David Noton explains how he took this magical atmospheric image of stilt fishermen near Unawatuna in Sri Lanka

Photo Insight with David Noton

One 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

I took this image in Sri Lanka about ten years ago, before the tsunami in 2004. I had been travelling around the country for a month when I heard about these ‘stilt’ fishermen, and they were something I very much wanted to photograph. It’s a strange sight and something I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. The fishermen perch on these sticks that are embedded in the sand and it looks excruciatingly uncomfortable to me! You would have to have pretty good balance as they are out there for hours.

Earlier in the day I scouted along the coast to try to find out where the fishermen might be. We were driving in a tuk-tuk (those three-wheeled auto rickshaws), and we had a driver who took us everywhere we needed to go. The fishermen seem to appear at certain tide levels and tend to favour dawn and dusk, which is convenient for a photographer. I noted the orientation of the stilts and returned to the scene at dusk.

On this particular evening I really wanted to use a long lens perspective to isolate the fishermen against the setting sun – it was a very simple idea but one I hope has been quite effective. I was using my Nikon F5 with a 300mm lens. I wanted to be quite tight in on the fishermen so I had to be in the water, even though I was using a 300mm lens. If I’d waded in right up close to my subject and used a wider lens, the sense of the surf beyond the fishermen and that compression [of subject and background] caused by the long lens would be lost. Using a wider perspective would also have included lots of other detail that I didn’t want in the picture.

Every time a wave came along it washed away the sand from around the bottom of the tripod legs causing the tripod to sink slowly into the sand. Keeping the tripod level was quite difficult and it wasn’t very stable. Then again, keeping a 300mm lens steady isn’t easy at the best of times.

I kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is going to work.’ I wasn’t at all confident that the shot would turn out the way I wanted it to, but it was a case of, ‘Let’s give it a go, and if it does work, it will be great.’ You have to experiment in these situations.

The fishermen didn’t have a problem with me being there. There was quite a lot of banter actually between my wife Wendy and the locals. You don’t create great pictures from the car park – you have to get in there and make things happen. There will, of course, be times when people are unhappy with you taking their picture, and I never take pictures of people if they don’t want me to. It’s about being sensitive to people’s needs but getting the picture at the same time. You don’t want to live with the remorse of thinking, ‘I never tried to make that picture happen.’ If someone says, ‘No’, at least you’ve given it a try.

I took quite a few shots on this occasion and in the end only one or two frames worked in the way I wanted them to. Shooting film meant I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting at the time, but you work the scene, trying to improve the composition and responding to the changing light. If I feel I’ve got the shot and the light is past its best, I will call it a day. There is little point taking more frames than you need to.

There is a magical, mysterious quality about the scene. I photographed this view several nights in a row in different lighting conditions. On this particular evening there was a lot of sea haze. I like how the pale coloured sun is disappearing into the haze on the horizon and contrasts with the cool blue ambient light.

I was able to shoot into the light, making use of the setting sun to backlight my subject. If I’d been shooting in the morning, the light would have been immediately behind me, which wouldn’t have worked at all. But in any case there is something I like about the graphic backlit image – the shape of the stilts and so on. You don’t really need to see the detail of the stilts, although you can still make out some detail in the figures – they’re not total silhouettes.

The surf is breaking behind the fishermen. You can see I was using a fairly slow shutter speed, possibly 1/4sec. I wanted to slow my exposure down as much as I could to capture the movement in the swelling waves. I remember stopping down the lens little by little until I had the exposure I wanted.

I wanted to show something of the environment that the fishermen are in. I love showing how people live and work in different parts of the world. The fishermen would come and go, so in terms of balancing the elements in the frame I had to wait until there were a decent number of fishermen perched on the stilts. The fishing rods form interesting diagonals that contrast with the vertical lines of the stilts.

Looking back at this image now, it has a certain poignancy because of the tsunami in 2004. I was talking with someone who had recently come back from this part of Sri Lanka and he said the fishermen weren’t there any more. I sometimes wonder what happened to them.

This image means a lot to me on a personal level. When I was cutting my teeth as a travel photographer many of my trips were to the fringes of the Indian Ocean. I had visited several places hit by the tsunami. I actually returned to an area in Thailand that was badly affected, and the devastation was incredible. I took some images and spoke to people who had been affected. It was a humbling experience.

Going back made me reflect on how an image like this can be a record of how people live at a time in history. Maybe in 50 or 100 years’ time, people might look at my image and think about how people used to live.

David Noton was speaking to Gemma Padley

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