Melena shonell, owner of M. shonell photography

This is my first time featuring someone who shares the same profession as I do, so we're going to get a little more specific than what we have in the past.

Photographers this post is for you so read on!!!


First, tell us a little about who you are and your company M. Shonell Photography?


Hi, I'm Melena and I am a natural light, lifestyle photographer specializing in portraits, families and events. My style consists of rich tones and vibrant color and I always aim to capture the authentic moments that are unique to each client/session. I am also a full time Neonatal ICU nurse. Nursing caters to my nurturing side and photography caters to my creative side.


okay, so let's go a little deeper into your journey. Talk about the beginning stages of your venture into photography from when you first picked up a camera, to deciding to turn it into a business, to the t-shirt line, to where you are today.

I've always had a love of taking pictures and being in front of the camera. My family noticed this and gifted me with my first camera at the age of 12. It was a Kodak 110 pocket camera. I was too excited!  Not sure what happened to that thing, but it was the start of a love affair with photography. I had a few other cameras throughout my years. Eventually, I worked my way up to a DSLR after graduating nursing school in 2007, sought out the help of some mentors, spent a lot of frustrating days trying to learn how to shoot in manual mode (s/o to Insana Collins for being the first person to explain it to me in a way that made sense) and eventually mustered the confidence to birth a business. That last part took several years. For some time, I felt the pressure of family and friends to jump out there and "start making money" but I knew I wasn't ready. I knew there was so much I needed to learn and if my name was attached to it I needed it to be good. I just didn't want to rush it. Mentorship and tons of practice were the two things that helped propel me from hobbyist to photograpHER. 

The T-shirts! I'm so proud of that design. It started as a fun addition to my branding but I knew I wanted a design that would cater to other brands/individuals. I brainstormed and came up with adjectives that not only rang true to my brand, but were also catchy and had universal appeal: Light chaser, memory maker, smile curator, photograpHER. It's who I am, what I do and what I love. My designer, Caryberry graphic Design, drafted the mockup and I had the first shirt printed. The first time I wore the tee and posted to the gram, the response was incredible. Soon after, I set up my Big Cartel shop and that's how the Essence of a photographer tee was born. I'm looking forward to adding more designs in the near future.


speaking of other creatives and mentors... As photographers or creatives in general, it's easy to get wrapped up in the comparison game. How do you manage that?

Comparison in business isn't so much of an issue for me now. It was an issue in the beginning of my photography career when I was still trying to figure out my style and what I wanted my work to look like.  I think comparison becomes less of an issue when you have a vision for your work/business and when you find your niche. I've observed that when I stay true to my gift, it always makes room for me. Of course, at times, I get insecure about my work -  wondering if I'm improving and growing as fast as I should, but I don't do too much comparing to the next photographer. I don't worry about how many clients the next person has because I am keenly aware of what I can handle with my full time job and an unusual work schedule. Now I have quite a few photographers who I absolutely love and who inspire me. But I don't compare, we glean from each other and that admiration and mutual respect nullifies comparison. Now tackling comparison in other areas of my life - that's a different story for a different day. #workinprogress


"comparison becomes less of an issue when you have a vision for your work/business and when you find your niche." I absolutely love that melena. that hit me like a ton of bricks. let's move to the practical business stuff. what apps and tools run your business? 


Instagram (my informal portfolio), Squarespace for my website, Honeybook (life changer!) to manage contracts, invoices, etc., Canva for IG story templates and I hear that I need to get with Planoly. 


More important than the apps and tools, because those are here today and gone tomorrow, what habits have helped you in your business?

Integrity, professionalism and consistency. As I mentioned before, if my name is attached to it, I need it to be right! As a result, I always operate with integrity when conducting business and communicating with clients. Honest practices and operating from a place of excellence is so important to me. I maintain professionalism by investing in cohesive brand identity and utilizing tools such as Honeybook. 

Professionalism with communication is also a big deal for me. As a result, I try not to conduct business via DM's. FB inbox or text. One, it isn't professional. Two, I cannot guarantee timely responsiveness for social medial inboxes for the simple fact that my notifications are turned off - on purpose.  This isn't always received favorably but hey, I can't please everyone.


How do you balance your photography business with your full time job and personal life? 

I've never been one to ascribe to the notion of hustle until you drop. That's not healthy. I believe strongly in rest and self care. I took an entire month off from shooting at the end of last year. I found myself in a cycle of work, shoot, edit, sleep and I was exhausted! I wanted to enjoy the holidays with my family and celebrate my birthday stress free. It was the best decision I could have made. I traveled to Spain, recharged and came back better than ever. 


Business has increased quite a bit over the past few months and while I am incredibly grateful, I am once again trying to find that work, rest, play balance. My full time job offers me some flexibility because I only work 3 days. But don't let those 3 days fool you, it can be intense and trying to find rest in between work days, when you have tons of editing and other things to do, is challenging.  I try to do as much as I can, but when I'm running out of hours in the day, I pick and choose what demands the greatest attention and tackle that. Some days sleep is sacrificed. As we do this interview, I am running off of 3.5 hours of sleep after working 12 hours overnight, and having a 3 pm call time for a shoot. Other days, I choose myself for a few hours.  I might take a walk downtown and people watch, get a mani/pedi or massage or take myself to a movie. The largest deficit right now is setting aside time to spend with friends and family. Trying to coordinate schedules is rough, but we always find a way.


i share your struggle. in more ways than one. i like your point about picking what demands the most attention and tackling that. That's a nice goal. Speaking of goals, Name two - one business and one personal - that you hope to accomplish by year's end.

Business goal: to execute a creative project. I've had the idea in my head for a while. I just need to set aside some time to plan and get it done. Personal goal: To purchase a home.


Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

In 5 years, I see myself happy, blessed and flourishing, settled into my new home with my family. I see myself having expanded the business to include a small team of ancillary staff - definitely an intern and an assistant/social media manager. I envision more print publications, more high profile collaborations, more personal creative projects and even some mentoring.


you have a nice set of goals ahead of you. i love that. If you were to give a novice photographer or creative advice, what would you say? 

Stay hungry. Network, ask questions and shoot your shot. Remember, if you never ask, the answer will always be no. Surround yourself with genuine people who can help you grow and evolve. And as you grow, share the wealth of the knowledge you receive. I've been so blessed to have individuals pour into me and guide me concerning my business so I will always be open to share what I know.


Fav quote

"Never touch anything with half of your heart." - From "How to be a better (Happier & Healthier) human being."

we're almost done! Name one lesson you learned the hard way.

One lesson I learned the hard way is that I can't expect people to treat me the way I treat them or extend the same courtesies to me as I would to them. It's a set up for disappointment. 


how true. on the opposite side of that coin, What's your proudest achievement in business so far?

My proudest achievement is being published. I've been blessed with the opportunity to be featured in 3 print publications - Color Story Magazine, Femme Fatale Photobook and Washingtonian Magazine.



Okay, now finally, for the photography lightning round!

  • Canon or Nikon - Nikon
  • Indoor or Outdoor Photography - Outdoor
  • Adults, Children or Events - Tough one because I love them all, but I'm going to go with children. They're so carefree, uninhibited and genuine.
  • Favorite lens - Nifty 50mm 1.4
  • Favorite shooting location - City Center, DC
  • Instagram or your website - Instagram
  • Two photographers who inspire you - I have so many but if I must pick two, Danielle Finney of D. Finney Photography and Ashleigh Bing of Ashleigh Bing Photography.

stay connected with this featured femme and see more of her work on @mshonellphoto and at

photography: jendayi asha creative