Your guide to taking nature photos in the Chicagoland area

Nature Photography of an elk in a pasture

Let’s face it: Just about everyone is an amateur photographer these days. But did you know nature photography is actually a great way to slow down and appreciate life’s little wonders? Whether it’s dewdrops on a lily pad or sunset’s pink hues reflected on a lake, taking time to notice – and document – the beauty of nature can be incredibly fun and grounding.

It doesn’t matter if you use your smartphone or an expensive camera. Or if anyone else ever sees – or likes – what you’ve shot. “It’s your eye. It’s how you envision the scene,” says amateur photographer Kris DaPra.

DaPra should know. In what she admits was a spur-of-the-moment decision, DaPra embarked on a project several years ago to take photos in a Forest Preserves of Cook County every day for an entire year.

Her photos – documented on Flickr – included close-ups of butterflies, birds and flower petals. But they also included scenic landscapes, including shots taken during what would turn out to be third snowiest – and third coldest – winter in Chicago history.

Want some insider tips on the best sites for nature-inspired photos? DaPra, who now serves as Manager of Volunteer Resources for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, was gracious to share her favorite locations throughout Cook County’s 70,000 acres of nature preserves. Just please: stay on the trail.


Maple Lake Overlook is a prime location for shooting sunrises and sunsets with reflections over the water. It’s also a sweet spot for waterfowl that live nearby. The parking lot off 95th Street gets you right there.

Swallow Cliff Woods serves up a scenic overlook of another kind – a 100 ft high bluff you can climb. The woods are also a great place to snap photos of wildflowers and birds (especially during spring and fall migrations). This is a good choice for anyone wanting to actively explore; there are unpaved trails and stairs leading up to the bluff.

Sagawau Environmental Learning Center offers unique landscape features including a canyon and the area’s only exposure of bedrock. Note: To protect this unique and fragile landscape, the canyon is only accessible during guided tours.


Orland Grassland is your place to see rare grassland birds. This vast landscape features 750 acres of native prairie and is a prime site for wildflowers in summer and fall. You might even spot a coyote trotting along the horizon.

Sand Ridge Nature Center offers a number of habitats including prairies, oak savannas and woodlands on ancient beaches and sand dunes, marshes and ponds. Choose from four trails that feature boardwalks, as well as paved and unpaved surfaces.


Busse Reservoir is another prime viewing spot for sunrises and sunsets. Choose a vantage point from land, or get out on the water itself via an accessible canoe launch or by renting a kayak, canoe, row boat, paddleboat or fishing boat.

Deer Grove East/Jens Jensen Grasslands & Woods Lane & Water Reserve is a reconstructed prairie and wetlands is a great location for spotting birds. Wildflowers are plentiful in summer and fall. Park at Deer Grove East, and take the paved Red Trail about 0.5 miles.


Somme Preserves is your place to see birds, butterflies and pollinators. From east to west, this nature preserve moves from shaded woodland to sun-dappled savanna and finally to wide-open prairie. Unpaved trails help you feel like you’re part of it all.

Harms Woods looks a little like a wooded fairytale land. In spring, wildflowers are abundant. In summer and fall, be on the look-out for birds stopping in for food and rest during their annual migrations.

Skokie Lagoons is a money-shot location for sunrises and sunsets. Waterfowl are plentiful here, as are mink who depend on the lagoons for food and habitat. This is another site with an accessible boat launch and rental options.

P.S. We agree with DaPra. Just the act of slowing down and shooting nature photos is the best part… it doesn’t even matter what they look like in the end. But if you’re proud of your Cook County nature shots and feel like sharing, tag us @outsidechicago.