Behind the Lens with Hollywood photographer Melly Lee

The prominent member of the L.A. Asian entertainment community also shares her tips for aspiring portrait photographers.

Since 2018, much of the focus on Asians in entertainment has been on those we see on screen. But we can’t forget about those who work tirelessly behind the camera to capture our stories in visual form.

Cold Tea Collective recently featured Melly Lee in our list of 19 Asian Millennial Women You Should Know for her passion for photography, in particular with many of Asian Hollywood’s elite, including Daniel Dae Kim, Jon M. Chu, the cast of Crazy Rich Asians, and some of the world’s largest brands, such as Google, Warner Bros, and Harper Collins.

However, before the household names, Lee vividly recalls the first time she picked up a camera — her dad’s, during a family trip to British Columbia: “I snatched his camera and snapped a few frames. Curious of the photographic process, I opened up the back of the camera and exposed the entire roll of film. My dad was indignant when he discovered what I did, but I just wanted to know how what I saw through the viewfinder later turned into a photo.”

Photo: Courtesy of Melly Lee

It was at the University of California, Irvine, where she started to lean more into photography, having attended the same school as many of her fellow creatives in Asian Hollywood.

“[During university], opportunities for collaboration and initiating projects were abundant,” Lee said. “I simply jumped onto projects that interested me and networked with people who inspire me to be better. Granted, this is easier said than done. Much of the leg work that needs to be done includes constantly working to better your portfolio and then putting yourself into situations where you can connect with the right people.”

Lee and many of her closest friends have supported each other through their creative careers and she notes that the Asian creative community in Los Angeles is particularly supportive of one another.

“Yes, I am an Asian American and a majority of my friends and colleagues are also Asian, however at the end of the day we’re just people doing what we do best,” she said.

Photo: Courtesy Melly Lee

That community has strengthened because “the world is colorful and diverse in age, shape and stories. If a subconscious byproduct of my photography is helping to shift the cultural paradigm of media then I’m happy to be a steward of the movement.”

Lee has become the go-to photographer in the Los Angeles Asian creative community, which she describes as “an honor because often times these are people who I genuinely look up to, and they’re trusting me with the task of photographing them in their best light.”

That being said, it’s not just fun and games behind the camera. Lee notes the need to constantly be on the look-out for the next gig while wearing multiple hats. Despite challenges, “the best part is that all these hats you’ll wear shape the way you see the world and as a result you’ll have a very unique perspective.”

Photo: Melly Lee

Lee’s career is just starting to blossom and with her success, she shares her top three tips for aspiring portrait photographers:

  1. “Understand how the following function together as a whole and then learn how to manipulate them for different outcomes: light, composition, narrative motivation, color theory, aperture, shutter speed, ISO. Once you have a firm grasp on those, it won’t matter what camera you are using.
  2. “Practise communicating openly, assertively, and empathetically. Communication is key with portrait photography since it’s the photographer’s responsibility to simultaneously direct the photoshoot, make the subject feel at ease, and satisfy the client.”
  3. “Citing historian Yuval Noah Harari, it’s imperative to strengthen and work with emotional intelligence and mental stability, because as a society we have no idea what the future is going to look like — except that it will look very different from today. The greatest challenge we’ll all have to face (especially in the job market) is psychological. Therefore the one thing that we’ll need for sure is the ability to reinvent ourselves repeatedly.”

For Lee, being a photographer isn’t about shooting for the stars, it’s about “being able to vicariously live many lives through interacting with people from different walks of life, which in turn gifts a deeper appreciation for the human condition. I see photography as a celebration of life, and what could be better than that?”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Melly’s photography adventures at the following links:

Photo: Melly Lee

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