Get a spoonful of creativity: Interview with food photographer and stylist Jena Carlin


Fascinated with creating a narrative with light, composition, and texture, Jena Carlin has been photographing mouth watering work for nearly ten years. She regularly executes photo shoots from conceptualisation and art direction to set styling and final imagery. As a result, Carlin Creative has a full library of images in beautiful vignettes, perfect for telling the story of a brand in many avenues, especially in the ever-important world of social media. Not only is Carlin a successful commercial and editorial photographer and videographer, she is also a cookbook author and cooking enthusiast, as shown in her personal blog! We were fortunate to be able to pick her brain about the intricacies of being a photographer, which you can read below.

Production Paradise: How did you get into photography, and what drew you specifically to food photography?

Jena Carlin: I was in junior high when I got my first camera and I fell in love with photography instantly. Shortly after I even did my first career report on my dream of being a photographer. My whole life I have been highly invested in artistry, and after high school I went on to get my Bachelor of Fine Art degree in Painting with a Minor in Digital Photography.

The last summer of college I was thrilled to receive an internship at Reader’s Digest in Milwaukee. They have one of the largest food photography studios in the nation doing photography for Taste of Home, Every Day with Rachel Ray, and many more. While there I fell in love with photographing food and the process of how it took an entire team of professionals to create these portfolio quality images. With my experience as an artist, I quickly became an asset for them by painting one of a kind surfaces for the team.  I soaked up every bit of knowledge and insight that I could learn from all the photographers, set stylists, and art directors. During this internship, and every day thereafter, I knew that food photography was my career passion.  Then and there I started building my prop collection and portfolio. Even to this present day I will still shoot for fun and test out new ideas every chance that I get.

After graduation from college in 2009 I became a freelance photographer’s assistant and continued to test out my own photography and style by working with everyone I could. Shortly thereafter my work was first published in a national magazine, which was Taste of Home in 2010.

Production Paradise: How do you incorporate your own sense of style into your photography and differentiate yourself in the food photography sector?

Jena Carlin: With a trained eye I am able to think quickly on-set and can make adjustments to props and surfaces right before the client’s eyes. My education in fine art has played a great deal in my approach for styling and photography.

Living an artful life is also something I can never give up.  In my day-to-day I am consistently working on myself, my business, and my ideas. Doing my own set styling and prop buying has been a huge factor in my style, as I always keep my eye open for inspiration and possible props wherever I go. Unfortunately, this means I always have more ideas than time!

I have always created work that I believe in and that makes me feel something. I believe if you create the work you love to do you will attract the right clients and ultimately you love your job. I am a huge advocate of this and truly love what I do so much I would do it even if I didn’t need money.

Production Paradise: Can you tell us more about your book, Herbs for Flavor, Health, and Natural Beauty?

Jena Carlin: I was inspired to photograph herbs when I was looking at some sage while cooking at home. I realised that the texture and shape of herbs could be styled and lit in such beautiful ways and everything clicked from there. Jim Rude and I had a quick turnaround time, but worked weekends and stayed up late many nights to meet the deadline. As exhausted as we were, at the end, it was a wonderful experience and I am very blessed to have reached one of my goals of styling, photographing and co-writing a cookbook.

Production Paradise: We are curious about your process as such a successful food photographer, can you tell us a little more about the process, designing the set and capturing the perfect photo?

Jena Carlin: I love to create a scene with a mood and feeling.

I immerse myself in the project and am always thinking “What can I do to make this product, food or image stand out and inspire action?  How can I make an impactful image using colour, texture, and light?”

Understanding the product as well as the packaging of the product that we need to show is always my starting point. Next, I will pull props that I already own and go out to buy anything else special to create the client’s desired style. If I cannot find it, then I will make it. Often, I will create special one-of-a-kind surfaces for my clients. Throughout the photoshoot, I communicate with the food stylist and client about their thoughts and we make it happen. I always aim to overdeliver!

Production Paradise: What inspired your blog, Little Rusted Ladle, and what is your favourite part of it?

Jena Carlin: The inspiration sparked with creating a live ongoing online portfolio!

In 2013 my friend Jim Rude, a food stylist I had worked with before, and I started a food blog called Little Rusted Ladle. This has been advantageous as it helped to train my artistic eye even further by teaming up with an exceptional food stylist and it brought my artistic brand to an even wider audience.  It allows me to have an ongoing online portfolio of imagery that I LOVE to create.

Currently, I run the blog by myself and my focus is on these four topics:

  1. Editorial – personal interest stories of farmers and families
  2. Lifestyle – DIY, farmhouse studio remodel, homesteading
  3. Recipes – everything from everyday meals to entertaining
  4. Food Photography Education – blog post tips, one-on-one coaching, online courses and high-end critique retreats at my family farm.

Production Paradise: What are some recent campaigns that have been particularly memorable that you have been a part of?

Jena Carlin: One of my more memorable campaigns recently was a fairly elaborate photoshoot for a large corporate client. In the pre-production meetings it was apparent that the marketing department was not yet in full agreement of their desired final shot for a particular product. To showcase my ideas I sent a video to them of some of my props with a few different backgrounds for inspiration. After they reviewed this we were able to come up with a few strategies and I brought our ideas to life.

Production Paradise: We are looking forward to seeing future work, can you give us a little taste of any future projects or some insight on ‘Tradition to Table’?

Jena Carlin: This is a top-secret project at the moment that Jim Rude and I are working towards. I will say that it is the heartbeat of my career, fills me with joy, and I cannot wait to share it with the world!

Production Paradise: Lastly, why is it important for you to be a member of Production Paradise?

Jena Carlin: I was first introduced to Production Paradise while creating a mood board for a client. I came across some of the most talented commercial photographers I had ever seen and knew right away that I wanted to be a part of it. That same day I applied and was accepted. The team there has been a wealth of knowledge for my business!

Special thanks to Jena Carlin for taking the time to share her story with us! If you are as curious about Jena’s upcoming top-secret project, as we are – make sure to check Carlin Creative’s website and her profile page on Production Paradise.


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