Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton

Award-winning Cathal McNaughton has more than ten years’ experience covering conflicts and breaking news for national newspapers and international press agencies. He shares his best press photographs and reveals how he captures a subject in ways that others haven’t seen

I took this photograph at the Northern Ireland Bog Snorkelling Championships in Peatlands Park, Dungannon, Co Tyrone, on 26 July 2009. If you want to find out more about bog snorkelling, be careful what you type into Google! Bog snorkelling is a sports event where competitors snorkel through trenches that have been cut through peat bogs filled with water. The winner is the person who can swim the designated length and back again in the shortest amount of time. The standard length tends to be 60 yards each way. It’s quite a popular event, but it’s really just a bit of fun.

I’d never covered this event before, but I knew about it and it’s something I thought would make for some interesting images. It’s quite a quirky and funny occasion, and I often look for humour when I’m photographing. If it’s not a hard news story, you can play around with the images and have a bit of fun.

People are on good form at an event like this and are generally receptive to being photographed, so in that way it’s an easy environment in which to work. However, in terms of the process of actually taking the images, from a logistical point of view there were a few challenges. As is often the case in photography, the simplest images are sometimes the hardest to take.

I took a pair of chest waders with me that fishermen use and climbed into the bog so I could photograph at water level. This is how I achieved the perspective and shooting angle you see here. I had to get down low in the water so the person would be prominent in the frame. Shooting in this way also ensured that my image had depth. As you can see, the sides of the bank converge in
the distance, helping to draw the eye into the picture. This image wouldn’t have been possible had I not been able to shoot from water level.

I had a rough idea of how I wanted to take this picture beforehand. Bog-snorkelling competitions take place across the UK, so I was aware of the terrain and shooting conditions I would be facing. The conditions would be wet and marshy, so I needed appropriate protective clothing – waterproofs and waders.

When I took this picture the race had already finished. Although the sign says ‘Start’, the other side of the banner says ‘Finish’, so the girl in this picture has just crossed the finishing line. I was careful not to get in the way of any of the competitors as they were competing. Some take the event quite seriously and they wouldn’t appreciate a photographer, or indeed anyone else, getting in their way. There were lots of people around, but they didn’t mind me taking pictures. It’s a good atmosphere and people are quite friendly. As long as you ask permission, there is no problem.

I actually shot an entire feature about the bog-snorkelling event – it made quite a fun picture story. This photograph sums up the event in one image, but I also took pictures of the various goings-on throughout the day. It was quite a carnival atmosphere. For example, there was a bog ‘Jacuzzi’ that was a bog bath cut into the bog and people were being power-hosed as they came out. I also took pictures of spectators watching the event – their reactions and so on – so there were lots of colourful elements to capture. Sometimes a story can’t be told in one picture or, to put it another way, a story is better told through a series of images. For example, a story that has lots of different aspects to it may be better suited to a series. When shooting a photo story you really have to think about what it is you want to convey and the best way of doing it. Sometimes an image from a series may not be interesting on its own – a detail or someone’s hand – but when viewed in context with the other images it adds something to the story.

I used a 16-35mm lens with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera. The scene was actually quite drab and the colours were quite flat, so I had to make sure the subject wasn’t lost in the surroundings. I did this by including colour in the image where I could, such as the sky and the flags in the background. Fortunately, the sky was quite bright that day. The scene was lit by natural light.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

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