Medfield, February 17

My camera arrived on February 16; I unpacked it, set it up, and spent a while familiarizing myself with its controls – it’s not the first SLR I’ve ever used, but it is the first digital one and the first in many years, and that took a bit of getting used to.

I get up early on weekdays, so that I can spend some time every morning doing something I enjoy – usually one of a broad variety of projects, but on the morning of Friday the 17th, I was of course playing with my new camera, aiming it out my living room window to shoot a rather lovely sunrise. Glancing at the winter-bare trees between the buildings opposite, I saw the instantly familiar silhouette of a bird of prey. Thirty seconds later, with my feet stuffed into my boots and the 70-300 kit tele hastily mounted on my camera, I was downstairs and out the door.

Even zoomed all the way in on what was very clearly a sizable specimen even of the generally large Cooper’s hawk, I could scarcely believe my good fortune. Cooper’s hawks are hardly uncommon in these parts, but even here in Medfield, where foxes haunt the verges and whitetail graze unconcerned behind the row of apartment buildings in which I live, one doesn’t often see hawks just casually hanging out in the tree opposite one’s home!

But even at 300mm, I couldn’t get a very detailed shot from across the street, so I approached until I was about twenty feet out from the base of the tree in which this hawk had settled. By the tilt of her head I could see I had her attention, but she wasn’t terribly concerned, and I was able to obtain a couple of reasonably good exposures – good enough, at any rate, to show her plumage in considerable detail.

At this point, I had a choice to make. I wanted to get a closer shot, ideally from an angle where the hawk’s head would be properly visible. But in order to do so from where I was, I’d have to climb a short hill covered in frozen stubble, which would be quick and easy, but also very noisy. The other possible alternative would be to go up to the next street and behind the buildings there, which would put me on the other side of the completely pointless fence which tops the hill – an angle from which I’d be easily able to get very good shots, but a longer distance to travel, and more time in which my subject might decide to go somewhere else entirely.

I chose the hill. In retrospect, this was foolish, because of course making that much noise would unsettle a hawk enough to fly away, and indeed that’s exactly what happened. Seeing she’d gone in a southerly direction, I ran back down and out into the street again, in time to see her land in one of the larger trees down thataway – not only that, but land alongside another bird about her size but somewhat smaller, which I took to be the male to whom she’s mated. They didn’t stay very long – but long enough, at least, for me to get in another couple of quick shots, the better of which is included here, before they flew further south and were lost to further pursuit on my part.

Then, quite belatedly, I realized I’d been running around outside at seven o’clock on a February morning, in mid-twenty-degree temperatures, in a T-shirt, lounge pants, and untied boots with no socks on. So I went inside and shivered a bit, while reviewing the photos I’d just taken in frank astonishment at the degree to which some of them didn’t suck.

Before I bought my D5300, I’d briefly had a point-and-shoot, a Coolpix A900 – a very competent camera, but one which in the end I found unsatisfactory, and thus returned in favor of a full-on DSLR. I’d be lying to say that I didn’t suspect myself of extravagance in so doing – surely, the thought ran, I could take perfectly satisfactory pictures with a P&S, and replacing it with a camera twice as expensive, and capable of accepting interchangeable lenses more expensive still, was just pure wank, an example of improving one’s tools rather than one’s skills, of trying to buy one’s way into a hobby rather than invest the time and effort to get good at it.

That line of thinking didn’t last very long after my camera arrived. I was taught to use a single-lens reflex camera in early childhood, and the thing I’d forgotten about it was the immediacy it provides, in a way that nothing with an electronic screen instead of an optical viewfinder can replicate – looking down the finder, I get a sense of image that I’ve never found any display able to give me, including the one on my D5300 in live view mode. There’s a physicality to it that you just don’t get any other way; it’s hard to describe, and it may well rely on having been taught the proper way to shoot a film SLR in early childhood, but there’s just something about the way your hands settle on the grip and the lens, the eyepiece against your brow and your visual field full of the scene through the lens, that nothing else can offer. I won’t sit here and pretend that makes me take better pictures – but it’s the only style of photography I’ve ever found in which I feel as though I’m working with my camera, instead of against it.

Whatever vestigial doubt remained in my mind, as to whether getting a DSLR was a good idea, these Friday morning hawks laid permanently to rest. With my phone, I’d have had no hope whatsoever of getting any worthwhile photographs. With the Coolpix A900, full of bells and whistles though it was, it would’ve been a fiddly, finicky process of slowly pushing out a tiny lens and fumbling with tiny buttons and dials and wheels on something the size of a pack of cards, and maybe getting a shot or two in which it was possible to tell what you were looking at. With my D5300 – totally unpracticed, having been in possession of the camera at all for less than twenty-four hours, I was nonetheless able to achieve results which, while not up to the standard I’d set for myself given the same opportunity now, certainly are meritable enough in their own right that I’m not ashamed to post them here.

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