Photo Tips

Part 2: What Types of Lenses Do You Need?

Me Ra Koh

We’re back for Day Two on Lenses. Are you all still with me? Thank you so much for all the comments in yesterday’s post. If you haven’t had a chance to read people’s comments from yesterday, I strongly urge you too. A number of people chimed in about their experience with lenses and what types of lenses have made all the difference for them. My vision for this blog is that we would all learn from each other, and I can’t thank you enough for continuing the dialog in the comments!

Someone posted a question in the comments yesterday and asked if we had ever shot with the Canon equipment, and if so, how did the L series lenses compare with the Carl Zeiss lenses. To answer their question, we shot with Canon for years and owned almost every L series lens available. When Sony approached us and said they were coming out with a line of camera bodies and lenses for pros to use, we were really interested. In the pro world you only hear people talk about Canon and Nikon. Sony didn’t put any pressure on us. They sent us the equipment to test out and asked for honest feedback. I wasn’t sure what to expect b/c I loved my L lenses. And I’m a super passionate person by nature, so I really have to LOVE something to get behind it. But oh my gosh, can I just say my jaw dropped open the first time I shot with the DSLR-A900 and Carl Zeiss lenses. We were shooting a wedding in Colorado, and I started freaking out! “Brian, come here, come here now! You have to see this! Look at this color. Look how sharp this is. Look how fast this is for 24.6 megapixels!” He was like “I know! I’ve been trying to tell you!” So yeah, to answer your question the Carl Zeiss glass is freaking amazing. I can honestly say that when we switched to Sony I haven’t looked back once. My Lulu, yes I named her b/c I’m so in love with her, is magic! And the icing on the cake is that Sony wants to continue to design cameras that make sense for women and the way women think. Yeah, I’m pretty much in love with Sony right now.

Yesterday’s blog took almost six hours to piece together with shooting images of the gear and finding shots that I took with specific lenses. At one point, I was starting to fall asleep, and Brian looked at me and said “Just finish it tomorrow. It’ll be fine.” Thus, here we are wrapping the lenses up.

There are two more lenses we brought with us to Thailand. We also bring these lenses to wedding and portrait shoots. Can you guess why?

Hint: They both have my favorite lens characteristic. Can you guess what the characteristic is?

Answer: If you guessed, Low Fstops/Aperture for buttery, blurred backgrounds, you were RIGHT!

If your shooting with a higher end DSLR that has a full frame sensor, you must, without question, rent or buy the Carl Zeiss Planar T 85mm/f1.4. Yes, 1.4! Can you believe how low she goes!

This is the lens that caught the shot of Blaze when I posted about how invisible he feels in America.

The sharpness is from the lens, not Photoshop. I also didn’t make the background lush and blurry in Photoshop. The wide open aperture of 1.4 creates that effect. The vibrant color is straight out of the Sony DSLR-A900.

This 85mm is a fixed lens which means that you can’t turn it to zoom in or out. If you want to get closer to your subject, you’ve got to move your legs and feet forward. But because it’s a fixed lens, the aperture is able to go down so much more. The 85mm is the perfect lens for low lighting, buttery backgrounds, and sharp, crisp candid shots. But think it through. Make an educated purchase.

If your camera isn’t a full frame sensor, this 85mm won’t let you get close to your subject. You may have to stand 6 ft back before you can get the lens to focus. So if you don’t have a full frame sensor camera yet, stick with the 24-70mm that we talked about yesterday. I remember going to a workshop when we were starting our business. Everyone raved about the 85mm lens. I figured this was the thing to buy, but I didn’t think about how limited this lens would be with my camera body at the time. My first camera wasn’t a full frame sensor. When using the 85mm, I had to be 6 feet away from my subject. I felt restriction instead of creative. Needless to say, I put the lens away and was more than happy with my 24-70mm, 2.8 Workhorse lens. It wasn’t until I upgraded to a full frame sensor camera that I understood why people felt inspired when shooting with an 85mm, 1.4 lens. I hope that makes sense. It’s information I wish I would have known when I was first starting.

The last lens is another fixed one. It’s the 35mm, f/1.4 G-Series Wide Angle Lens.

Unlike the 85mm, you can get in super close with this little guy.

My little brother had his first baby this year. After the baby was born, he called me and asked me what camera to buy and what lens to buy with it. I told him to get the Sony DSLR-A350. He is a newbie at photography, and as I said yesterday, that’s an incredible camera body to learn on. The color is fantastic. It’s light weight, sharp, fast. For the lens, I told him to bite the bullet, spend the $1300, and get the 1.4/35mm. He wasn’t sure b/c of the price, and it didn’t have a zoom! I’m happy to say that he trusted his sister :), and wow, you should see the shots he’s getting of the baby. They are awesome! The investment was a commitment, but he is capturing the mome
nts. And he’s loving photography!

With a low fstop, just like the 85 mm above, you can take some great shots in low light. This is one of my favorite Thailand images of Pascaline.

She’s at rest, while we wait for dad. The sun was setting so light was getting harder and harder to find. But with an fstop that goes down to 1.4, I can open up aperture and let a lot of light in. Opening up that fstop also makes everything in the background blurry. I hope I’m not being to repetitive, I just know it helps to hear the same thing a few times with new examples.

The 35mm, f/1.4 G-Series Wide Angle Lens is also great for taking close-up detail shots. Pascaline had a homeschool assignment where she had to take the Sony DSLR-A350 with the 35mm, open the aperture up to a 1.4, and capture an insect, crab or whatever else she chose. But she had to get in close and think about how she was blurring the background to tell the story of the critter.

She chose the mysterious sand crabs on the beach. They spend hours making tiny balls of sand.

In this shot, you can see the little white sand crab to the right. He’s almost smaller than the balls of sand he creates.

Their designs end up being these incredible star-bust patterns spread across the beach,

only to have it all washed away when the tide comes in. It has to be one of the great natural wonders of the world because every design is different. It’s like the crabs have their own fingerprint with each design.

Pascaline is eight years old, and she took the first two images. Not to bad for an eight year old. But a lot of it is the low fstop she had to work with. I basically set the aperture at 1.4, put it on Aperture Priority Mode (the A setting) so the camera would choose her shutter speed for her. And with the low fstop she was able to experience being creative with blur. For the two shots above, she was down on all fours getting super close to the crab’s designs. That’s what I love about this 35mm. You can get in super, super close and still get a sharp focus.

When we are shooting weddings, there are a couple more lenses that we have in our camera bag. I’ll save that info for another post. But if there is any bottom line to all of this info it would be this…everyone, even you, has the potential to be a great photographer. Everyone.

I can’t tell you how many times Brian and I have taught our photography workshops and had women break into tears b/c they realize that their lens and fstop range can really help them capture the images they see and want. All this time, they had been thinking the problem was with them. They weren’t good enough at photography or just didn’t have the eye. The creative artist within us does make a difference, but the right equipment helps too.

If you are thinking about buying a DSLR, my best advice would be to save up some money and buy the camera body WITHOUT the lens that comes with it (if you have the option, if not, don’t worry). BUT, then save up and buy your lens separately, and make sure it’s a lens that has a low fstop range. It will change your whole experience with photography. If you need proof, read yesterday’s comments. ๐Ÿ™‚

I hope this was helpful. I love to talk about all this in plain English. Life is difficult right now with all that is going on around us. Photography is a wonderful outlet, and for many of us it is a lifeline. If you have always been drawn to photography, don’t let your heart be discouraged b/c you can’t seem to capture the shots you see. Try renting some of the equipment we talked about yesterday and today, and give yourself another chance. It is well worth it.

And don’t forget to email me your results! I love to see and hear about how your growing! My email is

xoxo, Me Ra

*Seattle Workshop Details are coming together! We’re looking at Saturday and Sunday, June 6th and June 7th, with a possible special Meet and Greet at our home on Friday, June 5th. I’ll keep you updated!


Our Refuse to Say Cheese DVD series is continuing to grow, faster than we know what to do with! In the midst of unpacking luggage, I jumped on a radio interview this weekend and talked about our DVDS for 30-40 minutes! It was wonderful!! If you haven’t ordered your own copy yet, check out our popular Instructional DVDs Refuse to Say Cheese and (They are BACK IN STOCK!! Yeah!!), our 101 Kits for starting or expanding a in , click on the titles of your choice!


  1. Michelle says:

    Yeah…I have loved reading these last 2 posts. What you said here could not be more true..
    “I canโ€™t tell you how many times Brian and I have taught our photography workshops and had women break into tears b/c they realize that their lens and fstop range can really help them capture the images they see and want.” I bought my first DSLR about 5 years ago and for the first year, I was not too excited by it and did not understand why I could not get the kinds of shots I wanted. The 50mm 1.8 changed everything for me, it is with that lens that I was able to see the creative side of photography and what totally helped me put everything together and start to “get it”. I tell everyone to get that $100 lens.
    Your comments about the 85 could not have come at a better time. I bought that lens (for nikon) because everyone talked about how great it was. I could see the potential in it, but hate that I have to be so far away since I do not have a full frame camera. I think it is finally time to part with it..any full frame nikon readers want it?!
    Something that I have also started to understand more is that no matter how great a lens is, it depends on your style of shooting as to what is going to work for you.
    Now to update my “what I want next” list!

  2. Janessa says:

    I just wanted to thank you for these last two posts. My eyes have again opened to more information I didn’t think I could understand when it came to photography. I purchased a 1.8 50mm lens last month and the difference in my photos has been amazing! I’m now going to set my sights on bigger and better lenses. (If not a full frame camera body!)

    Thank you again, for the information and for inspiring me (along with so many others).

  3. J.P. says:

    It’s funny, as soon as I read this post I thought, “I have to post about my f/1.8 50mm lens!” Apparently, two other people thought the same thing.

    Just to add a little to the discussion, for anyone shooting on a crop-sensor camera (anyone who spent less than around $2000 on their body) a 50mm lens is the rough equivalent of an 80mm lens on a full-frame, and both Canon and Nikon make a very fast (1.8) lens that costs less than $100. It’s pretty much the best deal in photography equipment.

    My 50mm stays on my camera about 70% of the time I’m just shooting for myself; it’s lightweight, takes great low-light shots and gives that wonderful buttery background when wide open. As a final bonus, it doesn’t give my camera that ‘pro’ look that I’m self conscious of when shooting with a big white 70-200.

  4. Lauren says:

    I actually bought the 85mm f/1.8 because you posted about taking detail shots for weddings and how great that lens is for it. (It was a blog entry about what kind of shots to submit to wedding magazines.) I had no idea that it wouldn’t be so hot on my Rebel XTi, though! I love the lens, it’s GORGEOUS when I can back up about 10 feet! LOL

    I also bought the 50mm f/1.4 which is my favorite lens right now, it’s so beautiful. I can’t wait to drop the cash for the 1.2!

    I cried at your Chicago workshop because I was SO FRUSTRATED with the lens I had bought for my Rebel. We had the kit lens, of course, because it came free with the body on some sale, then we decided to get the Tamron 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 – it had GREAT reviews in lots of magazines. It’s nice for outdoors but at the workshop it barely functioned at all. I had my poor camera on ISO 1600 and hand-holding 1/6th of a second the entire time and it was still too dark. When Adam Pratt let me borrow his 50mm f/1.4, I wanted to cry and cry and cry about how beautiful it was.

    I can’t decide if I want the 35mm wide angle next or the 24-70mm. It would be my first L-series purchase. Or do I spend the money and go full frame first? Such decisions!

    I love your personal family blog entries, but I had been missing your photography lessons, too! It’s so refreshing to get back to seeing posts like Baby Hudson (CUTE!) and your lens advice entries. Yay Me Ra!

    Will there be a contest for May? I’m eager to do something fantastic with my new 50mm!

  5. jeramy says:

    ok….so, i have to be honest. since sharon got her new camera….i have been practicing a little with her old one. i actually brought it along on a shoot with her a couple weeks back and had a blast! her 85mm lense is my fav. i think her’s only goes to 1.8….i didn’t know they even made a 1.4 lense….woah!!!! i’m totally geeking out right now! i’m learning more about all the techno mumbo jumbo…but it is fun. there! i feel better. great tips and tricks. see you soon!

  6. CA says:

    I do not have a full-frame camera and have rented both the 80mm 1.8 and a 50mm 1.4. I currently have the 50mm (for another week or so) and completely agree with J.P. Since I rented it I have only taken it off of my camera once to use my zoom to snap a rather interesting shot of my husband riding the tractor with one of my son’s swords. Who knows why.

    It is really nice to hear why I didn’t like the 80mm, though. I knew I had to be farther away then I preferred, but I didn’t know it was due to my camera. Thank you for the insight! As always you are clear, educational and very kind to freely share your wisdom.


  7. Amanda Mays says:

    Okay you twisted my arm i’ll throw in my 2 cents ๐Ÿ˜‰ …

    When I bought my first DSLR I had researched enough to know that the kit lens was no good. Price wise it was basically free so I let it come anyway but purchased the 50mm 1.8 at the same time so from the time I got my camera I only had the 50mm on it. On an Xti the 50mm was not that great for indoors or just regular snapshots because I had to be sooo far away.

    My next lens was a wide angle “L” right away I could tell the color and sharpness difference on the L glass Vs. the non L.

    But my whole world changed when I snapped on the 85mm 1.2 L! From the first snap I had the yummiest blur ever, I was in love! I felt like a REAL photographer, I could now take pictures like I saw on all the blogs I was stalking. I was still frustrated but the cropping so I stepped up to the 5D for a full frame and saw an even greater improvement.

    I’m kind of babbling now but I would say in my opinion the better the glass the better the image. I do have to agree with Michelle that it’s also about you and your own creativity. But just like with any artist you need the proper tools to complete the whole picture, canvas alone does not a Monet make.

    If you shell out the cash for a $2000+ camera but only have the kit lens your ability to create the amazing images you’d expect out of a fancy camera is not going to be what you’d think. But once you get a lens where you are able to manipulate the aperture super low it allows you to be more creative and get better images all around. If you only have the money for one or the other go with at least one high-end low aperture lens and then step up your camera after that.

  8. Sarah says:

    Me Ra,
    I am loving reading your posts! Thanks so much for the insight. Right now I use the 18-105 (yuck) that came with my camera, and I did purchase the 50 1.4, which I LOVE. I now understand why I sometimes get a little frustrated with it however, I do not have a full frame camera. I’m a little sad because I just bought my D90 and I was debating between that and the D700 (Nikon) and I read a lot of articles that talked about how there is no need for a full frame camera unless you are making enlargements so huge that you could hang them from a building. Can you explain the whole full frame situation a little more? Also, I was wondering if you could elaborate a little on how you feel that Sony is making cameras that are really good for women. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom with us!
    Just echoing what you and others said about an 85mm and a crop sensor camera. Yep, I bought the 85mm for my Canon 20D because I heard that it was great for weddings so I went out and bought one but I’m really kicking myself for not buying a 50mm. I mean I rented a 50mm and was happy with the results but was a dork and bought a 85mm(and I’ve been doing mostly portraits). I’m gonna hold onto to it because Lord willing I will be upgrading soon to a 5D BUT…you almost have me convinced to hold out a little longer and save more for the Sony A900.

  10. Rhonda says:

    Wow if I weren’t so deep into Canon I would be tempted to switch to Sony. I never realized that a full frame camera would allow me to get closer with my lenses. That has always been a bit of a frustration for me, but I have learned to deal with it. Now I am even more determined to save for the upgrade on my camera body. And then the 85mm will go on my wish list. Thanks for being so willing to give of your time for our benefit. It is a HUGE blessing!!!!

  11. Emily M. says:

    just chiming in with another experience of lenses making a big difference (keeping in mind that i’m still a beginner)…when i first watched your DVDs a year ago i had the nikon D50 with the kit lens. i’d had it for a few years, but hadn’t gotten much past the auto setting. even after watching your DVDs it was hard to play around with my camera too much. so i got a 50mm/1.4 and then the 18-200. made a huge difference and i was able to experiment a lot more.

    i recently upgraded my camera body to the D90 and, though i adore it (so much easier than the D50), i saw a bigger difference in my photos after getting the new lenses then after getting the new body.

    anyway! now i’m wishing i could do a time warp trick of some sort and send these posts to my past self to read–before i’d bought any lenses. i think i’d have gone for a sony instead!

  12. Jo LeFlufy says:

    Oh Me Ra, I think I love you! I’ve been having some big moments of frustration with a couple of my lenses when I’ve been using them on my D60 instead of my D700 and I couldn’t figure out why. Now, thanks to your blog (which is one of my faves, by the way) and all of the comments, I finally understand why! I’m so grateful for photographers who are willing to share their wisdom and insight to help the newbies (like moi). Who knew sensor size could make such a huge difference in pictures! Thanks for, well, just being so awesometastic!

  13. Lauren says:

    Hey Mera and Brian!

    I love these posts! I love equipment talk.. haha. So retarded, but it makes me so giddy inside! BTW, we also got our album and we love it!!! So much has changed! I can’t believe we are parents now. BTW, What did you do with all your Canon equipment anyway? Since John and I are still Canon users… were you planning on selling any of your lenses or renting them out?

  14. erin says:


    I know you like the Sony 350, but how does the 300 measure up. I have the 300 and the lenses that came with it so I am somewhat limited. But does the body meet your definition of a high end DSLR? If not what is it about the 350 that is different?


  15. Rae says:

    Hi Me Ra,

    I just wanted to say thank you so much for all of the information you share on your site. I read your post almost daily and can not wait to come to one of your workshops.

    I have the Sony A900 and I love it too. I got this camera because the first camera I started with was the Monolta 7000i film camera. So the jump to the Sony A series was not only economical because all of the Minolta lenses fit the new Sonys but I really like the brand.

    I would love to see a post about how you meter with the Sony A900. I am still learning and would love to get some feed back on this camera from another woman. ๐Ÿ™‚ Again, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and love of photography with all of us! Oh…and thank you for helping to “hip” up the Sony name!

  16. Michelle says:

    I couldn’t decide on whether to get a 85 mm or a 50 mm so I ended up buying both and love them each for different reasons. I now love the capability of being able to take pictures in low light conditions. I purposely take pictures in darker environments because I can! =)

    I almost peed my pants to see the possible dates for the workshop are the weekend that I can make it!!!! I am overjoyed at the possibility of going!!!!!!

  17. Kellie says:

    “everyone, even you, has the potential to be a great photographer. Everyone.”

    thank you for that. so much. i’m feeling a little taken back when i look at all the ‘pro’ photos and then look at mine. i’ve only had my dslr for 6months, though, so i figure my photos will improve… starting with some new lenses. ๐Ÿ˜€

    wow, pascaline’s photos are amazing! there’s a future photographer right there!!

  18. jen flake says:

    All this lens “talk” has really helped me! I have been trying to decide on a lens…I want one that is affordable but will give me a lower appeture…and after reading these comments…I will defiantely be buying the 50mm…probably the 1.8f unless someone advises me otherwise!

  19. jen flake says:

    or maybe the 24-70mm…??? Do I spend more $$$ on a lens when I don’t get paid to take pictures???…still not sure what to do I guess….

  20. Pamela S. says:

    Question to Pascaline:

    Are the sand balls so that the crabs can hide?

  21. Sara K says:

    Perfect timing! I was just wondering what lens I should get next when I read your posts. Your photos from Thailand are so inspiring. Thank you for sharing your experiences, your photos and your knowledge.

  22. Becky says:

    I finally shelled out about a month ago and bought my first truly nice Sony brand lens besides the ones that came in the kit with the Sony Alpha 200. I got myself a 50 mm f1.4 and it’s truly beautiful. the Sony Alpha 350 was my first choice for price and everything (my husband and I are college students.. though I’m graduating in a few days, and budget is tight), but I got the Alpha 200 for free, so I couldn’t complain!!!

    I’m at the point now, where I’m beginning to wonder about two things…. printers and “shopping carts” for my clients to purchase from online (what the HECK is ROES? and how does it affect my editing process in photoshop?) and also, how does one take pictures of a big group (like a family photo) at a wedding? There’s so many logistics… how to stagger people so everyone’s faces are seen, lighting, shadows, do I have to use umbrellas and flash??? What is the deal with Umbrellas and flash anyhow?? Hopefully you can give us some photo recipes for a few specific things… 1) how to take a picture against the backdrop of a sunset, 2) how to do big group pictures inside and outside, 3) How to keep from missing “the kiss” at a wedding, and getting it underexposed or overexposed or blurry.

    *sigh…. sorry I have so many questions… I wish I could find a one on one mentor that I could ask all these questions… but I find that in my area people are kind of territorial about their business and don’t want to give tips that might make you better than they are. It’s kind of disheartening. And it seems that no matter the amount of research I do, (especially about printers and shopping cart programs) there is no way to really know what you like til you try it!
    Anyways, those were just some ideas for future posts. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for all the info so far! You’re helping to make my dreams come true!

  23. Katie says:

    Becky!!! I have the same questions and have the same disheartening experiences ALL the time. I live in North San Diego county, and most OC/SD photogs won’t really “be friends” with you unless you’ve shot more than 30 weddings (I think that’s when they assume you’re “established” and not just mooching off of them). It’s REALLY annoying. We’ll show them what we’ve got, even if it means practicing til our little hearts burst. ๐Ÿ™‚ Wanna be photo friends?!?! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Me Ra you ROCK! I’ve only posted on here a few times, but gosh you deserve a gazillion comments. You are SUPER DUPER and I’m so thankful for a photog that is open with her “secrets”. I believe You, Jasmine Star, and Dane Sanders are the only photogs out there that actually get real, without egos/reconceived notions getting involved.

    Anyways, Anyone know much about the new Nikon 50mm 1.4? I already am invested in a Nikon body (D70s) and I actually get some pretty nice shots from my kit lens. But, I’m wanting to upgrade to a fixed lens. I know my camera has a crop, so is the 50mm worth it for me? The new Nikon 50mm 1.4 is in the $400 range I believe. But, I’ve heard some good things. Anyone have feedback!?! ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. Kelly N says:

    This has been a really informative series of posts, thank you! I’m one of those people now filled with regret because I didn’t know all this info when I got my camera, and now want to start all over… I have the Nikon D60 with the kit lenses from Costco(18-55, and 55-200). I bought your DVDs last summer and was totally frustrated because when I did the exercises I couldn’t get the blur you were talking about. My husband got me a Nikkor AF 50mm 1.8 lens for Christmas and on one hand it’s made such an amazing difference – but on the other it’s a huge pain in the butt!

    **It doesn’t Autofocus on the D60!** Turns out it needs to be an AF-S lens to do that which costs $400+..

    So now I have this whole other issue to contend with of getting the picture in focus along with trying to remember all the exposure and composition stuff…

    I’m not sure what the point of my comment is other than to say thank you for taking the time to educate us. And to let other people who have or are thinking of getting the D60/D40 cameras, that the Autofocus in body vs lenses thing is a pretty big deal.

    At this point, I guess I’m stuck with what I have until I actually make the jump and attempt to earn a little income to fund my lens dreams.

  25. Thank you for taking the extensive time to put these posts together. Super helpful!!!

  26. Becky says:

    Heck yes I’ll be your photo friend!! ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m glad to know that someone else has the same questions that I do… and is running into the same barriers… not glad… but happy to know that I’m not alone. ๐Ÿ™‚

  27. MeRa,

    Thank you for putting so much time into these posts. They have been really helpful and your shots are gorgeous.
    One question, are you and Brian really shooting Sony full time??

  28. Kelsey says:

    #1 photo has my vote!! ๐Ÿ™‚ LOVE the lighting, capture, and emotion that the photo encompasses.

  29. Irma says:

    Photo one has my vote

  30. Mary S. says:

    I love the way she captured the layers on the box top. She layed out the box well and the lighting of the words is beutiful.
    What a wonderful picture

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