Insights and ideas from Me Ra Koh
Empowering lives through photography
Me Ra Koh likes to say that she didn’t find photography; photography found her and healed her. Her passion for empowering women always shines through, whether she’s photographing a family or appearing as the photography expert for The Nate Berkus Show on NBC. In her book Your Baby in Pictures she teaches moms how to follow photo-recipes for preserving their baby’s first year. Through her SOAR! Scholarship program she strives to give women confidence and show them that they’re not alone. Photoshop.com was lucky to get some time with her to learn about how she gives back in a profession that has healed and inspired her.
Photoshop.com: What piece of equipment can’t you live without and why?
Me Ra Koh: The first things that jump to mind are the cameras I shoot with. I love the Sony a900 DSLR. I love its beautiful color, image stabilization and sheer speed for being 24.6 megapixels. The other camera I love is the Sony a55 DSLR, its award winning Translucent Mirror technology makes it an incredibly FAST camera and an amazing teaching tool for our CONFIDENCE workshops.
Photoshop.com: What role does Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® software play in your photography?
Me Ra Koh: It plays so many roles. First, I use it to organize the hundreds of thousands of photos we have. I’m working on a second book and I have so many images to go through. My husband, Brian, created a master catalog in Lightroom and so I can take the catalog, with every photo I’ve taken in the last 10 years, and review it on my laptop when I’m traveling. As far as post processing, Lightroom has sped up our workflow 100%. We do everything in Lightroom because it is so fast and easy. One of my favorite features is the ability to bump up the blacks alone without affecting the rest of the image.
Photoshop.com How did you create the result in the photo of the baby with the chubby legs?
Me Ra Koh: I do very little post process work to my images. In fact, our workshop participants are always amazed at how little I do, keeping things simple and clean. The photo of the baby with the chubby legs is from my new book, Your Baby in Pictures. It captures the stage that every baby goes through when they have those chunky, adorable legs. Mom was standing behind the baby wearing a black dress so I chose black-and-white to further accentuate the baby’s legs. I don’t shoot in black-and-white mode in camera; instead, I convert the images using Lightroom. I also de-saturated the image and then upped the blacks in Lightroom so Mom’s dress became a solid black background. Then I added a subtle vignette.
Photoshop.com: Describe a favorite photo you’ve shot and what grabs you about it.
Me Ra Koh: One of my recent favorites is of a four-year-old boy who brought his teddy bear with him to the shoot. His name was Bear. I decided to ask Bear for ideas of what we should photograph. Bear would whisper the ideas to me, and then I would tell the little boy. I treasure the magical connection I had with this little boy and Bear. The photos become that much more special to me.
Photoshop.com: How do you know that a photo is really good?
Me Ra Koh: I know a photo is great if I emotionally respond to it. The confirmation is when my client does as well. I’ve found that what makes a photo great in my clients’ eyes is content, not composition. Clients pay attention to the content in a photo, and this is what makes one photo stand out from another. When you are shooting, be sure to look at the emotion of an image, not just composition, lighting, or award-winning style. We’re not selling photos to judges; we’re creating memories for real people.
Photoshop.com: What inspires you as a photographer?
Me Ra Koh: Moms. They email me their photo-recipe results from my book or blog, and I’m inspired by their courage. Their work is raw and bold. They are not caught up in what they can or can’t do. They don’t know the rules, so they break them with freedom and delight. And their results are beautiful. Their work is always refreshing and inspires me to bring a new perspective to my own work. I also love reading and writing daily. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is my bible for creativity. And I take lots of walks with my dog, unplugged, breathing in the air, quieting myself and listening to all that surrounds me. As photographers, we are artists who are working to inspire others. But we must first start by inspiring ourselves so that our tank is full and able to give. Daily practices of finding inspiration, whether it’s Bikram yoga or writing my Morning Pages, fills my tank with inspiration for what I shoot and those I encounter along the way.
Photoshop.com: How do you compare shooting with film to shooting digital?
Me Ra Koh: I’m so glad I started shooting with film. Digital photography is wonderful, and I love it, but there are also struggles that come with it. For one, you can shoot ENDLESS photos. I meet moms every day who will shoot thousands of photos but have no idea what they took a picture of. Film was a forced discipline because I only had 36 frames per roll. I had to set myself up for success and try my best to make all 36 frames count. I still keep that in mind when I shoot digital. What do I love about digital? I love the convenience and instant feedback. I love how it has made photography so much more accessible to moms who want to capture their babies. But I encourage moms to pretend they only have 36 frames, what are they going to spend it on? How will they set their shot up for success?
Photoshop.com: Why did you make the transition from wedding photography to inspiring moms through photography?
Me Ra Koh: We enjoyed great success with high-end wedding photography, and we loved the adventure of it all. But my heart has always been to empower women, to help them see they are not alone, whether they are recovering from past trauma or wanting to understand their camera to capture their children. My husband and I decided to take our business in a new direction focused on inspiring moms. We created an award winning DVD series, Refuse to Say Cheese and Beyond the Green Box, and have hosted countless CONFIDENCE workshops for women. I’ve also been given the honor of being the photography expert for NBC’s The Nate Berkus Show, which helps me reach so many more people with simple photo tips that empower millions of viewers to take great photos.
Photoshop.com: Do you have a favorite “walk around” lens? If so what is it?
Me Ra Koh: I regularly shoot with the Sony a900 body and the Carl Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Telephoto Lens. So much of my work centers around using a shallow depth of field and using the fixed lens allows me go lower with my f-stop so I can get that “buttery-blurry background” that I love.
I also love the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar f2.8 24-70mm Zoom Lens. It too can deliver beautiful background blur and is versatile for portraits, letting me capture both wide and tight shots.
Photoshop.com: What was the most memorable (good or bad) photo shoot you have done?
Me Ra Koh: I once did a baby shoot for a family that was referred to me. I hadn’t met them so when I showed up at the house I spent some time asking about their story, getting to know them as a family. It’s important for me to get to know the story of a couple and their family rather than just coming in with a shot list.
They had tried for years to get pregnant and had almost given up when their baby was conceived. I asked the mom what she most liked to do with her baby and she said their favorite thing to do was to take baths together. I immediately told her that's where we should start the shoot! I know they thought it was a bit crazy, but they went with the idea. She got in the bath and I stood out in the hallway and zoomed in. They had a skylight above that illuminated the bath beautifully. Then she started singing to her baby, and her baby looked up and started cooing back at her. The couple’s first baby, their black lab, heard her singing and came in from the other room and rested its head on the rim of the bathtub. It was such an amazing moment. This was their life and their story. This is what makes photography a complete honor.
Photoshop.com: Tell us what makes your photo-recipes so popular?
Me Ra Koh: The photo-recipes take the guesswork out of how a photo happens. When my husband and I were learning photography, he never wanted to be told the answer of how a shot came together. I wanted to know every detail to how it was done, so I could use that as a starting point. It’s just like starting with a cooking recipe and then personalizing it based on your tastes. I think a lot of women want to know the details like I did (camera settings, how I set up the shot, how I prepped for the shot, etc.). My photo-recipes give readers a sense of empowerment because they know the gist of what happened—the science, thinking, and creativity behind it. They can then use that as a platform to create their own images.
Photoshop.com: What’s the best advice you ever received?
Me Ra Koh: The best advice I ever received was to choose a focus. Photographers, especially in the wedding and portrait industry, are often asked what they specialize in and many will say, “Weddings, portraits, families, and seniors.” Jeff Jochum, who has been our advisor for years, told me that I had to choose a target audience. But it’s not easy because you think you might lose business by specializing. Taking the risk to choose a single focus, moms with a camera, was the best thing I ever did.
Photoshop.com: How do you see your career/business evolving over the next five years?
Me Ra Koh: We are building towards the goal of me having a TV show where I’m teaching and empowering moms to capture their kids. I’m learning SO MUCH from working with Nate Berkus and his amazing team at NBC. As wedding photographers, my husband and I knew what to do, but the entertainment industry is a whole new world that we are coming to understand more and more. As the next few years unfold, I want moms to know they have a champion who is here to inspire, empower, and support them—whether they want to create a side business or simply capture their kids.
Photoshop.com: Why did you start the SOAR! Scholarship program?
Me Ra Koh: The heart of the scholarship was born from a period of time when I was getting a ton of e-mails from moms whose husbands were laid off during the climax of the recession. They wanted to start a photography side business; even if they only made an extra $200 a month it would be enough for groceries. Many of these women felt alone and afraid.
I wanted to find a way to bring them together. If they knew there were many more women—just like them—they could become a powerful support and community for each other. To begin building this community, I required them to submit a two minute video with their scholarship application because I wanted them all to see each other’s faces, hear each other’s stories, and realize they had sisters all over the country. There would be three SOAR! Recipients, but they would blog daily about their journey, share their business coaching and photography exercise, so all the women who didn’t win could follow along and share in the journey on the SOARORITY forum. The three recipients would in essence become leaders for the community as a whole. But the community that has evolved out of the SOAR! Scholarship is more amazing than I could have ever imagined! I also have to thank Adobe for supporting the SOAR! Scholarship by being one of our key SOAR! Partners. (On behalf of me and ALL the SOAR! Sisters, thank you so much Adobe!!)
Photoshop.com: What is the ONE lasting impression you want to leave in your photos?
Me Ra Koh: I want my clients to have a better sense of where they come from, as a result of my photos. One family I’ve worked with for many years has given me the honor of shooting their wedding, baby photos, and now their four-year-old daughter. If she ever asks, “Where did I come from?” I know they have a whole series of images to show her—images that are evidence of the love in her family, their commitment to each other, and how it all began before she was born. If my photos can tell a story of love and heritage that ultimately helps kids know themselves better, wow, what an amazing role I’ve been given that gives to me as much as it gives to my clients.