Cathal McNaughton tells the story behind this image of a farmer in a field and explains how a long lens allowed him to play around with perspective
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 near Templepatrick in Country Antrim, not far from Belfast. The field is covered in some sort of biodegradable film that is placed over the top of maize to keep the soil warm and help it to grow. It also protects the crops from the weather. I believe it is used in many places all over the world. Eventually, the film decomposes, although I’m not an expert on this sort of thing.
As you can see in this image, the film has created these eye-catching stripes and patterns across the field, which form quite dramatic lines that lead up from the foreground to the distance. I had noticed this field the previous day, but the weather wasn’t quite right – it was either too wet or too dull – so I came back the next day. The image wasn’t taken as part of an assignment; I had been out covering a different job that day and on the way home wanted to take this picture because the elements were right, so I deliberately drove past this field. It was taken as a standalone picture and has subsequently been used all over the world to illustrate various stories.
I spotted the farmer in the field who was tending his crops. I spoke to him whenever he came back round towards me because I wanted to find out what he was doing – I needed to know what the coverings on the field were and so on. I also spoke to him out of courtesy. He wanted to know what I was doing, so I explained to him that I was a photojournalist.
There are very few elements in the picture, but each one has an important part to play in the overall composition. If you break the picture down, you really have only three key components: the sky, which provides a neutral background; the lone figure; and the stripey field. Although the farmer was walking around the whole field and I shot other frames using a wider-angle lens with him right up close next to me, I found this particular image worked best because there were so few elements in the picture, which created a clean composition.
I knew what I wanted to capture in this image before I took it. In other words, this is the exact picture I had in my mind. It wasn’t a scene I just happened to stumble across. I had to wait until the farmer had moved all around the field and he was in the exact position I wanted. The placement of the figure was key to the success of the image. He is perfectly positioned (stepping over the top of one of the white stripes) to draw the eye. Indeed, I had to wait for all the elements to come together in the way I wanted, so in that way the composition is very deliberate.
The farmer really stands out against the sky and this is due in part to the low angle I’ve shot from. The low angle and my use of a long lens to compress the scene give a slightly odd perspective, which is done on purpose. I was using a 70-200mm lens with my Canon EOS-1D Mark III camera. I believe I would have been using an aperture of f/5.6 and a shutter speed of approximately 1/2000sec. The long lens has allowed me to create a shallow depth of field almost at infinity. The man is completely sharp – he had to be pin-sharp for the viewer to make him out.
In terms of my exposure, I had to watch out for the contrast between the black and white stripes, which might have caused the camera to over or underexpose the scene. I was shooting at a fast shutter speed because I wanted the picture to be quite contrasty. The scene looks almost monochrome, even though it’s shot in colour. The man isn’t a complete silhouette – you can still make out what he is wearing. In fact, by coincidence he is actually wearing a stripey jumper!
You could say there is a slight quirkiness and narrative feel to the image. I work for a major wire agency that supplies images to many different media platforms and magazines, so a picture like this that is a bit different will always fulfil the criteria for something somewhere. If a picture catches your eye, it stands a greater chance of being picked up and used by the media.
I think I ended up sending the pictures to the farmer, although I don’t always do this. Because I’ve established a relationship with him I now have a contact in the farming industry in this part of Northern Ireland, which may be useful for future stories. If, for example, I’m working on an agricultural story, I could contact the farmer and he may be able to help me or put me in touch with someone who can give me the access I need. Building up a contact base and network of people in different areas and industries is crucial in journalism whether you are a writer or a photographer.
In terms of the stories I work on, it tends to be a case of finding things myself and accepting commissioned work. I often work on my own, so I generally make my own contacts and usually gather the information myself, but I enjoy this and it’s all part of the job. For breaking news stories you have to react to what’s happened and there isn’t time to research ideas in too much depth, but for feature-led or ongoing stories you have time to try a variety of angles and approaches. As a photojournalist I’m always researching stories and am constantly on the lookout for ways to illustrate them.
Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley
To see more images by Cathal or to book a place on one of his workshops visit www.cathalmcnaughton.com
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