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 image as part of a story I was working on about Catholicism in Ireland. I travelled to places all over the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland last year, searching for images to illustrate the feature. I photographed a range of subjects, from statues of the Virgin Mary to altars and other Catholic iconography. But one aspect of the story that was missing was first Holy Communion. A person’s first Holy Communion is an important event in the Catholic Church. It is when a person receives the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

I’d heard about a Holy Communion that was happening locally in Cushendall, north Antrim, on the north-east coast of Northern Ireland. This image of twin sisters Aine and Emer Quinn was taken at a local hall after they had made their first Holy Communion at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Cushendall. Traditionally, there is a reception afterwards where the families enjoy refreshments. It’s a chance for people to talk to each other and bond.

The reception was actually at the primary school I went to as a boy. That’s part of the reason I was able to photograph so freely there. I had been through a police security check and had permission from the teacher of the school to take pictures.

When photographing in an environment where there are children, it’s important to have permission from the parents. I had made eye contact with the girls’ parents before I started photographing, so they were aware of what I was doing.

When I arrived at the hall I looked around to see if there was anything that might be suitable to photograph. I spotted the twins very quickly. I knew I wouldn’t have much time before they became aware of my presence. People react differently to the camera and you never know quite what their reaction will be. I wanted the picture to look as if there was no reaction between them and me – as if I’d caught them unawares. Luckily, the twins were so interested in the sweets and crisps they were eating that they didn’t pay me any attention at all.

I’d already set the exposure on my camera and I had a rough idea of the focal length I needed. I was using my Canon EOS-1D Mark IV camera with my favourite 24-70mm lens at a focal length of 38mm. I didn’t use any flash. I took this image at 1/125sec at f/5.6 and ISO 1000. I fired off a few frames very quickly in case the twins started laughing or shied away from the camera, but fortunately they stayed there for a few seconds – which was just long enough for me to capture the pictures I wanted.

I found this scene visually striking. The fact that the girls in the image are twins makes the photograph instantly interesting, but there are other details that stand out, too. Their outfits almost look like wedding dresses and they have a wonderful, colourful selection of crisps, sweets and fizzy pop in front of them. The vacant expressions on their faces are intriguing. It’s amazing that I’m right in front of them, but they haven’t made eye contact. They seem completely oblivious to me, wrapped up in their own worlds.

I only spent about half an hour at the reception because once I’d photographed this scene I knew I had the picture I needed. If I see something that catches my eye, I will take the shot and move on – I won’t hang about. You can sometimes ‘overshoot’ a scene, which means more work when you get home and edit the images.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

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