Getting to know her camera

Published 7:30 am Saturday, July 18, 2009

Shelli Allen sat on the front porch with a client.

Both were deep in thought.

Then Allen noticed a pickup truck parked across the street.

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“I’ve got it,” she said. “I know what we’re going to do. We’re going to take the truck out on a dirt road and put the kids in the back, and that’s where I’ll shoot them.”

Allen has been “shooting” people of all ages for several years, and she’s pretty darn good at it. In fact, she’s in great demand in the Marietta, Ga., area where she now makes her home and around her hometown of Troy, too.

Shelli Strother Allen is a location photographer. Several years ago, when she was whizzing around Troy with a camera in hand, it was only for fun and for “old times sake.” She never thought that photography could be more than a passing fancy for her. Then, she grew up, got married and had children and was anxious to capture those special moments in time for all time.

“Paula Yancey in Troy is such a talented artist, and I wanted her to do oil portraits of my children,” Allen said. “Their portraits were absolutely wonderful. When friends would come to my home in Marietta and see then, they wanted to use Paula for portraits of their children, and I started scheduling appointments for her here in the Atlanta area. I guess you could say that I was her agent.”

After a time, the Peach State demands for Yancey’s work became more traveling than she could handle.

“One day, Paula told me that she needed me to take the photographs for her portraits,” Allen said. “I had always loved photography and I thought I was pretty good at it but Paula said, ‘Shelli, you’ve got to learn your camera.’ She said that when she paints from photographs, there can be no distortion. The photographs have to be perfect.”

Yancey taught Allen the “ins and outs” of her camera, and she also took some classes.

“And, I fell in love with photography,” Allen said.

For several years, Allen worked with Yancey and still does. But in August 2008, she decided to dive headfirst into the water, camera and all.

She saw the possibilities of location photography and knew that it was something that she could do along with being a wife and a mom to three children.

“When I do a shoot, I go to the client’s home or to a location of their choice and sometimes they come to my home. But I don’t have a studio,” Allen said. “I try not to do the same thing over and over. I try to be creative with my photography and, to do that, I have to get to know the family or the children and something about their lifestyle. And, I start from there. I don’t do the normal.”

Most often the photography sessions are preceded with telephone calls and emails to get a feel for the lifestyle of the client or clients for which she is freezing that special moment in time. But there are times, when she doesn’t know exactly what she wants until she is at “the studio.”

“I always tell my client not to clean the house before I come because I’m going to wreck it,” she said, laughing. “When I walk in, I’ll start moving furniture, taking things off the shelf, grabbing baskets, moving books, taking toys – just anything that will tell a story. I wreck the place but. Before I leave, I put it back together.”

At one “studio,” Allen spied a tea set and that was the only clue she needed to capture the essence of the young subject.

“I grabbed the tea set and we went outside and had a tea party,” she said. “I told her mom to just let her daughter do what little girls do. Not to ask her to smile or look at the camera, just let her enjoy the tea party and the photographs were wonderful.”

At another shoot, the grandparents in the family had lived in a historic home. Allen asked the couple to move their Victorian-style couch outside.

“We captured the look that we wanted with the family seated on the couch outside,” she said. “It was different and it worked.”

Engagements photos and family and children’s portraits are Allen’s specialties but children are her passion.

Children grow up so quickly and parents want to be able to capture those young years in such a way that they can remember them always.

“When photographing children, I always ask parents what they want to remember most about their children,” Allen said. “Then, that’s the route that I go.”

Allen said most parents want to remember their children in everyday settings, with their favorite toys, with a beloved pet or in a special place or that shy smile or their bright blue eyes or a distinguishing cowlick or freckles across the nose.

“A lot of times, I do tight crops,” she said. “Maybe it’s the eyes that I focus on or the dimples. I don’t care if the hair’s in the photograph or not. Some people want the photograph to be real close while others want one that’s far away.

“They want a photograph of their child that holds those special memories when they’re grown up and gone from home.”

One photography shoot from start to finish encompasses between eight and 10 hours. Allen has an assistant who does her scheduling and sometimes helps with the actual shoot. She has a graphic designer who does the graphic work and a lab that prints the photographs.

She also does class pictures for several schools in the Atlanta area and this year will also do individual school pictures.

“I don’t do the usual school pictures where the children stand in front of a backdrop,” she said. “We’ll go outside and take the children one by one and shoot them. We’ll have fun.”

Life as a location photographer is fun for Shelli Allen. She has a unique opportunity to capture moments in time … monents that will last a lifetime and keep memories alive and fresh when time has tried to do otherwise.