Steel Tree


Steel Tree

Spring is here, and the brown is gradually turning to green, but not without a sudden burst of color as the first buds appear. Soon it won’t just be the evergreen trees adding color to the landscape. But there’s one tree here that is not going to change its color, because it is made of steel. There are some cellular radio towers that are deliberately disguised as trees, with brown columns and fake branches to hide the antenna clusters. However, as companies doing wireless services have proliferated, and more frequencies have come into use, even undisguised towers in desirable locations have begun to look like trees, albeit without the color, due to multiple sets of antenna clusters.

Some might not like this image, seeing the subject as an intrusion of the modern world on pristine nature. But I have a different perspective. Radio towers of any form are not pretty, but cell towers do have a strength to them. Much like a tree, they reach for the sky all on their own with a simple, functional, structure. And I prefer an honest structure such as this one to a fake tree.

This image is a crop from an original taken with the lens set to 97mm, at ISO 400, f/11 and 1/200 exposure. White balance was adjusted to 5807°K based on a grey reference. This is one of the rare instances where I wished I had a long telephoto, as “digital telephoto” (trading pixels for effective zoom) via cropping isn’t something I like doing.

I had a choice of using the original, where the tower was more of a background element and the foreground river and shrubs were more prominent (but not exactly a focal point) or cropping to make the tower more of a focal point for the image.  I prefer this composition. I also like the layered look of the colors caused by the different height shrubs in the foreground and the trees in the background.

The muted colors and overcast sky are good, giving a feel of spring on the way but with winter not quite gone. However the composition is weak. The foreground still draws the eye, but not to anything in particular. And nothing other than the layering of colors leads the eye to the supposed focal point of the cell tower. I almost gave up on this, but I like the subject, and if I only posted perfect images, this blog would be blank. I need to think even more about composition when taking my photos; that’s a lesson for myself worth reinforcement.

This picture was taken last weekend in the Charles River Reservation in Medfield, MA, a partially-forrested area alongside the river and its marshlands. Although used today for recreation and as a wildlife preserve, this is an area that was once very important agriculturally: the river grass was used for animal feed by settlers going back to the 1600’s. The surrounding land, now largely suburbia, although of a somewhat rural character, was once farmland.

This is one of a series of small wildlife refuges and similar natural areas along the river that form part of a natural flood-control system of wetlands. The idea, based on an Army Corps of Engineers study from the 1970s, is that heavy rainfall or snowmelt will flood the marshes harmlessly, then discharge back into the river over several days, at a rate that is easily managed. As a result, much of the marshland is now preserved from any development, and many millions that might have been spent on more intrusive flood control measures were avoided (one estimate of the cost otherwise was $100M). A good if slightly dated book on the subject is “The Charles, a people’s river”, by Max Hall (1986).

It was only mid-afternoon when I arrived, but dark clouds were rolling in and the forecast was for rain, which arrived less than an hour later.  In part, I’d come out to test my new gray reference (a Spyder Cube) to see how well it worked in the real world. For that I needed to take a photo, but something in me just rebels against snapping a random shot without a subject. I was hoping to find some old stone walls or similar echos of that time on the higher ground alongside the marsh, which is as good an excuse as any to go for a walk in the woods.

The light was already fading and I’d begun to think I wouldn’t find anything to shoot, so I decided to go down to the river’s edge and take a picture of the foliage across the river. The trail here runs several dozen feet above the river along a ridge, and the view of the marsh was largely blocked by branches from trees lower down.

Down at the water, I was looking through the viewfinder trying to spot an interesting composition of trees and water, and checking light levels for my exposure, when I turned to the side and saw the cell tower rising above the distant treeline.  Serendipity at its finest. I had to move to find a spot where it wasn’t blocked by underbrush, but eventually did and took this photo and several others.

After that, I completed the loop of trail back to the parking lot, arriving shortly before the rain. The only stone wall I saw was so buried in vines that it would have been a picture of a heap of vines rather than a vine-covered wall.

Other Stuff

The Spyder Cube worked well in this instance, and in another test I made later in the week. However in a third test it produced an obviously incorrect result. The problem appeared to be that it was near a painted fence and the gray was receiving a high amount of reflected light from that, skewing the result. So that’s an important tip: I need to position the cube where it receives the same light as the subject and isn’t affected by some other source, if I want it to be a valid reference.

My camera doesn’t have GPS, but starting with this photo I’ve begun adding location coordinates to these images using Aperture’s Places map. This took me a little while to figure out, as it needs to be enabled in multiple places for the data to actually show up in the exported image, and that wasn’t obvious. The user interface is also poor by Apple standards. My first few attempts to create locations or assign them failed; it’s all too “modal” to be intuitive, and that’s a surprising lack on their part. But I have it working now. Note that GPS data, like other image metadata, only appears in the full-size image, and not in the thumbnail (it’s a quirk of the blog software). You need to click on the image to get the full-size version and save that to see the info.

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