30 Questions with Sharon Cosgrove
Today, we’re interviewing Sharon Cosgrove. She’s an award-winning food photographer. In an exclusive interview, Sharon talks about her career, favourite food and more.
1. Hi Sharon! We’re delighted to have you for the interview today. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Hi, I’m Sharon Cosgrove and I’m a food photographer based in Northern Ireland. I’m married to my husband for almost 6 years and we’re together 11 years after meeting each other through an online dating app. We have two mad Jack Russell Terriers called Molly and Arnold. I had Molly before I met my husband and to this day she is still insanely jealous of him and he gets growled at on a daily basis! I live beside the sea so I love to walk the dogs along the coast and there’s a lighthouse right on the cliff that you can walk around. Also, I love the 80s and 90s and love to get nostalgic over movies at the weekend with a glass of wine and some stinky cheese!
2. What’s your favourite cuisine and why?
Oh my goodness, it’s so hard to choose! I have to say though I do have a weak spot for Italian food, I love the romance, fire and passion Italians bring to their food. I think my favourite dessert ever has to be Tiramisu, coffee, alcohol and chocolate – what’s not to love!
3. What’s the Northern Irish food and culture like?
Where do I start?! For being such a small place Northern Ireland’s food scene is nothing short of amazing. There are just so many great people here producing outstanding food. We have three Michelin-starred restaurants.
Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is a city that is just heaving with quality food establishments and a plethora of cuisines and fusion restaurants.
Every corner has a different food offering. From fine dining on Oxford Street to a casual pint and a seafood platter that will blow your mind in Bank Square or if you don’t want anything too fancy you can just grab yourself a cheese toastie in the Cathedral Quarter but it will be the best cheese toastie you have ever tasted.
Northern Ireland has some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world and our seafood is pretty incredible! You might also be aware that it rains a LOT here but it does make for green fields and luscious landscapes that graze the best quality beef and lamb.
There is a huge craft beer and gin scene here too with various distilleries throughout the province. We produce the most famous of whisky’s too, of course, Bushmills Irish Whiskey distilled in Bushmills County Antrim. I could go on forever, honestly, there’s just so much to talk about when it comes to the food scene here.
4. What are the top three dishes everyone must try when they’re in Northern Ireland?’
Anything seafood, you will not be disappointed. Our oysters are so sweet and juicy, simply eat them raw with lemon and tabasco. We actually have an annual 3-day oyster festival here every summer in Hillsborough.
Try our seafood chowder with mussels, clams and smoked fish served with Guinness wheaten bread or seared scallops with our locally produced black pudding. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a Tayto Cheese and Onion crisp sandwich!
White bread, butter and one of the epitomes of Northern Ireland – Tayto cheese and onion crisps. Then there’s our traditional breakfast dish the Ulster Fry, a combination of fried soda bread, potato bread, black pudding, bacon, sausage and egg. This is something we would have as a family on the weekend with lots of tea to wash it down!
5. What inspired you to become a food photographer?
I was a quiet but creative child and I always knew I wanted to do something with my hands. I discovered photography in my early teens and my love for it began there. Food was always at the heart of our family, my grannies were always baking and I watched my mum make everything from scratch when we were kids.
I was surrounded by foodies from a very young age and I was already working as a portrait photographer when I decided to merge my photography skills with my passion for food and I’ve never looked back. I love how food makes people feel, it’s a very powerful and emotional thing. It evokes memories, it’s provocative, it’s desirable. I enjoy stirring those emotions.
6. Your favourite hacks for growing your reach on social media are…
- Grow your community and reach out to other vendors in your profession, tag each other, repost stories and share what they do too. The ripple effect of this can be amazing.
- I try to be consistent, it helps show commitment to my profession and followers.
- Be authentic, I write all my own posts because I want my audience to know it’s me and relate to my thoughts and feelings.
- I reply to all comments, I always go into the profile and find a name if I can. It’s more personal and it only takes 2 seconds. Another photographer (and a great guy) once shared that tip with me and I’ve done it ever since.
- Post behind-the-scenes reels and videos, it’s a great way to give people insight into how you work and it’s interesting (I need to take my own advice and do more of this!)
7. What’s one piece of advice you’d want to give to someone who’s just starting out?
Surround yourself with a strong support network and try not to get overwhelmed. Everything good takes time, a bit like fine wine and cheese.
8. What’s one thing people don’t understand about being a food photographer?
People think taking a pretty picture of food is simple – it’s really not. A lot of food isn’t that pretty, to begin with, or it has to be cooked, styled, manipulated and lit in a very specific way in order to get the best results. The hardest part is making the final result look effortless and natural. The audience will want their food to look real so it’s a very fine line between getting it right and getting it horribly wrong!
9. How did you get into the field of photography?
I studied Visual Communications as my degree course at the University of Ulster in Belfast. At that time there were no photography courses over here and I didn’t even know yet that I wanted to be a photographer as a career. I loved photography but I was still exploring other options. It was only my final year at uni that I decided photography was definitely the career path for me. A year and a half after I graduated I got my first real job as a trainee photographer in a portrait studio in 2006. That was the beginning of my professional career and I’ve been happily shooting ever since.
10. The secret to capturing professional photographs is…
Artificial lighting – learn it, love it, use it. Whether it’s strobes or continuous, artificial light in this line of work is your best friend.
11. What are the best parts and worst parts of your job?
The best part is of course all the gorgeous food I get to sample! The people are amazing and the locations are so varied that I never get bored. It can be tough though, you’re pretty much on your feet all day and you’re back can get sore stooping over all day. There are generally a lot of kits to move about so it’s actually quite physical.
12. Your photographs have been shortlisted for the British Photography Awards and featured in publications such as Digital Camera Magazine. In addition, you won the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year and were the Marks and Spencer Food Portraiture Finalist. What’s next?
I’m currently shooting a cookbook so I’m very excited about that, it will be printed early next year. I’d love to shoot more cookery books so hopefully, this will lead to others.
13. Tell us a little more about this cookbook. Is shooting for cookbooks different from your regular shoots?
I’m so excited for the book to be released but until it comes out early next year unfortunately I can’t disclose too much information even though I’d love to! Shooting the cookbook was slightly different to a regular shoot as you have to bear in mind how the shots will be laid out and to leave room for bleed and copy. Other than that it’s very similar – there is a brief to follow, we have our recipes, props and styling elements all set out for the day and we shoot as many options as possible to give the editors plenty to work with.
14. Who prepares the food and drinks for the shoots?
It’s a combination of myself, chefs and food stylists. It’s great to have the food styled for me on a shoot as it gives more time to concentrate on the actual photography. I do enjoy food styling when I’m not under too much pressure time-wise so I like to practice on my own shots when I have free time to experiment with techniques and keep developing that side of my skill set.
15. Tell us about the most stunning shoot you’ve done so far.
I had a recent shoot in the woods which were covered in bluebells and thick with forest. I had to hire a generator to power my lights as we had to make it look like a sunny day and predictably the sunny days here in Northern Ireland are few and far between. The results however were great and I had such fun with a fantastic team of people. To be out in this gorgeous forest shooting delicious food with amazing people reminded me of why I love my job.
16. What are the most important things to keep in mind when capturing photographs?
With food, it’s very tricky as things ‘die’ extremely quickly. Herbs wilt, sauces congeal, things dry up, dry out, harden, melt – it’s a minefield! You’ve got to think and act fast so having your props ready, your lights in place and your camera on the right settings are all extremely important.
Another important thing to remember is to always look at how the light is affecting your subject. Is it falling on the areas that you want, and does it emphasise and accentuate the best features of your subject? I always review every frame, there’s no point shooting away if something has slid out of place or the light has moved.
17. How did Instagram become your favourite platform to feature your culinary creations?
Instagram is by nature a very visual platform so naturally, as a photographer, it was the most obvious choice for me. I also love posting stories about my day, where I am and what I’m shooting so my audience can see what I’m up to. It’s a great platform for engagement and I have built up friendships with other photographers and vendors in the field so much so that I feel like I know them all so well!
18. Is it possible to style food on a budget?
Yes, absolutely! You don’t need fancy tools, hot air guns and ice machines all of the time. A trusty pair of tweezers and some blu tac are all you need sometimes! Use whatever you have to hand, I started out with very little knowledge and minimal kit for my own food styling but you get to know what you need and what works the more you do it. It can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be, there’s no right or wrong here. Budget make-up brushes, sponges, and travel spritzer bottles are all good starting out tools.
19. Where do you get your backdrops?
20. Tell us about your favourite props.
Any of my charity shops finds for sure! I love hunting for little back street charity shops and thrift stores, you never know what you’ll find. I also have 2 little glass cake stands that I adore and belonged to my great granny, they’re so pretty and I love that they have a history.
21. Which camera/gear do you use?
I use a Canon 5DMKIII with Sigma and Tamron lenses and I have a medium format FujiGFX50sII with a Fuji 120mm lens 35-70mm lens. I also use a Fuji X-T3 for video work.
22. Which place would you travel to for its food and culture?
I love America, especially the West Coast. California is just a melting pot of food and culture. I’m also deeply in love with Italy, I’ve only been twice but would love to go back and explore it more.
23. What inspires you to work every day and how do you work?
I love working for myself, making my own decisions and choosing how to live my life. I don’t want to lose that so the thought of not doing that drives me forward and my will to succeed. I’ve never enjoyed working as much as I do now and it’s all because I love what I do.
Plus I want to be able to take holidays and travel, there’s so much of the world still to see. Work is great but you must have a reason to work and spending quality time with family and friends doing nice things is why I work so hard, to be able to take that time off.
As I mentioned I work by myself so I set up the studio, look after the equipment, clean and wash up, pack and unpack the car, edit, do the accounts, write the emails, marketing, social media, you name it and I’m the one doing it! It can be tiring but it’s also satisfying. Perhaps in the future, it would be nice to delegate some of those tasks, but for the moment I’m a one-woman band!
24. What were the top three mistakes you made when you started creating content, and what did you learn from them?
It’s not really a mistake, but initially, I was still trying to find my style so my grid was a little all over the place. Now I have a distinctive look and feel to my work which took time to develop (no pun intended!) Consistency is key both in the frequency of your content and the feel of it. It has to be true to you even if you are trying something different.
25. What have been your biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
I was working full-time as a product photographer when I started the business doing 40 hours a week and then coming home to work in the evenings and my weekends were non-existent.
As the business grew I was able to reduce my hours and I eventually gave up my job, going into self-employment full time. Scary but amazing.
I also struggled at the beginning with space and lack of it. I had a small room in my house that was my studio but as I got busier I needed more space. After about a year of working in that tiny room, I found a studio to lease and I was able to move all my equipment and props into one place plus have clients present on shoots.
26. A productivity tip that you swear by is…
Write everything down in a notebook or diary and prioritise your day with a work schedule. Lists are a great way of offloading what’s in your head and organising your mind.
27. If you only had $2000 dollars to start again, knowing everything you know now, how would you spend it?
I’d spend it on the best camera that money can buy, you’ve got to have faith in your equipment. You don’t want your camera letting you down on a shoot. I’d also invest in a backup camera if possible, always have a plan B!
28. Tell us your favourite photography hack that makes all the difference?
I edit a job for two or three days or more if I can after the shoot, having that time in between gives me a better perspective when I go back to it. I find I will edit much more efficiently, identifying the stronger shots faster. It really does help!
29. If you hadn’t been a food photographer, what would you be today?
I always wanted to work with animals so maybe a veterinary nurse or working in an animal shelter. Or a taste tester in a chocolate factory!
30. What’s the one thing that helped you improve your photography skills the most?
Shooting tethered, it’s been a game-changer. Live view is a great tool, especially for a food photographer where you can be shooting intricate tablescapes or focusing with macro detail on one particular product. I love this method of shooting and it has definitely improved my workflow and overall photography.
For more information, follow Sharon on Instagram.
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Shristi is an avid reader, recipe developer and wellness enthusiast. She’s probably making a mess in her kitchen right now.