Photo University at Night

Destination: College

On our last trip to Chicago, we headed home a slightly different way and detoured onto the University of Chicago campus. College campuses can be tourist destinations in-and-of themselves regardless if you actually learn anything when you’re there!

Rice University campus building at Night
Rice University campus building at Night

Don’t worry if you’re a bit older than the students. I know everyone looks like they’re 20 years old – ok a majority of students around this age – but there are graduate students running around who are older and the profs have a wrinkle or two – or three. If you’re visiting a college campus, just try to look like you belong. If you’re ogling a coed, you’ll probably be asked to leave by security, but if you look like you’re just in between classes you’ll likely be left alone.

Architecture photographers especially may find college campuses to be a great place to visit. Architecture on college campuses ranges from basic utilitarian to olde worlde Europe to modern — sometimes all on the same campus or even the same building! Older universities mix modern with traditional so especially look for interesting juxtapositions.

New meets old in this functional hallway – now a study area – at the University of Chicago.

New meets old in this functional hallway – now a study area – at the University of Chicago.

Interesting things happen on college campuses, so if you have your street photography shoes on, you might find an interesting photograph or two.

My husband and I are both university teachers – and have spent about a million hours (or maybe it just feels like it) working on various degrees, so I thought I’d take a moment to talk about the ins-and-outs of touring and photographing on college campuses.

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Official Tours

Most universities have tours for prospective students and parents. If you’re interested in touring a campus, poke around on the school’s website to see if tours are advertised.

These are for prospective students so don’t worry if you aren’t in academe. You just have to be thinking of attending classes – there you go thinking about going back to school. Or maybe you’re shopping for a college for your three-year-old. Parents these days can’t choose a school soon enough! Now, you qualify for a tour. There may be a few hoops to jump through, but the college is usually happy to show off their facilities to potential customers – I mean students.

Snowy Bridge
Snowy bridge on the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville campus.

On these tours, you’ll get the architectural hot spots and lots of “student life” sorts of places including dorms.

Unofficial Tours

Many campuses in the U.S. are state run – meaning the government sends a few dollars to the school – and therefore not restricted to visitors.

There may even be public spaces like parks, gardens, cafes, art galleries, and concert halls on campus. These places welcome visitors and if you happen to take the round-about way of getting to an art gallery or conveniently get lost while searching for the Starbucks, it’s ok! Some nice coed (or security) will point you in the right direction.

It’s easy to get lost on a college campus, sometimes multiple times!

Private colleges like Principia College in Illinois – about 30 miles from my home may restrict access. Take a look at some of their official photos. Here is one of my only unofficial photos of a unique building on the Principia College campus.

“Mistake House" at Principia College
Principia is a private college and difficult to access. When we first arrived in the area, we took a tour and snapped a photo of this unique architectural construction, combining styles. Published: 2016 in “Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders” by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, Ella Morton

This college has a beautiful campus, but I have about a 1 in 3 success rate when accessing the campus. The only photos I have from here are tourist snaps taken many years ago. They are definitely not a photography-friendly campus. Most campuses that I know simply don’t care if you’re photographing on the campus. Everyone’s too busy running to their next class to even notice.

They have official driving tours at certain times – when they’re not working on the roads or the guard at the front gate doesn’t happen to see a big digital camera sitting on the passenger seat of your car. If you encounter a campus like Principia, the best thing to do is find a public event like a talk or a concert and arrive early – bring your most unassuming camera or just your phone. And probably don’t tag the college if you post to social media.

Some urban campuses may also have restricted access, but not always. University of Chicago was sufficiently far out of the city that most of the buildings were open for wandering.

We wondered around Ida Noyes Hall for a while – twice past the security desk admiring the intricately carved staircase and architectural detail.

Photo Ida Noyes Hall Staircase
Ida Noyes Hall Staircase University of Chicago.

Keep your eye out for detail and art when you walk through buildings. Art is sometimes collected into official galleries, but colleges will also hang art throughout random buildings – sometimes quite interesting art. Also keep your eye open for the little details. There may be a very intricately carved panel tucked behind a cork notice board advertising a quiz night and dog walking services.

Photo Side by Side
Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville has a large collection of architectural detail. Some of which is on display in the library – some stacked behind random buildings.

Some areas will be restricted with entry by key-card. You’ll likely not be able to get access to these areas. But if there’s an open door, feel free to walk through it. If the university wanted to restrict access they would have!

Even if an area is restricted, it never hurts to ask. Sometimes it’s ok for visitors to enter for a look. The worst they can say is no – Right?

All it took was for us to ask the security guard at the library and we had access to the very nifty Mansueto Library.

Photo Mansueto Library
Photo Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago.


Campuses have a social life of their own. There are many students living on campus and active student organizations to keep the students busy – it’s not as if they’re studying or anything.

These events may not be publicized outside of the campus, but sometimes outsiders get lucky and visit when an event is going on. These events can be anything from a fun fair to a political rally.

Photo Mandala
I spent quite a lot of time watching the Tibetan Monks at Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri create a mandala.

There will be notice boards around where events are posted.

When to Visit

The biggest obstacle about touring a college campus might be finding parking. In all fairness, this is often the biggest obstacle for the students getting to class as well. If you’re lucky, there will be metered parking – and if you’re really lucky there will be a space free.

Visiting early mornings and weekends are the best – Students tend to be a late-rising bunch. Also depending on the campus, Fridays may have fewer classes scheduled (who wants to go to class on a Friday? It’s almost the weekend!) If visiting on the weekend, there may be fewer buildings open, but you’re also less likely to encounter lots of people who may ask who you are and what you’re doing.

Photo University at Night
A deserted Washington University at night just before sunrise.

Getting Around

I’ve been on many college campuses as student, visitor, and teacher for many decades now and I’m just going to admit it – I’m always lost. Even sometimes on my own campus! There will be maps dotted around and signs on the building, but it depends on the campus how helpful these are.

It maybe best to just wander from building to building until you figure out where you are. Don’t be shy about stopping a random student to ask directions. You won’t be the first. Much of September is spent trying to get the freshmen to their classes.

Universities are often designed around “quads.” I think this has something to do with the olde English universities like Oxford. Buildings are set around a park-like area. Sometimes these quads are almost hidden from view like secret little gardens.

Quads and other green spaces on campus are where students hang out and “study” on a nice day (or maybe serenading a girl with a guitar or working on the perfect tan) – perfect for a bit of street photography. If you’re lucky, you’ll also catch the students hustling between classes.

A break
Laying on the grass taking a break.

As a general rule, walk completely around a building if you can, you may find wildly different views.


Final Thoughts

Most colleges don’t mind a bit of tourism, just be respectful and especially at private university don’t be confrontational. Unlike on a public street, you may not actually have right to photograph.

Also, explore the area surrounding the campus. These areas can be extensions of the universities – official or unofficial college villages. Thousands of students as well as staff need places to live, eat, and play. Students tend to be a colorful bunch so some of the shops and restaurants will cater to this clientele.

So grab your camera and your best walking tours and get back to school!

Photo Too Late to Play
Even this soccer goal on the Southern Illinois University campus takes on a magical quality during golden hour.
Sony A7II 70mm 1/15@f20 ISO 100
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