Story By Jenn Gidman
Images By Jessica Sterling
Jessica Sterling uses the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 VC USD lens for sharp, flattering images that communicate the personality of every client or occasion.
When Jessica Sterling was growing up, her world was replete with images. “My mother is a graphic designer, so I was exposed to the visual arts from an early age,” she says. “She would constantly ask me what I thought about various designs and layouts, which built up my confidence in my own artistic sensibilities.”
After leaving school, Jessica worked for a headshot photographer in Los Angeles, where she received an education in not only the technical aspects of photography, but in running a business and working with clients. “I was lucky to work with someone who embraced digital early, so I had a leg up on it as other people were still trying to figure everything out,” she says. “I learned best practices for image processing for digital specifically.”
Today, Jessica has 14 years under her belt in corporate events, branding, and corporate portrait photography, with a client roster that has included AT&T and the LA Dodgers, and has photographed such A-listers as Steven Spielberg, Justin Timberlake, Serena Williams, and Ashton Kutcher, among others. She recently started using the Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 VC USD prime lens for her portrait and event photography, and she’s been thrilled with the results.
“Image quality is super-important for the work I do, so I love working with primes,” she says. “The Tamron 85mm features such excellent color rendition and sharpness, especially for portraits, where you want the eyes to really ‘pop.’ As for using it for events, I usually use wide-angle lenses for that kind of photography, but the 85mm is my new favorite tool to add variety in my coverage. It’s so sharp, and I appreciate the F/1.8 maximum aperture that gives me that gorgeous bokeh in detail shots—the focus stays on whatever I’m concentrating on in the image, while the rest of the photo falls softly off to the edges.”
When Jessica is shooting portraits with her 85mm, one of her first priorities is to help her subjects relax. “I genuinely like people, and so I talk to them while I’m photographing them,” she says. “Maybe that sounds kind of fundamental, but it’s important to let them know I’m there to help them look their best. I usually play music for portraits, and I always gently and continuously direct my clients. I let them know when they’re doing a good job, so they know when they’re nailing it. It’s super-awkward getting your picture taken, so I try to make it as easy and positive as possible. I modeled a little back in the day, and one time a photographer told me, ‘Oh no, don’t do that.’ The rest of the shoot I felt like such an idiot. So in my shoots, I try to keep things encouraging. I also smile and laugh a lot, because I want the client to know we’re a team. We’re working together to make great images.”
Jessica also wants to ensure that a portrait best reflects who her subject is. “People’s personalities really come out when you’re talking about something they love,” she says. “It turns them into the best version of themselves, which is what I want to capture. The camera can sometimes lie a bit and flatten things out, and you may not get a sense of who the person really is. My goal is to show who that person is on their best day, not just concentrate on what the camera freezes in that one moment.”
Jessica figures out how she’s going to photograph a certain person as they get deeper into the session. “Every face is different,” she says. “You may go into a session, based just on an initial assessment, thinking you know exactly how you’re going to take a person’s picture. But as you work, you may realize there’s a better way—and so you ‘shape’ the portrait as you’re working, having your subject turn a bit to the left or right, or asking them to point their toes in a certain direction so that the rest of their body changes angle.”
She also ensures she comes out of the session with a good number of keepers by taking as many photos as possible—which is also mandated by the short amount of time she often has with her subjects. “Sometimes I’ll have only five minutes with a busy executive,” she says. “So I have to fill that time slot with as many photos as I can. Another benefit of working quickly is that it keeps my subject from becoming bored. That’s why it’s important to know your camera and other gear well, so you can seamlessly move from one shot to the next without having to pause. If a client has to wait too long, they’ll get antsy, which can throw the mood of the session off.”
Take the portraits Jessica took of the young man shown here. “A lot of folks are comfortable on stage performing, but maybe not so much with a single photographer staring at them from behind a camera,” she says. “So I keep a conversation going, even pointing my camera down occasionally to listen to what they’re saying or when I want to finish a thought. It’s the person-to-person connection you’re going for. Sometimes it helps to get them to ‘fake laugh,’ which is just so ridiculous, so that we both end up laughing for real.”
Jessica enjoys shooting in the studio, but she’ll often venture outside, using both natural and studio lighting. “If going all natural, I’ll typically place my subjects in the shade and put the area of the sky that’s brightest behind them, so that they get a little light coming in from behind their hair, as you can see here with this mother-and-son shoot,” she says. “I don’t mind the background blowing out a bit in these cases. I mainly don’t want any harsh light falling on my subjects’ noses, which is why I usually prefer to shoot in the later afternoon.”
The portraits of the young man shown here were taken outside, using studio lighting, against a white seamless backdrop. “Behind him is a cinder block wall; maybe 4 feet away is a barbecue grill,” Jessica says. “I had him sit on a stool so you wouldn’t see a chair back. I used a 4×8 piece of foam core to bounce the light, which was from a giant Photek SoftLighter, a flat-fronted umbrella with a diffusion fabric you can take off if you want to. In this case, it’s really close to his head, pretty much directly over him. While I was shooting, I just kept tilting and adjusting it, an inch or so at a time, until I got it just how I wanted it. You just keep tweaking it until you get what you want.”
Jessica took his photos at F/5.6, at 1/200th of a second, at ISO 100. “I wanted to bring the most out of the camera,” she says. “That’s what I love about studio lighting—I try to never push the ISO to 1600 or 2400. I wanted everything to be sharp, to bring out the texture of his skin.”
In addition to shooting portraits with her 85mm prime, Jessica uses the lens at corporate events, where she’ll zoom in for detail shots of the fine fare, beverages, and decor. “I took the photos of the champagne bottles and charcuterie board you see here at an influencers’ gathering and a charity event, respectively,” she says. “With the charcuterie board especially, I felt like I was photographing someone’s artwork, because it was just so well put together and visually appealing. The 85mm captures the details so well, like the condensation on the champagne bottles and the texture of the orange slice. But then the rest of the photo falls off in focus as your eye wanders further back into the image. It’s so soft and pretty.”
For Jessica, the post-processing is a critical final routine that imprints her work with her particular style. “I’d never output an image that’s straight out of camera,” she says. “I love energy in my photos, and editing them helps me achieve that. What you do to an image after capture is part of who you are as a photographer, and part of your creative process. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of taking pictures for me.”
To see more of Jessica Sterling’s work, go to www.jessicasterling.com.