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An Interview With Side A Photography’s Anastasia Tantaros by Rachel Bone

Remember how every wedding you attended in the early 2000’s included disposable cameras at the reception tables, and — once inebriated — guests were tasked with taking unflattering flash photography of each other while eating? That was a waste of money.

Nowadays, those cameras have been replaced with rentable photo booths with far more flattering flashes, and camera angles. The photo booth trend, which started gaining traction less than a decade ago has already snowballed into an expectation at special events. Being an increasingly impatient and demanding audience, however, we of the digital age are already yawning at the same old be-glittered porkpie hats and neon wigs that accompany them.

Yet despite any prop fatigue, we still love a good selfie, and the light from those darn things compliments even the absolute worst complexion. For an offering more unique, discover Baltimore’s crafty alternative to the standard photo booth: Side A Photography.

Anastasia Tantaros has been behind a camera since 1998, but she didn’t start her successful wedding and event photography business until 2013. The Pennsylvania native moved to Baltimore from Philly in 2007. In 2011, a spark of cheeky creativity lead her to fashion a rolling wardrobe into a photo booth for a party, using a laptop and computer printer to produce take-home photos.

Nearly a decade in, Side-A’s photo booths have been revised to look more professional, albeit still more unique. They shoot quicker photos, which can upload straight to social media, and print in moments. Although they aren’t the only photo booth game in town, Side A stands out as a full service photography business. They offer event photography and Photo Booth rental all in one, with a range of aesthetics anywhere from those familiar oversized sunglasses to hilarious handmade recreations of iconic movie scenes.

Side A builds custom backdrops and props from scratch for her clients, based on themes they request. Tantaros largely handles events alone or with a small trusted staff. In her spare time, she has self-published two books of fine art photography, and shown work at galleries in both Baltimore and Philadelphia. Somehow, she still had time to answer a few questions about running a business in Baltimore, and what she wished she’d known before starting.

What was your last job before starting your own company?

When I first started building Side A Photography, I had a handful of odd coffee and art-related jobs, but my last full-time job was working for a financial advisor. My coworkers were supportive of my decision and my boss gave me a list of cliche business names he thought had a nice ring, like “timeless moments,” which I found endearing. They were all supportive and excited for me. That was in 2013.

How did Side A start: as a photo booth, or as event photography? Did you know you’d link the two when you started?

Side A began as a photography business. I shot everything from babies to business interiors, products, birthdays, events and families. I opened a pop-up portrait studio in my living room and did 10-minute headshot sessions against a white seamless to pay off my lighting equipment. I learned the ropes of running a business from a photography mentor in California, and after a while, I discovered that events were what I loved shooting most.

Where was your first photo booth set up,  and what was the theme?

My first photo booth was at my own birthday party. I used a large closet on wheels leftover from the Mummer’s Parade in Philadelphia and made it a “booth.” It was painted light blue and had glitter in it. In front of the booth was a bookshelf with a laptop and printer. After people took four photos, I printed and cut them out in strips with the name of the event at the bottom. The results from that booth were so DIY and gritty but everyone loved it!

You still make completely DIY, often handmade photo booths. Is it hard to fit your craftier aesthetic with the (often) higher end events you do?

When I do a Studio Booth, I often hand-make props and design a backdrop for people to stand in front of. These have ranged from an Orioles themed backdrop in Camden Yards to a winter mountain landscape for an 80’s, Après Ski party. Higher end events typically call for a step and repeat backdrop and usually don’t want props. The focus of that type of booth is to provide a red carpet experience, so that makes sense. I do local events like Baltimore Bike Party, to let the creative juices fly at least once a month.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve had to design for a photo booth?

A recent bride wanted something very different for her wedding at the AVAM and talked to me about her personality and what she liked. She described bright colors, busy patterns, creativity and loud props. So I designed her a kaleidoscope photo booth and used a filter on my camera that sectioned the image into geometric shapes like you’d see through a kaleidoscope. I had a scrap book table where guests could sign and tape extra photos in the book and had a rainbow of markers and 24 different colors of Washi tape to choose from.

According to the website, your staff is very minimal, which — I assume — means you still have a hand in almost everything. Do you ever book events and send a staff without you?

I am very much a part of every shoot and I talk one on one with each client to make sure we are getting their vision and delivering the product that works best for the event. And I like it that way!  With the crew, I’m able to double book and will send them to work one event while I do another. Tara, Jonathan and Bryan are all fantastic photographers and great to work with.

You are one of a few successful photo booth companies in Baltimore. I have to know, are there Photo Booth turf wars? Or are you all offering different enough things that the field is big enough for everyone?

Haha that’s funny. I’ve never had my nose broken by another photo booth company, but we are aware of each other. As a professional photographer first, I like to think what I offer is different because the emphasis is on creative setups, high quality photography and the energy of the photographer with guests. I pose and direct people when I’m doing the studio booth, and cheer at people to get them excited about having their picture taken.

I also have an automated photo booth, which is an all-in-one that counts down and takes a series of 4 photos and drops printed photos from the side of the booth. When we bring the automated booth to events, we are still encouraging people, handing them props, counting down with the timer and making it fun.

Your two photo books of fine artwork – are they self published? Are they still available? 

Yes, they are self published and each book was a limited edition run that sold out. The photos from that series have been on exhibit in Baltimore and Philadelphia and, most recently, at Sweet 27 in Remington. There is actually still a remaining installation from the show at Sweet 27 above the bar. The book and exhibit featured my street photography taken in Baltimore over the course of a year. I took a photo every day, so the book is aptly named “365.” The other book features my favorite photos from the 365 series.

Developing a photo booth setup took a bit of technological knowhow, beyond photography skills. DO you do all the programming yourself?

The initial photo booth that I made in 2011 took a lot of resourcefulness and research. I basically rigged two computer programs together to make it work and cut the strips by hand myself. Since then, there has been a boom in the business and software companies have made programming much easier. Also, I now have an 8-second printer that auto-cuts the photo paper and the photo taking process is seamless. The tech is always expanding, so I’m still programming the booths and upgrading them all the time.

As a business, you are benefitting from the existence of social media, and smart phone photo apps. As a trained, fine art photographer, are you annoyed by the modern idea that everyone’s a photographer with our high res. iPhone cameras?

That’s a great question. I actually think the rise of cellphone cameras, affordable DSLRs and photo sharing platforms have helped my business. People are more aware of the difference between low and high quality imagery. A business, bride, family or wedding planner puts forth a lot of effort and doesn’t want to gamble on documentation from a non-professional. Hobbyist photographers don’t think they are professional photographers. In fact, they are respectful and appreciate consistent imagery and professional equipment.

Your business is unique in Baltimore because you offer both event photography and the photo booth, and you have options for people to make hiring you more affordable (like opting for downloadable images rather than printouts). Client companies have used your social media upload options to significantly increase business. Being able to work with people with a wider range of budgets and help out small businesses must feel incredible. Were those goals you worked towards, or did this all happen organically?

It does feel incredible! I really love what I do and photography matters, both in capturing moments and helping businesses grow. An “Escape The 80’s” Room Escape was the first permanent photo booth I installed. I painted the interior of the room hot pink with an 80’s pattern and set up a wall with customized 80’s props like Cyndi Lauper’s face on a stick and oversized cell phones I crafted from rectangular Uline boxes.

When players entered the room, they saw themselves projected on a huge monitor and had their photo taken with a slew of props. By the time they left the building, they were on a high from the experience of the game and tagging themselves in photos on Facebook, and the word spread. There is a varying need for what businesses or individuals are trying to achieve and I’m able to scale packages to meet their needs.

What do you wish you had known before starting your own business? Can you share any funny tales of mishaps early on?

Ooh, boy. I have learned so much. I actually started a “mistakes ledger” so as not to repeat. I wouldn’t go back in time to warn myself about anything I didn’t have down pat in the beginning, because mistakes are how I learn. I think that’s the goal with anyone’s life or business, to keep pushing and want to improve.

Funny tales of mishaps probably all revolve around my over-ambition just starting out.  I remember once telling a bride and groom that I thought we should make a music video of their elopement in addition to the photography. I remember they were just looking at me perplexed and asked, “How long have you been doing this?”

Author Rachel Bone is an artist and small business owner living in Baltimore since 2004.

All photos courtesy of Anastasia Tantaros

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