PPD Master Series: Caroline Jensen's Little Studio on the Prairie

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday February 24, 2016

If it weren’t for the occasional glimpse of a modern appliance here, or the soft glint of a wrist watch in a portrait there, it’s often hard to tell in which century Caroline Jensen’s ( images were made. Indeed, most of her photos are conceived and captured in a way that makes them seem lost in time: children cooking in a warm window-lit kitchen, close-ups of hands holding balls of wool, or farm chores being done as they were 100 years ago. The subjects, the compositions and Jensen’s shooting style all combine to enhance the illusion.

And as much as those images might seem to portray a look back at a time gone by, in fact, they also reflect much of her family’s actual lifestyle. Jensen and her husband and four children live in a home built in 1911 on 40 acres (soon to be 80 acres) of very rural prairie farmland in southern Minnesota. There she also home schools children and the family devotes much of their time to simple chores and quiet moments: cooking, reading by window light, or doing farm chores. Not that you don’t see the occasional shot of one of her kids sitting at a laptop wearing headphones, but those shots seem kind of rare (and feel a bit like looking you’re looking at life backstage).

The style of Jensen’s images are heavily influenced by artists that she’s admires and, in fact, many of her images seem caught somewhere between classical painting and the modern world of digital photography. “I have a part of me that loves art, and I study classic painters and I particularly love the Dutch Masters, but another part of me also loves to document things as they are,” she says. “Those are two things that are hard to meld at times. I adore making images that beg a viewer to linger, but I also love to tell stories in photo essays. I think it depends on my mood. Photography keeps me sane and keeps me awake at night with ideas. I guess I was born to do it.”

Jensen, whose work has been published in Dreamer Journal, Sony Alpha Universe Magazine, and frequently in Click Magazine, considers herself primarily an art photographer. She also sells stock images and prints (her kids are her primary models and they share in the bounty of sold images) and teaches online workshops at

One of the goals with her photographs, she says, is to leave a record for her children and maybe bring joy to others who do not know her. “I have no images of my grandparents and only a handful of my mother who passed in 2002,” she says. “I really don’t have a great record of my children’s early lives because digital rather stunk back then and film was expensive. My biggest goal is to be remembered as someone who helped others and gives my kids the means to tell their story to others. When I take clients, I have the same goals for them.”

Jensen, who is a Sony Artisan, recently spoke with writer Jeff Wignall  about her photography, her art influences and her rural lifestyle.

PPD: Is photography your business or do you see yourself as an artist?

CJ: I see myself as both. I make the bulk of my money teaching because that is how I have always identified myself. My dreams as a child were to teach, so it is natural that my goals for photography fell into the same line. I do love stock photography though.

PPD: Your photos of home life have a very romanticized look to them that seem like they are from another era. Is that reflective of your actual home life or is it a kind of idealized view?

CJ: There is a little of both. Life is never as idyllic as I would like it be. Photography has been my way of escaping truly painful things. I want to tell people that the more peaceful my images, the more likely I am struggling---not always, but since life has its up and downs, my images usually have a rhythm playing opposite my mood. I sometimes think I was born in the wrong era. I would love to have my computer and phone back in a day when craftsmanship was paramount. I would miss communication if I had to actually go back in time. We have a lovely 1870s barn, and you can just see how they really don’t make ‘em like they used to. My studio is a 1911 bungalow with mountains of original woodwork and built ins. I want my images to feel timeless and have worth, just like the details of a building that someone poured their heart into making.

PPD: What is it about that lifestyle or period in time that makes you want to capture or recreate it in photographs?

CJ: In eras past time and attention to detail were stronger. You fixed things instead of throwing them away. A home had woodwork that took months to carve and craft...these things speak to me. I have the hardest time finding things that I can truly pass on to someone else when I’m gone. I don’t like anything disposable.

PPD: Did you grow up in a rural prairie environment?

CJ: No, I grew up in the Twin Cities and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. When I met my husband-to-be, one of his first questions was whether I could ever live in a small town. I said yes, and went from a large city to one of 500 people. It was hard at first. I felt isolated when the kids were small, but it grew on me, and now I get skittish if I can’t wave at everyone I pass on the highway.

PPD: Can you describe where you live and what the area is like?

CJ:  I live in a very rural and low-populated area. Each city around here has only a few hundred people, with a ‘big city’ being around 10,000 people or so. Much like Little House on the Prairie, we travel to the really big cities to get supplies off and on. Mankato and Sioux Falls are the two we make road trips too. It is funny, I often hear people say, well, you can get that ingredient in the (insert country here) section of your local grocery store. Those words, to me, generally mean a two- hour car trip. Our area really mirrors the Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Our home was homesteaded about the time of those books and my husband’s great, great grandfather lived in a dirt dug out, as portrayed in the books, prior to building the barn and then the house in 1879.

PPD: Do you think that living in a rural area provides more time or space to work out your themes or is your life with four kids just as hectic as most people’s lives?

CJ: Yes, it is hectic, but it is different from city life. I homeschool, so our days are full of a constant string of chatter about their lectures online and bits and pieces of projects in nearly every room. I adore slow living though. We make homemade bread, well, homemade everything if we can. I want my kids to appreciate that a loaf of bread takes time to make, and they learn that best by doing it. I, of course, can use that as both lifestyle and styled images. They all enjoy photography too, so I always have a few camera cards to unload and sort through. Rural life is full of the organic elements I love to photograph. It is nice having 42 acres of wild prairie out my front door. Next year it will be 80 acres as we are reclaiming another 40 from cropland. My heart is bursting for the wildflowers!

PPD: Often, your lighting comes from a single natural source—a window or a doorway or an open hayloft door. Do you always use natural light, or do you augment the look of natural light with artificial lighting?

CJ: I love natural light, but also love ambient light, like candles. Recently, I have started to use Westcott Icelights and Flex panels to mimic natural light. I always need to be learning something new, so my quest to create light that I am happy with is one of my goals for this year. I don’t know if I will ever embrace flash though. Constant light suits my way of shooting, but I will never say never.

PPD: A lot of your images are heavily processed in editing. Do you have a vision for where a photo is going in editing before you begin to process it, or do you just experiment until you find something you like?

CJ: I love taking time with most images. The part of me that wishes I was a painter feels lost when rattling off hundreds of frames for a project. My heart wants to shoot to get one and process it with love and attention. That is not always the case, but it is an ongoing project that feeds me creatively. I always have a vision in mind when I shoot. I know how I want the light to fall and the overall color palette. That said, I spend a lot of time soaking in art to grow my ‘sea of ideas’. I teach a workshop on observation (“The Art of Observation” at where soaking in art leads to a natural tendency to notice picturesque moments. This spontaneously leads to seeing and shooting a moment that you know will be an art piece. It is rather like seeing a Norman Rockwell scene play out before your eyes. You just know when to click the shutter.

PPD: What software are you using?

CJ: I process my images in Lightroom, Photoshop, and various plug-ins. Honestly, I usually know which combination I will use on any one image before I begin and sometimes I count on one to get me out of a bind. For instance, I love Corel Painter and will often paint out wayward things instead of cloning them out in Photoshop.

PPD: How long have you been working with Sony mirrorless cameras and what was it that attracted you to them?

CJ: I fell out of a window in 2000 after my three year old locked me in an upstairs bedroom, and I had an unsuccessful attempt at climbing down sheets to the ground. Our home is old and when my son slammed the door, an ancient lock panel swayed shut and penned me in. All this lead to back and neck issues I have to be aware of at all times. My traditional DSLRs and lenses were very heavy, and the strain was getting to be too much for me. I moved through a series of mirrorless options in late 2013 and switched to Sony in the Summer of 2014. The high ISO capabilities of the a7s sold me on the spot. The size was right too. It was a perfect match for me. My first combo was the a7s and 55mm lens. I was blown away by the clarity and depth of the images and how little I had to process them (for those images not saved for an artsy finish).

PPD: Is there a particular quality to mirrorless cameras that matches your lifestyle and your shooting style particularly well?

CJ: Oh yes! Mirrorless cameras offer focus peaking and EVF preview, which makes manual focus a breeze. I use a lot of Lensbaby lenses and vintage lenses that require manual focus. I can see what the frame will look like before I shoot with the EVF and zoom in to check focus prior to shooting. I cannot imagine going back. Truly. I am also a big believer in getting it right in camera. With mirrorless, I can make creative exposure choices on the spot and without chimping. I can shoot much faster and intuitively this way.

I also love the fact that I can get amazing images straight out of camera as jpegs, when I want to. I especially love to shoot in black and white this way. I see the images in the EVF and I know that I can upload directly from my card and share. It is a perfect way to rest from hours of image processing and to give fresh eyes on the study of light and composition.

PPD: What particular Sony gear are you using?

CJ: My primary cameras are the Sony a7SII and the Sony a7RII. I honestly always have them with me and often have to look down to see which one I have at any given moment. I have them set up almost identically.

PPD: Do you rely on a few favorite lenses?

CJ: I admit to being a lens hoarder, so that is harder to sum up. If finances allow I buy anything Sony introduces. My workhorse lenses are the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens, and Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS lenses. They are so wicked sharp and easy to use. They give me true confidence in my gear.

I cannot live without my Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA. It is my go-to storytelling lens. I love this focal length because it lets me fill the frame with faces, hands, and details, while still offering background context. This lens has a close focusing distance so it is perfect for food photography as well. The f/1.4 aperture renders lovely and smooth bokeh too, which comes in handy when I want to isolate my subject in a busy situation.

I round out my kit with the entire Lensbaby series of lenses and various vintage lenses that I use with adapters on my full frame bodies. These lenses give me an old fashioned look I love. I love razor sharp images, but sometimes a bit of imperfection or blur is what an image needs.

PPD:  As a lens hoarder, do you get excited by the introduction of new lenses?

CJ: Yes! I haven’t had a chance to test them yet, but I am extremely excited about the new Sony G Master lenses that were just introduced. I’m particularly excited about the Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 G Master Lens and the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens. To have Sony pay such close attention to both sharpness and bokeh is incredible. Like always, they are blazing a new path with features that make me forget to eat and sleep. I stay up at night planning shoots and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite of the two. The 24-70 is a do-it-all lens for storytelling, whether food or families, and the 85 is the ultimate portrait lens. They are one more reason I am thrilled to be part of this revolutionary company.

PPD: Many of your portraits have a very story-like theme, almost fairytale-like in their appeal. Where do you find your ideas for these shots?

CJ: I draw on the ‘sea of ideas’ that I have flowing in my imagination from years of careful study of art. Most of my images are spontaneous in the sense that I do not set them up or plan them in advance. I do understand that baking a cake or cleaning the barn may result in that perfect moment, so I do lug my camera with me, but I don’t usually say, “Go here and look this way.” or, “You do this on, two.....” Instead, I just shoot all the time which deadens my kids’ care factor about my camera. I spend as much time shooting details as I do people, so my kids, and friends ignore my camera for the most part.

I absolutely love Norman Rockwell. He is the perfect blend of real life and artistry with a bit of whimsy. I don’t want to be just like him, but studying his work has taught me to pay attention everywhere I happen to be. I love two subjects relating to each other...pets and kids, kids and kids, adults and kids and I learned that from Rockwell. I also love Carl Spitzweg ( and Ferdinand Waldmuller ( They both have real life and poignant humor done with an engaging style.

PPD: Food, cooking and home life are one of your major themes. Are you using your own family for most of these shots?

CJ: Yes, most of my shots are real life--supper being made, or any other meal or snack. My kids all know how to cook, so there is always something in the works. Almost any history or science class results in more recipes to try. I think we have eaten our way around the world. I think I get along best with my kids when we are working on a project together. They like to be a part of my images as long as they can add their two cents, and I listen to them.

PPD: How do they feel about being the subjects of so many of your photographs?

CJ: At first they were oblivious, but now we have a pretty defined understanding. They get a percentage of stock images that I sell, and they earn privileges and money from shoots where I need extra hands or assistance. My kids have all been shooting assistants at one time or another. It is real work, so we pay them. They get paid to pick rocks too, but they enjoy hauling my tripod more, ha!

PPD: Your food and baking shots often include very interesting macro shots of ingredients that have an almost “found” quality to them. Are they as happenstance as they appear or are they carefully orchestrated?

CJ: I do think that most are found compositions. I am not very good at orchestrating anything, so I shoot around a subject until it feels right. The biggest part of the equation is doing whatever I am doing in lovely light, and then rest follows suit. I love the way 17th century artists painted still life paintings. My personal favorite is Gerrit Dou who made chopping onions beautiful.

PPD: You also teach several online workshops. Can you talk about where you teach and what you teach?

CJ: I really enjoy making images, but I enjoy teaching as much, if not more. I am very blessed to work at  where I teach The Art of Observation, Communicating with Color and Light, and Step by Step with Lensbaby. My workshops center around advancing observation skills, which I believe are critical for training our subconscious to see and react before our eye gets near our viewfinder. I like to shoot instinctively and The Art of Observation offers practical ways to hone this skill and continues to be valuable long after class.

My Communicating with Color and Light workshop focuses on creative processing in Lightroom and ACR as well as a hefty dose of color theory to help make creative choices that resonate with the core instincts of the photographer. The Lensbaby course is a beginner course for this creative lens line and I work one on one with each student to help them advance their skills with what ever optics/lenses they own. These courses are very good for my photography skills too. I truly learn so much from my students. I am the lucky one! I often shoot right along with my students too, which is fun.

PPD: Do you have any near or long term goals for your photography? Is there a place where you’d like to see your career a few years in the future?

CJ: Honestly, I hope to be doing just what I am doing now. My kids will be older and likely out of the home in a few years, so I hope I can continue to teach full time and increase my stock portfolio. I have empty lap syndrome and have considered adopting. If that happens, I will likely be capturing things the way I do with a new generation.

PPD: Do you have any advice for photographers or students that might want   take a less than traditional path through photography?

CJ: Oh, this is an easy art and light. I am a huge believer in studying parallel art forms such as paintings and sculpture, which forces our brains to cram our world into a small package. The underpinning principles remain the same. Light, emotion, connection, composition....they all are found in other art forms. It is easy to compare and copy when you spend all your time studying photographers. If you do study photographers, try to study those who are most unlike you. For instance, I study landscapes and cityscapes, but I rarely photograph them. This practice often layers in subtle depth and complexity to your work.


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