Melissa Kelsey has only been shooting architecture and interiors for a few years, but her eye for design and experience as a photographer have already led to a successful career for clients across Utah. Her wedding photography has been featured in Utah Bride & Groom, and her design photos have appeared in our magazine, including a feature in our current issue. We spoke with Melissa about her detailed, atmospheric photos, collaborating with designers and some memorable shoots.
Utah Style & Design: How did you get started as an interior and architecture photographer? Have you ever worked on other kinds of photography?
I have been a professional photographer for about 15 years. I got my degree in photography from the University of Utah. And then after that, I wasn’t quite sure how to make a career of it, because it was a very art-based program at the time. I thought I’d be a famous gallery artist. [Laughs]
Before my current job, I was a kitchen and interior designer for about eight years. Then, I became a wedding photographer, but just a few years ago, I decided I needed something different. I shot a home for Jamie Bellessa, a designer I met at a wedding, who owns the design firm 89 Oak with David Clyde. I told her, “I want to add interior design to my portfolio. If you ever have anything, I’d love to try it out with you.” 89 Oak led me to an amazing modern pool house in Park City, which was featured on Dwell’s website. I fell in love with design photography immediately, and that’s how it all started.
USD: You have a background in design. How does that affect your approach to photography?
Photography has been my only gig for 15 years, but I do feel really comfortable in these spaces. While interior and architecture photography is newer to me than weddings, I was already familiar in these spaces and working with designers. I feel like that gave me an advantage in getting ahead quickly.
USD: Do you have a favorite or most memorable project?
Gosh, a few come to mind. One particular project was in Deer Crest at Deer Valley, by Purehaven Homes and Alder and Tweed. I walked into the home and my jaw dropped. There was amazing wallpaper, a huge space, and a beautiful setting overlooking Jordanelle Reservoir. It was so special because two hawks were floating on the breeze outside by the window all day. I had the house to myself all day shooting and didn’t want to leave! The feeling of the space and where it was situated was really memorable.
USD: You have a variety of different projects, including architecture and interiors for both commercial spaces and residential spaces. Do you approach these projects differently?
Yes and no.
For any project, I have to consider the time of day and what the best light will be for the situation, but for exterior architecture, I am much more careful when I shoot it. It can be the difference between a “wow” photo and a nice photo.
Inside a home, I am on site all day and tend to chase light around the house as much as possible, planning where the lighting will be most beautiful. My composition is more intimate and close for interior shots than exterior shots.
USD: Take me through what steps you take on a typical shoot. How do you prepare beforehand? Is there a normal routine you follow on the day of?
It can depend on the client and the project. Typically, before I get there, I start to plan the light. I use apps, like Sun Seeker, Helios or Google Earth, that help me see where the light is going to fall in a home—what direction it’s coming from and where light enters the space. In a lot of homes in Utah, especially in Park City, all of the windows will face a certain direction—there will be a huge window wall in the living room, for example.
If I’m shooting with an interior designer, we’ll walk around the space and they’ll show me around. I start to look at the light and get familiar with the spaces. Then, we talk about what we want to shoot first and set an order to be most efficient and take advantage of the light. I’ll set up my tripod and camera, and then give the designer an iPad. My camera will wirelessly transmit images to my iPad, which lets designers check the composition and see what styling items to add or accessories to adjust before I take a photo.
Together, we move through the space for the rest of the day. We tend to take a little longer on the first shots, and then, as the light starts to go down, we get a little faster to complete our shot list.
USD: Do you have any pointers for designers on how to prep their rooms for a shoot?
This is important! I recommend that designers go into the home in advance. (It can be tricky to schedule if a client is already living there.) Because a lot of designers bring in extra decor items to style and fill up the space. If the homeowner is living there, it’s not always magazine perfect, which is totally normal, but designers can bring in good additions to the space. I encourage designers to bring in every accessory the day before the shoot and set it in a photographically beautiful way.
On the day of the shoot, we want to spend more time photographing than decorating so that we have time to get all the shots. Then, designers can adjust accessories and make final tweaks rather styling the whole space while I’m trying to photograph. That is my biggest tip!
It is a total collaboration between me and a designer. We have a lot of fun working together! Designers will look to me and ask, “Will this actually look good in the photograph?” Sometimes, what you see in person will look different on camera because of a shot’s angle, so we work together on that. I listen to their input, and offer reassurance or suggestions on how the room looks.
USD: What are your favorite spaces to shoot?
For me, it’s not necessarily a certain room. It’s any place where there’s a smaller, quieter moment—a vignette where the light is beautiful. Recently, I shot at home at Victory Ranch, and in the bathroom, the light wrapped beautifully around a bathtub. I didn’t show the whole bathroom— I just took a section, with the tub and a piece of artwork. These shots give a feeling, mood and ambience. That’s what I love, whatever room it’s in.
USD: What is your favorite part of your job?
I love connecting with other creative people! We get on the same wavelength creatively and feel excited and passionate about the same aesthetic.
Read more interviews with Utah architectural and interior photographers here.