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

Pigs careering around an enclosed dirt track is not a sight you see every day, yet it’s not a completely uncommon pastime. You may see this bizarre activity at local fetes in some parts of England and Northern Ireland, and it is apparently quite popular 
in parts of southern America.

In pig racing, young pigs hurtle around a track that is lined with jumps. Onlookers watch and cheer, and it’s quite an exciting atmosphere. I’d come across pig racing before at various locations, not just in Northern Ireland, but I’d never photographed it until this occasion.

I took this image at a community fete in Cushendun, a small village north of Belfast, three years ago. I was at the fete with my family enjoying a day out. I wasn’t ‘on duty’, as such, but I had my camera – a Canon EOS-1D Mark III – with me as always because you never know what you might come across on any given day.

While wandering around the fete, I noticed the pig racing taking place and realised there was potential for some interesting images. This is a good example of spotting an interesting scene and photographing it until you have the shot you want. It pays to keep your eyes and ears open even when you haven’t gone out with the intention of photographing something specific. This may not be your average reportage shot, but it goes to show that there are images to be found even when you least expect them.

Here the pigs have woollen jockeys attached to their backs, which adds to the character and colour of the scene. Each pig has a number on its back and people can bet on which pig they think will complete the course first.

My shooting position was very important. I needed to be crouched down quite low to the ground and I had to shoot head-on to capture the full effect of the action. In order to gain access to where I wanted to be, I introduced myself to the race organisers and told them what I was doing. In a situation like this it pays to approach people and to be friendly and polite. If you explain what you’re doing, people are generally accommodating and understanding. If you have any doubt about taking pictures, it’s usually better to ask permission.

I was positioned at the end of the course so the pigs were running towards me. I had a 70-200mm lens attached to my camera and was shooting at f/4 with a shutter speed of around 1/1000sec. I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.

The end of the track was the place to be for the best angle. If I had been shooting from a different angle, such as side-on, the background would have been messy and distracting. But by getting down low I was able to minimise the background details. Shooting from a higher angle looking down on the scene would also have meant the viewer wouldn’t see how high the pigs were jumping and the image wouldn’t be as dynamic. All in all, this shooting angle makes the scene look even more surreal. I tried shooting from other angles, and took a few shots with a wideangle lens, but those images didn’t work so well.
I photographed several races and it took a few attempts to get the image I wanted. I needed a shot with at least one of the woollen jockeys sitting upright so the viewer could see what it was. In several of the shots the jockeys were falling all over the place – they are only made of wool, after all! To get one of those jockeys sitting upright took a bit of time and persistence, but eventually I succeeded.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

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