Fine Art With Feeling

Jessica Drossin uses the Tamron SP 24-70mm G2 and SP 85mm VC prime lenses to create portraits that connect with her viewers.

By Jenn Gidman
Images By Jessica Drossin

When Jessica Drossin places a model in front of her camera for one of her fine-art portraits, she has one main goal in mind. “I’m trying to create a mood and a story, and a lot of what I’m hitting on is the concept of connection—the connection people have with each other and with their environment,” she says. “I want the viewer to feel something, and part of that is tapping into everyone’s feeling of wanting to be understood.”

The lenses Jessica has been relying on lately to create her emotive imagery: the Tamron SP 24-70mm VC G2 and SP 85mm F/1.8 VC lenses. “The 24-70 has been phenomenal in terms of when I’ve been in tight situations or if I’ve wanted to capture more of the environment to tell the story,” she says. “The 85mm, meanwhile, is absolutely the most gorgeous lens for capturing portraits. I really enjoy shooting with it as wide open as possible. That F/1.8 maximum aperture is quite dreamy in terms of the soft focus it achieves in the background, yet it has a sharp crispness in the areas I do want to highlight. Plus, I live in Los Angeles, where there’s not a lot of ‘dreamy’ environment, so I often rely on that shallow depth-of-field and soft focus to help me tell those kinds of stories.”

Jessica usually shoots handheld during the golden hours (right around sunrise and sunset) and doesn’t use supplementary lighting. “I typically look for soft-light scenarios where I’m not getting a lot of strong shadows and contrast,” she says. “Or I’ll be shooting indoors or in areas where I’m in the shade, so I can have a degree of consistency to my light.”

Finding the ideal background for Jessica’s shoots means looking for items that help her compositionally. “I want visual elements or some kind of patterning, something that will help me lead the viewer’s eye to my subject,” she says. “That can be anything from details in the leaves to a pathway that’s leading to some unknown destination.”

Jessica doesn’t typically use professional models, instead working with teens and young women in their 20s who may need a little coaxing during the photo shoot. “I try to develop a rapport and a trust with them, because they’re usually quite shy and self-conscious,” she says. “I’ll talk to them about my ideas and concepts for the images, then basically allow them to become active participants in the shoot by offering up their own ideas. That’s when you’ll see the nervousness die down and a true collaboration. They become invested in the process.”

One of her models is a high school student who’d had to change schools due to bullying. “She’s very happy now in her new school, but before we even started taking pictures together, we talked a lot about upheaval and change and what it’s like to see your world turned upside down,” Jessica says. “I wanted this project for her to be about having fun and feeling beautiful. Plus, I feel she has a timeless beauty that doesn’t fit the traditional mold, which I love.”

For her second-ever session with this model, Jessica took her for a drive, and the first stop was at a rest stop surrounded by wildflowers. “I wanted to capture a photo that touched upon the themes of upheaval and blending into the environment, which we’d talked about previously,” Jessica says. “I asked her to stand against a wall of flowers and then flip her hair back. Her hair actually got stuck in the flowers, which makes for a rather unusual image. I like for there to be a sort of question mark in my photos, like maybe something doesn’t quite sync up with its background—it addresses the whole idea of whether we feel like we fit in or not.”

SP 24-70mm, 49mm, f/2.8, 1/100 sec, ISO 250; click image to view larger.

The next stop of their journey led them up into the mountains, where Jessica instructed her model to cradle some of the wildflowers that were scattered around, almost like she were cradling a baby. “I wanted to show love and tenderness for the environment,” Jessica says. “I pushed my lens right into the wildflowers on the ground near me for that lovely foreground effect. Having a dramatic sky that evening didn’t hurt, either.”

SP 24-70mm, 36mm, f/2.8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 320; click image to view larger.

The final part of their road trip ended at the ocean, where the waves were crashing onto the shore and the wind was whipping the hair of the young model all around. “Her instinct in this final photo was to keep pushing her hair out of her face, but at some point I told her to just push it off to one side and let the other side go wild,” Jessica says. “I decided we’d be half in charge and nature would be half in charge. I wanted to totally focus on the details of her—the lace of her outfit, her freckles, all of those hairs dancing in the wind—and let the background go very soft.”

SP 85, f/2.8, 1/320 sec, ISO 640; click image to view larger.

Jessica returned to the theme of connection for a photo at a local park. “I take my kids to this park, and at the edge of it are all of these trees with their roots poking out of the ground,” she says. “I’d been wanting to incorporate those roots into a photo for a while, so I recruited these two girls to be my models. I’d never worked with them before, so I had to build some trust and rapport with them to get them to lie on the ground and do this somewhat bizarre session. People were definitely looking at us!”

SP 24-70mm, 24mm, f/3.5, 1/80 sec, ISO 400; click image to view larger.

Two matching dresses helped complete the look. “They almost looked like fawns with those spots,” Jessica says. “There’s even detail in the tree trunks that mimic the dots on the dresses. All those different textures and patterns came together so nicely. And when the girls were wearing them, they looked even more attached to their surroundings—lying down, fingers splayed, touching each other fingertip to fingertip.”

Jessica had that same connection between humans and their environment in mind when she photographed the girls standing in front of the gate with flowers—”everything is intertwined and interwoven, even the girls”—and the solo shot of the girl among the green leaves. “I kept playing with this concept of connection here, too, by taking strands of her hair and curling them around the branches and leaves,” she says.

SP 24-70mm, 24mm, f/2.8, 1/125 sec, ISO 1000; click image to view larger.
SP 85mm, f/2.2, 1/100 sec, ISO 100; click image to view larger.

The one professional model Jessica has photographed is her friend Laura, who used to be her assistant. “She’s the one I took with me on a public hiking trail not far from where I live,” Jessica says. “What you don’t really see in this photo of Laura blowing bubbles, due to my using a very shallow depth-of-field, is that about 600 feet beyond those trees, the land is completely burnt out due to a wildfire out here in California last year. I hadn’t been back to this location since then. Again, I wanted the photo to have a dreamy feel, but knowing subliminally the backstory of the destruction created a whole new narrative. For me, this photo is about transitions and renewal—she’s creating new things on this path she’s on. It’s kind of a metaphor for life and the stages we go through.”

SP 24-70mm, 48mm, f/2.8, 1/160 sec, ISO 1250; click image to view larger.

Jessica tried to impart a similar vibe in her photo of Laura blowing on a dandelion. “She and I had been talking lately about how much is going on in everyone’s lives, and in the world, and how it can be a struggle sometimes,” Jessica says. “I really latched onto the idea of appreciating the moment and just being present—a bit of mindfulness in the chaos. It’s important to find beauty in the simple things, right here, right now.”

SP 85mm, f/1.8, 1/125 sec, ISO 1000; click image to view larger.

To see more of Jessica Drossin’s work, go to

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