Photo Insight with Cathal McNaughton – Surfer

June 27, 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

I was on an assignment in Brighton, East Sussex, when I took this image. I was trying to capture the infamous ‘weather picture’ that you see in all the newspapers – the image of children eating ice creams on the beach, for example, to illustrate a scorching summer. This type of assignment is every newspaper picture editor’s favourite thing for you to do [on slow news days]. If the weather is good, we’re asked to go and take a photo that will illustrate it; likewise if it’s bad weather.

I’d arrived in Brighton very early in the morning to get ahead of the crowds. It must have been around 7am and there was nobody around apart from a man surfing. As the saying goes, the early bird catches the worm, and on this occasion it was true – certainly in terms of the morning light, which I was able to use to bring out the colours in the scene.

I wanted to capture something different. Rather than only taking the standard shot of the surfer in the water I wanted to photograph the scene in an interesting way. I took a series of pictures of the man surfing, then when he came out of the water I had an idea for an image that used perspective and scale for effect.

If you glance at the picture quickly, it just looks like a row of buildings and there doesn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. But as your eye travels across the scene, you notice the surfer, who looks as though he is the same height as the buildings. You wonder what you’re looking at and (I hope) look at the image for a little longer and in more detail.

I wanted to show the surfer among the tower blocks so I approached him and asked him to stand in between the buildings. Generally, people tend to be quite amenable [when you approach them], and the man was happy enough to stand there for a moment or two for the picture. That said, you have to have a good idea of what you want to do first because you can’t take up all a person’s time and you don’t want to push your luck. I had my camera settings already primed – on this occasion 1/2500sec at f/6.3 with an ISO speed of 200 – so when it came to taking the picture it took as little time as possible.

The man’s position in the frame was crucial in order for the image to work. By placing the surfer in between the buildings and using a wider lens, he looks much taller than he really is. I used a 24-70mm lens with my Canon EOS 5D Mark III. I had to use a wider lens in order to make the buildings appear smaller in the frame. I also had to stand a fair distance back from the buildings to create the sense of perspective I was after, and shoot from a lower angle upwards so that the surfer would stand out against the sky. If I had photographed him from the same level, he would have been lost against the buildings. The picture only works because I was able to shoot from a lower angle.

Normally, you would want as much detail in your image as possible so would move closer to your subject, but on this occasion it wasn’t the detail that was important but the scale. Consequently, I moved further back from my subject. My focal length was also important. For an image like this, if you go too wide you’ll get converging verticals and lose the effect you’re after. You could say this image is visually playful, although not in a deceptive way. It slightly plays with viewer expectations. However, I’m not adding anything to the scene – I’m merely using what is there in a playful way to cause people to ask questions.

I’d never tried this approach before -it was just an experiment. Sometimes it’s good to play around with your shooting approach, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does work it can make an interesting picture. In fact, this image didn’t make the newspapers – the picture editors went for the ‘standard’ image of people eating ice creams. So, while it was nice to shoot something different, and I believe this is by far the better picture, you have to give the newspapers what they want. There is always a balance between fulfilling your own creative needs and making sure you file images that will pay. As a professional press photographer, you have to remember you are shooting for the publications and not for yourself. But I like to try to do both, so it’s a bit of a juggling act.

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Cathal McNaughton was talking to Gemma Padley

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