Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton

Cathal McNaughton explains why personal projects offer creative and emotional respite from shooting conflicts, and how getting the lighting right in-camera will give your image more punch

Award-winning 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.

This image is one of my favourite photographs. I didn?t shoot it for work, nor was I commissioned to do it. It was a personal shot, which I find I have less and less time for these days.

It was taken in Antrim, Northern Ireland, while I was on my way back from an assignment. I?d been covering a political story at Stormont so my creative mind was somewhere completely different at the time I spotted this scene. Driving back home I noticed this sight on the side of the road and it snapped me back from work mode. I had to pull over immediately.

What?s happening here is that somebody has shot some game, comprising a number of rabbits, pheasants and ducks, and decided to hang the animals in preparation for being plucked and skinned. The thing that makes this scene interesting is that whoever hung them happened to do so on a washing line next to their washing. The washing on its own or the game on its own might make a pleasant enough image given the surroundings, but their juxtaposition on the line ends up telling a small story about this person?s life. We can get an idea of who this person might be through the elements on display in the picture.

The reason I stopped and photographed this scene is also one of the reasons why this image is a favourite of mine. I cover a lot of conflict in my work and I?ve been in war zones both at home and abroad. I have seen so much violence and so many tears that when I have the opportunity to add some humour to what I?m doing every day I seize the moment. In my personal work I like to seek out a balance to the subjects I cover in my day job. I try to photograph things that will make people smile or make them wonder what?s going on. My goal is to get people to look twice at a photograph, and I thought this scene was certainly strange enough that the viewer may take a longer look.

While this image may look like a straightforward shot, it was fairly tricky to execute. The clothes and game were actually quite high off the ground. I couldn?t shoot them at eye level because they would have disappeared among competing distractions in the background, such as the car and caravan. The birds especially would have lost impact if they were shown to be merging into the background. I tried this and you couldn?t tell what they were.

So to prevent this happening I decided I had to kneel down and shoot up in order to frame them against the sky. This would help isolate them from other elements, and by zooming in I could fill the middle third of the frame with them so they are the dominant shape in the composition.

However, shooting into the bright sky created a tricky exposure situation. By exposing for the sky and preserving my highlights in the clouds I would have underexposed the game ? the main subjects ? and lost crucial detail, and I would have probably lost the caravan completely to shadow. I also didn?t want to bleach out the white T-shirt. This could have been easily fixed in Photoshop, but I?ve mentioned before that I try not to use any image-editing software because my job doesn?t allow it. This meant I needed to use flash to get the exposure right in-camera.

With a bit of fill-in flash and some trial and error I was able to get an even exposure, and I think the overall effect is punchier and much more natural than if I had corrected the exposure using software. The flash has really made the game and the washing stand out against the blue sky ? particularly the red jumper. It?s given the main subjects more bounce, which in turn lends a more theatrical feel to the picture through the odd quality of light.

Despite not wanting to frame the game against the caravan, I think the image benefits from including that part of the scene. I?d tried framing it without the caravan, but the impact just wasn?t the same. You lose the sense of environmental context by going tight and you can see that it gives the image some extra depth and an idea of space. Had I gone tight on a rabbit or bird, the picture wouldn?t have made a lot of sense. The viewer would need to rely on a caption to make sense of it. As a photojournalist, you want to make sure that any composition speaks for itself. If you need words to tell the viewer what you?re showing you?re not really showing the viewer anything.

My photography goes through different stages where I explore different styles, but one constant is my pursuit of quirkiness. It helps to lighten a heavy mood, and it?s something people can relate to. Shooting personal photographs like this is a nice respite because I am able to take my time and make sure everything is lit properly. I?m not dependent on events unfolding in front of me. That said, I don?t like to linger too long over compositions, otherwise it risks becoming too contrived. Good photography, I think, is about finding the perfect balance.

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