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Baltimore street photographers share tips for improving your Instagram game and capturing the city

In the age of Instagram, everyone thinks they’re a photographer. But good photography comes with practice, technique and some consideration. We turn to some of the area’s better-known street photographers for tips on capturing Baltimore and sprucing up your IG feed.

Devin Allen

Baltimore photographer Devin Allen, best known for his Time magazine cover of the 2015 unrest following Freddie Gray’s death, said his photography has always been focused on humanizing the city and getting outsiders to understand its people.

But the full-time Under Armour photographer is documenting aspects of the city in a new way — this time focusing on the everchanging landscape, fueled by the development and gentrification of city neighborhoods.

Allen, who draws inspiration from artist and painters like Salvador Dali, can be seen biking around the city with his quiet Leica M8 — his dream camera gifted by music producer Swizz Beatz, he said — snapping pictures of vacant homes and buildings that will soon be demolished. His style, as of late, includes more color and wide shots. They’re also less rushed than photos of people, he said, because buildings don’t move.

“I can frame my shots perfectly, take my time, really digest these things around me,” he said. It’s made him more selective.

“I find myself looking for something unique, I guess,” Allen said. “… It's all about being challenged. I know I'm a good storyteller, but could I tell you a story without the human interaction? Can I make you feel something from my city just by seeing buildings? ... What can I make you feel?”

Tips:

Don’t just shoot for the ‘Gram. Even a lauded photographer like Devin Allen has gotten sucked into the pressure of obtaining ever-increasing Instagram likes — so much so that he was sacrificing his personal style, he said. But in the end, it’s all about posting what you like. “The greatest thing about being an artist is the fact that you're you,” Allen said. “You can't be duplicated. You can't be cloned. Your mind works magically … When you create, create for yourself and just hope people like it.”

Prepare for your shoot, and know what you’re looking for. While street photography is often spontaneous, Allen said there is some preparation involved, like observing a person’s movement and getting into position in time, or anticipating the level of sunlight throughout the day in order to land the ideal shot.

Understand and respect your surroundings. It’s often easy to tell when a photographer is disconnected from their surroundings, Allen said. To avoid this, research a community before attempting to document it. “Don't just parachute into a city and not understand the narrative,” said Allen. “Photography can give birth to something and destroy it.”

Shan Wallace

East Baltimore photographer Shan Wallace, 27, born Chanet Wallace, said she didn’t see many people using cameras while growing up, aside from the Polaroid and video cameras her grandparents had. But as a journalism major at Bowie State University, she began to take on the art form, first shooting graffiti and landscapes, then concerts, before finding her calling while photographing a rally.

From there, Wallace was dedicated to capturing more of the community, the black experience and the African diaspora, “taking photographs and really trying to understand the world and reality I was living in, but also trying to connect with the world I was seeing,” Wallace said.

In 2016, Wallace released a photo series and zine called “What Does It Mean to Be Black?” where she captured images of the black people in the city — one of the most notable shots of a proud, young black boy happily flexing his muscles. More recently, she visited South Africa and Cuba.

Her approach is often more community-involved than other snap-and-go photographers, she said. She feels an obligation.

“I have to open myself up to people, and talk to people and community build, and explain to people why I do what I do,” Wallace said.

Tips:

Consider the impact on your subjects. “In order for you to be responsible and properly document communities, you have to give a f---,” Wallace said. “You have to take into consideration, how does this benefit them or represent them. I have more of a vision of how to take a photograph of them, take a picture, and they’re not ashamed.”

Take no for an answer. Respect your subjects’ agency and their space. “They have a right to tell you no. Put yourself in their shoes,” Wallace said. “There’s trust that has to be built. The image is not the only part.”

Allison Bethea

Though photography is more of a hobby for Pikesville-area psychologist Allison Bethea, it overlaps with her day job in some ways, she said, “just because you’re kind of relating to people, even if it’s just a brief moment.” Both psychology and photography also involve an inherent curiosity, and interest in the people around you, she added.

And while Bethea, 51, typically tries to not draw much attention to herself, she sometimes interacts with her subjects, asking them to pose for her, which can be a challenge that only gets easier with more practice, she said.

Getting lost in a zen-like state when taking pictures is one of her favorite parts about street photography; that and the fact that it’s accessible to anyone with a camera, she said.

“People can develop their camera skills … and you don’t need a full range of photographic equipment,” said Bethea, adding that many street photographers shoot on mobile phones exclusively.

Tips:

Learn your camera (the smaller, the better). “Whether you’re shooting a DSLR or on a mobile phone, find a camera app or editing apps that you’re comfortable with,” Bethea said. Finding these ahead of time can reduce distractions from the technical aspects of the camera while shooting. Bethea also recommends a smaller camera, which is often lighter and less obtrusive to subjects when taking pictures around the city.

Study other photographers. It can be helpful to look at the work of other photographers, but “not to the point where you’re copying them,” Bethea said. Take what you like and make it your own.

Take “photo walks” around the city. Choose a block or street, grab a couple of friends or stroll around solo while capturing things you like, Bethea said. Not only will this allow you to better familiarize yourself with your surroundings, but it also helps people to be less suspicious of you, she said.

Sidney ‘SidJacks’ Jackson

The son of a sculptor and painter, Sidney “SidJacks” Jackson, 36, always knew that art was in his blood, but it wasn’t until August 2011, when he took photos with his Android during a road trip from Baltimore to Chicago, that he thought photography would be his outlet. He purchased a DSLR camera and took classes at a community college before becoming a professional photographer the next year.

Though his shots run the gamut from event photography to real estate, his passion is architecture and landscape, allowing him to explore city buildings and histories.

Tips:

Your camera is the best camera. “Even with your phone, you can still get some amazing pictures,” Jackson said. It’s really the composition of the photos that counts.

Take a tripod with you. When it comes to photographing the city, “there’s a lot of things that are moving, and you want to capture it and be still,” Jackson said.

Experiment with different times of the day. “Go in the morning, in the middle of the day and even in the evening if you can,” Jackson said, to capture different atmospheres. For example, if you’re looking for a shot of a building or a street but want fewer people or cars, sacrifice your sleep and get up early to get the shot.

Observe your surroundings. So many times people are looking down at their phones that they miss their surroundings or even what’s above them, Jackson said. “Keep an open eye as to what you’re looking at,” Jackson said. “Don’t just look at how things are now but take into consideration how things used to be.”

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