Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton – Silhouettes

April 10, 2012

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

The man in this image is a bird fancier – not someone who fancies birds, I hasten to add! A bird fancier is someone who rears or collects rare or curious birds. It’s a serious hobby for some people. Bird fanciers sometimes enter competitions with their collections of birds – in a way, it’s a bit like entering a dog show such as Crufts, but with birds. The man is actually a friend of the family. For his hobby he’s travelled all over Ireland and the UK, and won several awards.

On this occasion I was at my friend’s house on a social visit. I knew he kept canaries – I had seen them before – but I didn’t set out with the intention of taking a picture. I did, however, have my camera with me, as always.

The canaries are kept inside a shed-like building. During the day, my friend takes the birds from the larger cages and puts them in individual cages, leaving them next to a window to give them some light. The problem is that birds of prey can hear and see the canaries, and they try to attack them. My friend was telling me that birds of prey had been smashing into the windows in an attempt to get to the birds on the other side. This image show my friend putting up a protective screen over the windows so the light can still shine through, but the canaries within can no longer be seen by predators.

I thought this was an interesting scene, as it’s not something you see every day, and I wondered whether there was a picture to be made. It goes to show that you should always have your camera with you.

As with any picture-making opportunity, I had studied the scene from different angles to work out the best way of photographing what was in front of me. I had taken several frames from outside the shed, but to capture the full impact of the scene it had to be photographed from inside.

I like the strong shapes in the picture and the pleasing light coming through the window. I wanted to bring out the graphic lines so the picture had to be dark, which meant using a fast shutter speed. I knew the shutter speed was going to be quite fast because there was lots of light coming in through the window. I was shooting into the light, which enabled me to turn the birds and the figure almost into silhouettes.

The picture almost looks monochromatic, but you can just pick out small areas of yellow on the canaries’ bodies in the bottom right-hand corner that make the scene more interesting. The light is just catching the birds at the edges, so they don’t look like two-dimensional cut-outs.

My exposure was critical. I wanted to make sure the viewer could clearly make out the birds against the man’s silhouette, and had the scene been any darker the man would have been lost in a dark area of shadow. If I had used a faster shutter speed it would have been easy for everything to go completely black and all detail would have been lost. If this had happened there would have been no depth to the picture and it would have been very one-dimensional. The image could just as easily have been bleached out as be totally black, so there was little leeway for the exposure. Bracketing the exposure is the sensible option in a situation like this.

I would have known roughly what the exposure should be and then fine-tuned this. I would have been shooting at around ISO 400 at about a 1/1000sec. The exposure is, of course, determined by the shutter speed and f-stop, so you have to decide which is more important in the situation you are photographing. In this situation both were quite critical, but because there wasn’t a great depth of field I knew I could open the aperture to f/5.6. I then adjusted the shutter speed to fine-tune the exposure. It is important to know what you want the exposure to be, so I always advise setting the camera manually [to take full control].

I used my 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens with my Canon EOS-1D Mark IV DSLR. Space was limited inside the shed and I was completely up against the wall. I had to use a wider lens because the room was so confined, but if I’d had a choice I would have opted for a 70-200mm lens at a long focal length to ensure all the lines were straight and there was no distortion. I used autofocus on this occasion. It was crucial that everything was in focus, otherwise the image would not have worked.

Sometimes as a photographer I’m illustrating a particular news story, but at other times I’m ‘shooting for the wire’ – to see if the image will be used for a news story. I enjoy creating images that make the viewer think, making ‘something’ out of an ordinary scene. There is nothing odd about what’s going on here – it’s just a man going about his business, yet the scene has a certain mysterious, intriguing quality to it. It’s about capturing those seemingly insignificant moments that happen every day – by being receptive and alert to what’s going on around you.

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

Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

To take part in a free street photography Masterclass with Cathal, send an email with your name, address, telephone number and a couple of sentences about your photographic interests and experience to

Free download!

Get your free digital download of Improve Your Photography - Photoshop & Lightroom!