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 at the funeral of a 16-year-old Protestant boy called Thomas McDonald. As far as I can remember, he had been killed in a hit-and-run incident that was thought to be sectarian. The boy had been riding his BMX bike when the car hit him. It happened about ten years ago in an area of north Belfast that, at the time, had seen sectarian clashes. Tensions between Roman Catholics and Protestants where the incident happened are known to have been high.

I was working for a local newspaper in those days and had been sent to cover the funeral. It was an especially tragic event. While you expect shootings or bomb blasts during the Troubles, as appalling as this is, you don’t expect a young boy to be killed in a sectarian-related hit-and-run incident. It was a huge funeral and hundreds of people turned out for it.

At these high-profile events there can be upwards of 20 photographers and there is sometimes jostling between them. This was quite a prominent news story at the time and it had garnered a lot of interest from the international media, so there was a considerable press presence.

I wanted to capture a sense of the atmosphere – the grief of the moment – but in a sensitive way. The situation surrounding the youngster’s death was a sensitive issue. I didn’t want to identify the boy crying in the photograph, as I was conscious of not intruding on the family more than necessary. I took a few frames where you could see the boy’s face as he was crying, but I didn’t feel the pictures had the same impact. They were too voyeuristic. Sometimes a subtle approach creates a more powerful image.

The boy covering his face is Thomas’s brother Stephen. I took pictures of the coffin and the funeral cortege, but I thought it was more poignant to show the grief-stricken boy with the out-of-focus coffin in the background. A picture of a young boy with his hand over his face alone doesn’t tell you a lot about the actual story, so I had to place him in some sort of context. That’s why the people carrying the coffin had to be in the picture, although I didn’t want them to be too prominent or they would detract from the main subject. It was a case of getting the right focal length and f-stop so they were in the scene, but not too obvious.

I had to shoot from a respectful distance so I needed a longish lens – on this occasion I used a Canon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens with my Canon EOS-1 camera. I was using Ilford Delta 400 black & white film. I remember that the light on the boy’s face and hand was quite good, so I imagine I would have been working at around 1/500sec at f/5.6. I didn’t want to keep zooming in and out because once you change the focal length you need to adjust your aperture as the depth of field changes. I already had an idea of the depth of field I wanted and had made the calculations in my head, so I knew I wanted to keep my focal length at around 200mm. It was a question of moving myself to create the best shooting angle to show the young boy and the coffin in the same frame, making sure the boy didn’t obscure what was going on behind him.

While no photographer is a robot and therefore devoid of emotion, you can’t allow yourself to become too emotionally attached to a story and let this affect your ability to do your job. Your job as a press photographer is to illustrate what is happening. That said, you have to show respect. There is a fine line between getting the correct shooting position and not being disrespectful by causing a fuss or a nuisance in an environment where people are grieving. This balance is something that is mostly achieved by experience.

Many things were going through my head at the time, but specifically I was thinking about my exposure, focal length, getting the image sharp and what was going on around me. I’ve mentioned this before in previous articles, but you have to remember that even when you are looking through the viewfinder, you must pay attention to things in your peripheral vision. These are sensitive situations and you don’t want to bump into people or cause a scene.

You can’t plan your shots beforehand, but when you’ve covered as many funerals as I have there is a checklist and you learn to tick these boxes as you go through the day. There are certain things that work, and things that you know the newspapers will publish. It’s pretty full on – you’re thinking on your feet the whole time. The light could change at any minute or it could rain, or someone could put up an umbrella and obscure your vision. You always have to be a few steps ahead of the game.

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

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