Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton

Cathal McNaughton explains how to compose your subjects prominently and why post-production challenges the integrity of an image.

Cathal McNaughton has more than ten years? experience covering conflicts and breaking news for national newspapers and international press agencies. He will share his best press photography and reveal how he captures a subject in ways others haven?t seen.

As a press photographer, you have to be prepared to go anywhere at a moment?s notice and be ready to take pictures no one else is taking while you?re in a challenging and unfamiliar environment. Such was the case when I was sent to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. Many other media outlets and photographers were out there, so it was important that the images I captured told the story I had been sent to cover and yet were unlike all the other photographs people had already seen.

I was there to document the nascent Afghan national police force that was beginning to patrol the Lashkar Valley. The young officers were travelling through the region?s many poppy fields looking for farmers who they suspected were producing heroin. There were a lot of great shots to be had while they were doing this, and I experimented with all sorts of portraits, wideangle views and action shots. Yet when I looked at the images later, they didn?t strike me as something unique that would grab the reader?s attention.

To make subjects stand out more and produce a stronger image, sometimes I think you have to compose things very prominently. By this I mean you need to make the subject either very small or very big within your frame. Exaggerating your subjects like this makes you look at them more closely, which in turn gets you thinking more about the context of their surroundings and the greater message.

In this case, with the Afghan policemen, I knew I had to give an impression of the territory that these three men were trying to patrol. To me, that was the heart of the story. These three young guys were being asked to enforce new laws by patrolling a wide expanse of land that they could never have any realistic authority over.

The only way I could think to emphasise the vastness of the landscape was actually to make it black. As the light was falling I was able to frame the policemen as they stood in profile against the setting sun. I?d been out all day with them visiting various tribal leaders near the base we were staying at, and this was one of the last shots I?d taken before we retired for the evening. It had suddenly occurred to me that if I went wide and framed the subjects small in the corner so they were facing left and looking out at the wide expanse of land, I could perhaps better show the impossibility of their task.

There?s no light to the left of the policemen so I couldn?t show the landscape even if I wanted to, but I thought that worked very well both aesthetically and in terms of the story. I tried a version of this shot that was a bit tighter, but I liked this one and the way that it emphasised the space.

To capture this shot, I stood at the bottom of a hill and the policemen were up on a ridge. They were spending the night there in what is one of the deadliest places on earth. Unless you?re there you can?t imagine the loneliness, so this was another element that I thought the sea of black empty space in the frame helped emphasise.

There was slightly more light than is suggested in this picture, but I wanted the sky to go as dark as possible so I could get a clean, two-dimensional silhouette. I shot the frame a very fast shutter speed and a small f-stop to make it go as black as possible. I also wanted the light to register around the men and no more than that. To do this, I again needed the fast shutter speed to cancel out all the stray light bouncing around the frame.

I sound confident now, as if I had it all planned out, but really I only had a rough idea what I was doing at the time. When you?re working off other people?s actions it?s difficult to plan too much, although I do try to be meticulous in my compositions. I compose all my pictures and do all the editing in-camera if possible, to save me having to do post-production because I?m actually not allowed to.

Through experience I knew the effect I was looking for and that I was able to get it in this way. You can achieve this silhouette effect in Photoshop, but the reality is that you can capture a lot of those effects in-camera if you just take the time. Photoshop is a brilliant tool if used properly, but too often it?s misused. I think that pictures lose a degree of integrity if you use too much Photoshop to alter their reality. In photojournalism, in particular, using software for even the most basic adjustments can bring your picture into question. For my own piece of mind, I like to shoot my pictures as loose and as raw as possible.

To see more of Cathal?s photography, or to book a place on one of his workshops and field trips, visit