By ProGrade Digital | May 10, 2022

Known for her mouthwatering images on larger-than-life billboards, food magazines, and cookbooks, food photographer Jena Carlin also runs the Little Rusted Ladle blog and hosts the Master the Art of Food Photography summit.

As if that were not enough, Jena also dedicates a large proportion of her time to mentoring food photography newcomers. Her mentorship program Portfolio to Profit is praised by many for its skillfully balanced blend of hands-on attention and allowing you to get into your own creative trouble.

Though extremely busy, we managed to sit down with Jena to speak about the evolution of her art, the inspiration she had while learning the craft, and what it’s like to shoot for clients such as Martha Stewart, Ghirardelli, and Kohl’s.

If you create images that you are passionate about, you will attract the brands you want to work with”

How did your photography career get started, and why did you choose food photography?

Believe it or not, my first career report assignment was in the 8th grade, and I wrote about being a photographer. I knew I was heading for a career in the arts and eventually earned a bachelor’s of fine art in painting with a minor in photography. During my final semester, I was fortunate enough to get an internship at Taste of Home where I worked with some fantastic photographers and stylists who cemented my path as a food photographer! While I’m passionate about the fine arts, photography really speaks to my love of preservation. A huge driver of my creativity is the desire to celebrate and preserve personal history. As a food, lifestyle, and agriculture photographer I am able to explore our relationship with food and the environment, utilize vintage surfaces and cookware, and capture the moods and feelings associated with dishes of all kinds as well as how our food is grown. All of these opportunities make my daily work as a photographer a joy, which I hope shows through my images which you can see here:

What has been the most exciting project you have worked on?

The creation of our cookbook Herbs for Flavor, Health, and Natural Beauty by Jim Rude and myself was both challenging and exciting. Once the book was picked up by our publisher, we had four months to refine our pitch chapter and shoot, write and edit the rest of the book! Despite the huge workload, the experience of being our own creative directors on a project this large was truly spectacular. Through about 75 recipes, Jim and I were able to showcase our artistry as photographer and stylist and our love of fresh herbs!

Do you work with a food stylist? What are your tricks to make food look so good?

I often work with a food stylist when I’m on set doing the photography and set styling. They are really the magicians that place each ingredient of a dish in camera so it looks amazing. What I do to make the food look good is all about lighting, angles, and storytelling. In manipulating the light, I can make sure the texture and colors of the food look their best, highlighting the focal point to tell the story and make the client’s product shine.

Photo by Jena Carlin

What type of equipment do you use to get such great results?

I use a Canon 5d Mark IV and a Canon R5 camera for most of my photography work, though I do have a Sony I use for BTS video. Fast Cards and card readers are important to me so I do use ProGrade. I have fun with a variety of Canon and Sigma lenses. Some of my favorites include Canon 100 mm 2.8 macro and Sigma 40mm 1.4 Art lens. Typically I work with two or more strobe lights for food photography. I’m currently loving my Flashpoint xplor 600 pros with Strip and octabox softboxes. I tether to Lightroom and Capture One and will use those for editing along with Photoshop. This gives you a glimpse inside my camera bag but you can check out my complete gear list on my site.

What piece of advice would you give anyone that would like to start taking food photos?

A lot of photographers shoot products or recipes for their portfolio that they think will attract big clients. I have found that if you create images that you are passionate about, you will attract the brands you want to work with. Once you create images for a company, other potential clients know you are capable of that type of work and will hire you to do it. So make sure you’re photographing what you love from the start! Your ideal client will be drawn to your work more organically and you won’t be stuck shooting something you don’t like! I mentor food photographers in my signature program called, Portfolio to Profit.  Click the link to find out more.