David Noton explains how he took this misty, atmospheric image of the round tower in Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland

Photo Insight with David Noton

of the foremost travel and landscape photographers working today, David Noton tirelessly travels the world in search of new challenges, which he shares with you here

Before dawn breaks is a magical time of the day, as any landscape photographer will attest. It is especially magical in a place such as Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, County Wicklow, Ireland, where this image was taken. In this photograph you can see the famous round tower built on an early medieval monastic settlement, appearing from the mist in the distance. The round tower was sometimes used as a place of refuge from invaders such as the Vikings. I wouldn’t like to be stuck up the top of a tower with Vikings running amok below! It is approximately 30 metres high and an impressive sight to behold. In this image, however, I wanted to show the round tower in its environment.

This was my first visit to the Wicklow region of Ireland. I’ve always visited the west coast of Ireland, which is well known and very beautiful, but I thought I’d explore the Wicklow region as it is also known for its picturesque landscapes. I’d spent about four days in the area – this was my third morning there, I think. On previous days I’d been investigating the area, embarking on location scouts, planning where I needed to be at what time of the day and so on. I was drawn to locations that might stand as a symbol of the country – these towers are very much unique to Ireland. The beautiful setting – the tower surrounded by the sprawling hills – also drew my eye.

The round tower almost becomes part of the landscape – you don’t immediately know what you’re looking at. This was most likely a subconscious decision. I tend to predetermine my composition before I even touch the camera. Composition is one of the hardest things to articulate since so much of it is instinctive. I’d considered the possibilities of getting closer in or pulling back, and decided in the end to frame the shot to show the round tower in its surroundings.

I used a 24-70mm lens with my Canon EOS-1D Mark II camera attached to a tripod. My exposure was 1/6sec at f/11 and I remember I used a 0.6 ND grad filter. My focal length was around 45mm; if I’d gone wider it would have accentuated the foreground rather than the background, and I wanted a pleasing balance between the two.

I would have assessed the histogram on the camera and, with a low-contrast image like this, have inevitably dialled in an extra stop of overexposure. The image would probably have looked a little washed out on the LCD screen, but by doing exposing to the right I could maximise the amount of information in the image and bring back the detail subsequently if I needed to. It’s easier to deal with low-contrast conditions than high contrast as you can always put contrast back into an image afterwards if necessary. Having spent most of my working life using film, I’m used to previsualising a scene and not relying on the camera’s LCD screen. What you see on the screen can be misleading and, while it’s a useful tool for reference, it can also be distracting.

You could say there are different layers to the image (from a compositional point of view rather than in the Photoshop sense of the word). In the foreground are thorny gorse bushes covered in what appear to be spiders’ webs that are in turn covered in dew. I love the shape of the trees in the middle distance, shrouded in mist, which creates an almost watercolour quality, and of course the strong shape of the tower. The mountains beyond comprise a third layer, adding further context to the image.

I took this image in October if I remember rightly. In Ireland at this time of year, the weather is an obvious issue so a large amount of patience is needed. Because I took this shot before the sun had risen, there is a hazy blue colour temperature to the light. I set my camera to daylight white balance, which meant the bluish light would be recorded as such, rather than neutralised by the camera.

After I had taken this image, I hung on and waited for the first sunlight on the scene. By the time the light came, most of the mist had burned off. I knew this image, with its mysterious blue haze, was the shot. It was time to call it a morning. Besides, the prospect of an Irish breakfast was too strong.

It is easy to take 20 pictures of the same thing and not know when to stop. The other common mistake is not to recognise the optimum time to take the shot – on workshops I sometimes find that when the best light comes people are looking elsewhere. Someone once said to me, ‘I know there is a decisive moment to take the picture, but I can’t recognise when it is!’ Recognising this moment comes with experience.

It is important to critique your images – to look at what worked and what didn’t, and to try to work out why, and also think about how you could make it work next time. I often believe you learn more from your mistakes than from your triumphs.

The key is to really analyse the scene you are looking at, to look closely at what the light is doing and how it is changing. In this way, you build up an internal database of knowledge about natural light, which you can draw on at a later time.

David Noton’s book Full Frame, priced £25 and published by David & Charles, is now available. It follows David’s journey to ten different locations around the world and gives invaluable insight into his approach and working methods.

To see more images by David visit www.davidnoton.com

David Noton was speaking to Gemma Padley