Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton – Gull Flying Past Mural

February 12, 2013

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 while I was covering a Bloody Sunday memorial service in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago. On 30 January 1972 in Derry (also known as Londonderry), British Army soldiers shot 26 unarmed civil-rights protesters and bystanders, 13 of whom died. A 14th person died later in hospital. This incident became known as Bloody Sunday around the world.

The background of my image shows a mural in the Bogside area of Derry. The mural has become one of the most iconic images of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It shows a group of men, led by a Catholic priest, carrying the body of 17-year-old John ‘Jackie’ Duddy, who was killed during the Bloody Sunday shooting. In my picture, a gull, its wings backlit, is flying past the mural.

Before the memorial service, I was photographing what was going on around me – people going about their daily business and so on. It was an emotional occasion as relatives of some of the victims were there, but as a professional photographer you have to distance yourself from what’s going on and get on with what you have to do, which in this case was to document the events of the day.

I had been photographing people walking past the mural when I spotted a group of gulls flying around overhead. I thought that if I could capture one of the gulls flying past the mural, it would make an interesting composition. It was one of those occasions when I could see the potential for a great picture, but it was a case of finding a way to bring all the individual elements together to make the photograph ‘work’.

It took about 15 or 20 minutes of shooting to get this picture. I found that the gulls were either flying in the wrong direction or didn’t fly in front of the mural in the way I wanted. During this time, I took other images with several gulls in the frame but, for me, this one worked especially well.

In terms of the technical demands, it was a very tricky shot to capture successfully. First, it was difficult because I was trying to focus on the bird as it was flying. Second, I had to ensure that my exposure was spot on, which wasn’t easy as there is a lot of contrast between the darkest (the mural) and lightest (the bird) elements of the scene.

I had to be careful not to underexpose the mural in the background – if this had happened then the photograph would have been pointless because you wouldn’t be able to see what the mural is showing. I needed to use a fast shutter speed in order to freeze the bird as it was flying, but at the same time the depth of field had to be sufficient for people to see the mural. Added to this, the composition also had to be right, so there were many elements that had to come together to create a successful photograph. There was lots of potential for the shot not to work, but after several attempts (and a certain amount of trial and error) everything came together as I’d hoped, and you can see the resulting image here.

I had been using my Canon EOS-1D Mark IV camera with a 70-200mm lens, but I switched to a 300mm lens to allow me to compress the elements in the frame. As you can see, the longer lens allowed me to create the illusion that the background and foreground were closer together.

I had to go back to my car to fetch the 300mm lens and I remember hoping that the gulls would still be there when I returned, which fortunately for me they were.

I do believe that there is a symbolic element to this image. In the back of my mind, as I was photographing the scene, I felt there was a parallel between the gull in this picture and a dove, which is traditionally known as a symbol of peace. The mural also provides a historical link to the past and is an enduring reminder of what happened on that sad day.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

To see more images by Cathal McNaughton or to book a place on one of his workshops visit