Showcasing food as art with her photography

In her monthly column, WoW! Bites, food writer KATE RYAN catches up with food and drink photographer Monika Coghlan who runs Pepperazzi and Studio Five
Showcasing food as art with her photography

Monika Coghlan (Pepperazzi).

HOW many times have you cracked the spine of a new cookery book, slipped through the pages of a glossy food magazine and ogled images of succulent morsels, dainty delights, or the sight of bubbling, melted cheese? If you’re like me, thousands of times!

How often do you stop to consider how something was made to look so delicious that it creates an instant craving? The perfect combination of texture and colour captured by the person behind the lense? Probably much less often, which is sinful given how, these days, visuals rule.

Monika Coghlan is a food and drink photographer based in Cork. Originally from a small coastal town in Poland, Monika arrived in Ireland 15 years ago settling in Blackrock with her husband. But it was just ten years ago that Monika discovered a passion for photography, food and drink photography in particular, laying a foundation for a hugely successful creative enterprise as Pepperazzi.

“I think my love of photography has always been there, but it really started about 10 years ago. 

"I had my first child and wanted to be more flexible. I got more into photography and started to explore different areas. I got very inspired by what food photographers do, and I’ve always been a foodie, so it came together – the food and photography.”

Monika's Studio Five.
Monika's Studio Five.

Monika had latched onto something with exceptionally good timing. Coinciding with rising popularity of food photography online fuelled by social media apps and ever better smart phones, food had become visual, and with it a realisation by restaurants and food producers that good food photography could impact business in a hugely positive way.

“There was definitely a niche in Cork; no one else was doing only food photography, so it made sense to start something of my own. But I never thought it would become a full-time business; maybe a hobby on the side, but suddenly I had restaurants and food producers contacting me. They loved my work and really wanted to work with me.”

To be a good food photographer, Monika says it’s important to have a love of food.

“Looking at a food photographers’ image, you can tell there’s a connection between the person and the dish. 

"Food is art; capturing it and seeing it; exploring different angles of a dish is important. 

Some of Monika's food photography.
Some of Monika's food photography.

"You’d never photograph a burger overhead – it wouldn’t make sense - you need to see the beautiful layers.”

Everything has a good and a bad side – even burgers – but as important is the use of light. As much as possible, Monika works with natural light for her food photography, but why?

“Natural light is the most flattering for food, unless I want or need to use hard light and strong shadows for a particular project then I would use artificial light,” says Monika, for whom food in its most natural appearance is the most enticing. The same ethos follows through with how she edits her photographs: “I don’t do a whole pile of retouching; I want it to look as authentic and natural as possible.

“People eat with their eyes and it’s the senses we are trying to evoke. 

"With a photograph, that’s the only way to do it: you can’t smell the food, touch or feel it, you can only show texture and colour through the image. There’s a lot of things that makes an image appetising: light, shadows and highlights, colour and then prop styling. There are a lot of elements to make an image pop!” An exquisite food photograph aims to make the reader crave the food in the image.

Monika explains that the twin techniques of food styling and prop styling work together to make that happen. But, what’s the difference?

“Food Styling is cooking and styling the actual food on a plate and making it look appealing. Prop Styling is the use of backdrops, plates, bowls, napkins, etc, the use of colours to contrast or compliment the food. There’s a lot of knowledge behind an image, but when a person looks at a food shot in a cookbook or a magazine, they generally don’t realise how much work goes into it and how much time.

Some of Monika's food photography.
Some of Monika's food photography.

“A lot of planning is done before a shoot; a lot of emails back and forth, planning, prop selection, prop sourcing for a specific project, what colours might work with the product, what style: if I’m going for rustic, or if it’s a new funky brand I might go for vibrant colours. Then I set up and move things around and experiment with the light and colours.

“Certain things can melt or go dry quickly so it’s always good to have the setting sorted before the food arrives because there mightn’t be lots of time. I was photographing ice cream the other day, I literally had seconds before it melted! But if an ice cube is slightly melted, I don’t mind that at all because it looks real, and I like that it looks real not fake.”

For most projects, Monika focuses on prop styling and working with a food stylist for a shoot. It’s a highly collaborative relationship, and one that, up until March this year was difficult to manage from her home studio in Blackrock. But now, Monika has established a new collaborative studio space in Midleton, called Studio Five.

“I needed a space for myself, to be able to invite clients to, for photoshoots, somewhere to store the props rather than have everything lying around the house, and in general to have more space. 

"Primarily, Studio Five is for me, but I also rent it out to brands, other photographers and creatives. 

It’s a flexible space that can be used for photoshoots, workshops, cooking demos because there’s a fully equipped kitchen; the dining table extends to three meters and seats up to ten people for pop up dinners. There’s a lot of potential and a lot of floor space, 120 square metres.”

Studio Five isn’t just a space, Monika is investing in herself so she can shift to the next level of her business.

“This is a game changer really; a dream, to be able to work with chefs and stylists on projects, to have clients over - the studio is my focus this year. People walk in and don’t believe such a space exists in Cork! I’ve seen a few places like it in London, but this is a new concept here.”

Monika has been building on a strong creative flow that originated during lockdown. As businesses closed and uncertainties reigned, bookings dried up – no-one was investing in food photography during the first lockdown.

Craft Cocktails by Monika Coughlan
Craft Cocktails by Monika Coughlan

Rather than worry, Monika channelled her energies into a new project, and in just four months took a book project from concept to publication. For all the buzz that surrounds Ireland’s craft spirits industry, astonishingly, Monika’s self-published book, Craft Cocktails, was the first book of its kind to compile stories of some of Ireland’s most innovative spirits producers and put them together with 50 lip-smacking cocktail recipes, her own beautiful photography, and illustrations.

“In the first lockdown, there was the support-local-trend and people were really focusing on buying and supporting local. I thought, why not try to promote Irish spirits brands – we are supporting Irish food brands, but people were buying alcohol made in other countries and not enough focus on Irish ones, yet the spirit makers were still producing, working away.

“We couldn’t go out, and I could see on social media people were looking for inspiration for making cocktails at home. It all just came together. I contacted some spirits brands and did some research on how to publish; collaborated with two award-winning cocktail bars, Cask in Cork, and Bar 1661 in Dublin, and took photographs in my home studio. It all came together quite quickly.

Monika's Studio Five.
Monika's Studio Five.

There are no current plans for a sequel to Craft Cocktails, for now focus is firmly on the success of Studio Five.

As a wife, mother to two girls, aged 9 and 7, a professional photographer and studio founder, life is busy.

“The last few months have been crazy, so I’m trying to organise myself better and manage my time better to be able to spend more time with the kids.

“I am excited, but sometimes it can be easy to forget how far you’ve come. You go with the flow but then you have to stop and look back at what you’ve achieved because it’s very easy to forget. To stop and realise how amazing it is and that I should be really proud of myself. It’s usually someone else that has to say it to me, my husband, a client, or a colleague. You don’t see it yourself – you need to have someone say it to you.”

Follow Monika Coghlan on Instagram @pepperazzi_ie. For details about Studio Five, visit www.studio-five.ie.

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