Melly Lee: Abraham Lim with a Molotov Cocktail

The Image

Melly Lee

Sand Dunes, Very Close to the Mexican Border, USA

Time / Date:
18:00 / December 27, 2013

The Technical

Camera Body: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 85mm/1.4 G
Lighting: Fire

Camera Settings:
Shutter Speed: 1/50
Aperture: f/1.4
ISO: 320
Focal Length: 85mm

The Story


I recently been obsessed with creating visual effects in camera. It started with smoke bombs, then with a bit of research I figured out how to make a molotov cocktail (without anything or anyone getting injured.) I been wanting to shoot a portrait of a subject holding the cocktail since Spring 2013, however I held off until all the elements were together. The main huddle to climb over was finding a location to shoot at. Within the (let’s call it) civilization area of California if you’re caught with any pyrotechnics without a specialistic or permit it’s an automatic arson felony. Also most of the useable locations within Los Angeles either was very expensive or screamed “Hi! I’m clearly a Los Angeles location!” For this photo I wanted to shoot against a clean , empty horizon that wouldn’t be recognizable and wouldn’t draw attention to itself. The next thing I waited to find was the right subject. I was looking to find a subject who would be just excited as I was to make an image with a flaming cocktail and would commit to the shot. It’s one thing to hold a bottle with flaming liquid and it’s another to hold it with intention and lack of fear.

I first met Abraham on a video set in 2011. We stayed in contact since then and have always shared ideas of things we’d like to create one day. When I started playing the idea of using fire in an image I knew it would take a certain bold, confident personality to pull off walking with a fiery, bottle in hand. Based on our prior conversations Abraham came to mind when I tried to imagine who would have enough moxie and creative investment to go out into the middle of nowhere and play with fire. I gave him a call to see if he’d like to collaborate on the idea and he very enthusiastic about it.

The Scene: 

You are seeing actor Abraham Lim, (The Crazy Ones 2013, The Glee Project: Season Two) aggressively walking towards the camera with a molotov cocktail in the middle of nowhere.


Gear was pretty simple for this. Since the sand dunes were a trek away from where we left our cars I packed a small bag with my D800 and a few prime lens options (35mm, 50mm, 85mm.)

Making the Shot:

I waited a few minutes after sunset for light. I wanted the background to be lit with the remaining ambience and for Abraham’s face to be lit primarily from the cocktail. It also had to be relatively dim for the fire to shot up vibrantly red in camera. For this particular shot I wanted the compression from a longer lens and a larger aperture to open up for light. The 85mm f/1.4 worked out beautifully.

Editing & Processing:

Post processing was relatively simple since the visual effect was done in camera. I downloaded the frames and then made selects in Adobe Bridge. Then I imported my selects for the shoot into Adobe Lightroom and made my first found of edits in camera raw. When I was satisfied with my tone and colors in the raw I opened up the file in Photoshop and make more specific edits (skin, toning, color, etc.) In general I try to edit my photos to look like film — but with a crispy feel to it.

Looking Back: 

Overall I’m pretty satisfied with this images since I finally got to shoot with my flaming molotov cocktail prop. I love utilizing different elements to further push and drive a loose narrative within portraits. Looking back the only thing that I would change would be to have a larger crew with me. For this shot it was just the talent and I trekking around miles of sand dunes to shoot.  If I had a crew with me I could have probably brought some lighting gear to help me shoot later into the night. This in turn would have allowed me more time to direct and experiment more.


Pre-visualization! Knowing what shot you want helps you efficiently execute on set. When I’m not sure what I’m looking to photograph I’m like a disco ball beaming light everywhere into a room, however when I know exactly what I want to capture I’m like a laser point –very precise and I’m not going to waste limited resources such as ambient light, time, and (in this case) flammable liquids.


The small, fine details in life and a lot of old, dead white men are my inspiration. In particular I’m in love with Richard Avedon’s approach to photography.

“I often feel that people come to me to be photographed as they would go to a doctor or a fortune teller — to find out how they are. So they’re dependent on me. I have to engage them. Otherwise there’s nothing to photograph. The concentration has to come from me and involve them. Sometimes the forces of it grows so strong that sounds in the studio go unheard. Time stops. We share a brief, intense intimacy. But it’s unearned. It has no past …no future. And when the sitting is over -when the picture is done -theres nothing left except the photograph.”

– Richard Avedon

I love the idea of working and collaborating with other creatives to create something that we, as individuals, couldn’t make otherwise.


About the Photographer

Melly Lee is a entertainment photographer who specializes in a unique, quirky style of portraiture. She’s a hyper kid at heart who cannot sit still and enjoys tongue-in-cheek humor. Melly’s archive includes recognizable faces such as Brian McKnight, Harry Shum Jr., SMOSH, Michelle Phan, David Choi, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Olivia Lopez, LeVar Burton, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Tim Ferriss.

Facebook: /mellyleephotography
YouTube: MellyTakesPhotos
Twitter: @mellylee_
Instagram: @mellylee_

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