Steel Plate On Utility Pole

The Scene

I believe the old adage is true which states that the most important attribute of a musician is the ability to hear and the most important attribute of a photographer is the ability to see. I certainly don’t claim to see more than most photographers but I do make a habit of trying to look at things through fresh eyes as often as possible. That habit lead to the photograph shown above.

When I worked in Knoxville, Tennessee, I walked two blocks to Ramsey’s Cafeteria nearly every day for lunch. Several parallel parking spaces were located along the sidewalk in front of Ramsey’s and one space contained a large wood utility pole at its end. The pole sustained a lot of damage from drivers bumping it as they maneuvered to park.

The power company eventually wrapped a thick steel plate around the pole to shield it from the drivers. I walked to lunch day after day and watched as the metal plate become more blemished from frequent contact with cars. Numerous scratches and a wide variety of colored paint accumulated on the plate through the years which caused it to develop more character after each new decoration was applied.

I eventually took my camera to work to photograph the plate during my lunch break. People walking on the sidewalk looked perplexed as they tried to understand why someone would want to photograph an old utility pole. Ah, I thought, they can’t see the beauty that is right in front of them. Maybe photographers have an advantage after all!


The subject of this photograph was the collection of abstract shapes and textures that had accumulated on the steel plate over time. I lowered the tripod to position my camera about 18 inches from the ground so it was at the same height as the plate.

Obtaining adequate depth-of-field was a challenge since the plate was only about 14 inches wide and 20 inches high and both sides of it curved sharply around the pole. To emphasize the three dimensional curvature of the plate, I placed my camera quite close to the pole and selected a slightly wide-angle lens (120 mm) to gain depth-of-field around the plate’s curvature. Shifting the depth-of-field with lens or camera-back swings and tilts would not be useful in this case since the scene required sharp focus top-to-bottom and left-to-right. The only other option available to gain depth-of-field (besides using a somewhat small focal length lens) was to stop down the lens aperture.

A few quick reads with my light meter revealed that tones on the plate did not vary much in brightness. I placed the average brightness on Zone V and marked my exposure record to substantially increase film development time (N+2) to expand the contrast of the film markedly (two f-stops). The lens was stopped down to f/45 and the film was exposed for 1/4 sec.


I drum-scanned the 4 inch x 5 inch film at 5,000 dpi and16-bit pixel depth. The computer monitor showed that the film exposure and development produced excellent tones with good focus throughout the image. Scratches and paint colors showed up beautifully in the digital black and white image from the scanner.

However, I performed quite a few edits to strengthen the image.

The photograph was intended to be abstract from the beginning so I felt free to turn the image upside down. This was done because my eye moved through the image vertically more than horizontally and movement seemed to occur more strongly in one direction than the other. I thought it would be better if the dominant direction of eye movement was up rather than down and turning the image upside down accomplished that.

Next, I expanded image contrast moderately with a levels adjustment and then applied a curve to shift tonal values slightly to further separate the various paint colors. A few areas near the the image perimeter were darkened to coax the eye toward the image center.

I do not apply sharpening during scanning and I seldom apply sharpening during image editing. Instead, only a moderate amount of sharpening is usually applied during printing to counter the image blurring that is associated with dot gain when ink droplets spread on the paper. However, this particular image is one of the few that was improved substantially when a liberal amount of global sharpening was applied (during printing). I thought that sharpening strengthened the abstractness of the image. Please note that, compared to the print, the image shown above does not display abstractness from sharply defined texture since little texture is revealed in such a tiny image.

When exposing the film at the scene, I thought this image would look best when printed small (say, 8 inch x 10 inch). However, preparing test prints at various sizes convinced me that the image contained a considerable amount of important texture that is only revealed when the image is printed at larger sizes. On the other hand, I found that the image does not work well when printed at a very large size because it seemed too unnatural. I finally settled on a 19 inch x 24 inch print size which is slightly larger than the actual size of the steel plate but still seems logical. At that size, many scratches, rust and other structural features of the metal are strongly defined and visible to the human eye.


I believe this photograph is quite beautiful. For me, it looks somber and alluring and is quite different than how I think most people would see a utilitarian piece of steel. The various colors of paint and texture are defined sharply on the print and the abstract nature of the image works well.

Any comments you might have on this image, the photographic approach used for it, the image composition or the workup of the film will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this image, visit here.

Randall R Bresee