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 picture in the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland. It was a warm summer’s day and I had been driving along the coast. I was out and about with my camera, seeing what I could photograph. We don’t get that much good weather in Northern Ireland, so on this day there were quite a few people around the coast.

I drove towards the pier to see if there were people fishing or sunbathing and happened to see a pair of legs dangling over the pier wall. I knew instantly there was a photograph to be had because the scene was so quirky. This, coupled with the beautiful blue sky, made a great composition.

The man is either sunbathing or resting. The reason there are Wellington boots in the image is that the man and the children who were with him had been paddling in a rock pool beside the pier. They had taken off their wellies because it was a warm day.

I wanted the image to look as odd as possible. It was already a strange scene, but the contrast between the wall, the legs and the grass verge makes you wonder why anyone would want to be lying there. You look at the picture and almost do a double take. What you can’t see is that there is a beautiful coastline just outside the frame, and if I had shown that coastline, in order to put the person in context, the picture wouldn’t have been so oddly compelling. It would have been immediately obvious that the man was sunbathing, but from this angle you don’t know this is the wall of a pier – it could be a wall anywhere. The picture asks more questions than it gives answers. What is going on here? Why is this person lying on a concrete wall? Why are there two sets of wellies when there is only one pair of legs?

There is a certain quirkiness to my pictures and I always like to enhance that if I can – to leave people wondering what is going on, to create a talking point around the picture. It is something that has developed naturally – it’s not something I set out to do, but over the years my style has moved in that direction.

A lot of the work I do is quite serious or political, so it’s always nice to inject an element of humour or oddity into images of everyday things. A lot of the time when on an assignment I don’t have the option to inject humour, so when I’m creating standalone pictures for myself, I go in search of humour. Come to think of it, my mentor at the newspaper where I started out – the Irish News – always tried to come back with something different. There was humour in his pictures and that probably rubbed off on me.

In reportage photography, if it’s a specific news event you don’t want to be seen to be skewing reality in any way, but if the subject is more fun or light-hearted I don’t see a problem with [adding a touch a humour or being creative.] This picture is heading more towards art than reportage. That said, I shot exactly what was in front of me, so this is the scene as I saw it.

Selective editing and focusing occurs in every photograph we take, with everyone putting their own stamp on a scene. I believe that often less is more, but there are no hard-and-fast rules. One or two elements can sometimes be enough, otherwise things can get very messy and your message can get lost. The focus of this picture is very clear, and as I wanted people to look at the man’s legs I tried to keep only his legs in the picture. Placing the subject slightly off to the side draws more attention to it, not less. It’s also pleasing to the eye. There has to be a reason to place something in the centre of a picture, and I find that looking at images where the subject is dead centre can make me feel quite uncomfortable. To place this subject in the centre would almost be too much, as it would shout out, ‘Look at these legs!’ The picture is obvious enough, so placing it off to the side is a more subtle approach.

As the man hadn’t seen me, I took just a few frames and left. The picture was already there so I didn’t have to do much to fine-tune it. I used my Canon EOS-1D Mark II with a 24-70mm lens. The exposure was 1/5000sec at f/9, and ISO 400

I am not trying to get any particular point across in this picture. Photography can sometimes be far too serious, so often it’s good just to be funny.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

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