one of those people that say that they love winter in Chicago, but not because I particularly like the cold, but for how it looks, I enjoy the snow and a frozen lake Michigan to photograph. So I would say my favorite memories are those mornings in below zero temperatures where the cold is so extreme that it is hard to breathe. I brave those moments with my camera and capture these out of this world scenes, my fingers are frozen but when I arrive home and I see the photos, it makes everything worth it. The cold will dissipate, but the photos are forever.

Adam: I will never forget when I was able to shoot the full moon rising behind the skyline. I was set up about 15 miles northwest of Chicago to line up the moonrise with the skyline. It took all of my knowledge to determine the right location. I had been chasing this lineup for over 2 years. Finally, everything came together, and I was able to catch the moon directly over the Sears tower.

What advice do you have for other up-and-coming photographers? 

Lichao: Hope you always feel the joy and excitement every time you hold your camera or fly your drones, regardless how much compliments and social-media exposures you received. It is the internal passion towards capturing that unique moment, which will bring you true satisfaction and pride. 

Terry: Fly with intent. Shoot with a story in mind. It’s not simply about the drone being in the air above and across Chicago. The magic is to position the lens in a way that continues to evolve the storytelling of our beloved city.

Daniel: It seems obvious but just go out and shoot. Use any camera that you have at your disposal and shoot as much as you can, your most important tool as a photographer is your eye and as a muscle you have to exercise it. Take advantage of your surroundings and enjoy as many sunrises as you can.

Adam: Consistency. Just go shoot. Practice is the best way to learn. Once you find that drive, everything else will come, in due time. Some quicker than others, but it will happen. I also can’t go without mentioning how motivating Instagram has been for me. Instagram gets a negative wrap sometimes, but if you look at it with the right mindset it really helps. Take what you want and leave the rest, that’s it. The Chicago photo community is like no other and having conversations with other like-minded people helped me feel very comfortable when I was starting out. I always try to return that favor when anyone reaches out. 

Learn more about Above and Across Chicago here.