Something of a trenchantly elegiac mood this time, I fear. Medfield, where I’ve made my home over the past couple of decades, is being changed in ways I do not love – I keep wanting to say not “changed” but “replaced”, and while I’m not sure that is fair, I’m not sure it is not fair, too.
Of course this is the way of the world. Nothing stays the same for long. But I am having some trouble reconciling myself to it this time.
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.
Shortly before the show, a seller of blinky LED necklaces passed along the Federal Hill trail, halfway down the hill from my own position. I was already set up for long exposure, and had a few minutes yet before any fireworks would be happening, so:
In a somewhat similar vein, the Baltimore skyline:
The streak in the top of the shot was made by the running lights of a quadcopter drone. Considering that two police helicopters were already occupying the airspace, this seemed like something of a bold move, but whoever was flying the drone landed it at his own position just north of Rash Field, picked it up, and as far as I could tell headed off entirely unmolested.
Earlier, someone was flying a rather handsome kite from Federal Hill Park.
Finally, and earlier still – in the shadow of the Baltimore World Trade Center, the harbor is dotted with “artificial wetland” platforms, which attract shorebirds otherwise not seen in the close vicinity. Perhaps oddly for having lived so long in a coastal state, I’m rather poor with shorebirds, and had to get my Sibley down to identify this as a juvenile black-crowned night heron.
Near my home is a metalworking shop which, like many such, collects scrap for repurposing. I’m not sure what they intend to do with a giant hydraulic press – but on the other hand, given that it’s been where it is long enough to be visible in commercially available satellite imagery, I suppose they’re not sure what they intend to do with it, either. If they can restore it to working order, perhaps they can start a YouTube channel…
I’m not really happy with a lot of these. But that’s okay; I wasn’t expecting to be.
This was the first time I’ve ever photographed fireworks, and despite the advice of various articles written by both professionals and amateurs much more skillful than I, I went in with really next to no idea what I was doing beyond the simple mechanics of long exposure and narrow aperture. So I expected to make mistakes, and resolved to identify and learn from them. Here, as nearly as I can tell, they are:
Positioning. I found what I thought was a great spot, just next to the cannon on the northern brow of Federal Hill. But when I found it, it was daylight out, and while that did give me a valuable opportunity to get some sorely needed practice photographing people – turns out there’s something about wielding a DSLR that makes people think you know what you’re doing with a camera! Their mistake, although they didn’t seem displeased they had asked me to take a family snap with their phones – I overlooked one vital point: lighted signs. You can see throughout this gallery how severe a mistake that was; the surrounding buildings aren’t so bad, but if I had it to do over, I’d have found an alternate position that didn’t put the FNB sign squarely in the middle of my frame. By the time I realized my mistake, it was close enough to showtime that the place was packed, and there was no way in the world I’d be able to adjust position, set up my tripod, and get my focus and frame dialed in all over again.
Whichever unsung hero is in charge of Rash Field’s lighting did an amazing thing this year and turned it off, making it much easier both to photograph, and simply to see, the fireworks show. If I go to the Inner Harbor show next year and don’t have a better option available, I’ll set up on the field, which will put me much closer to the action – with a much higher shooting angle, too, that should let me keep the building light mostly out of frame.
Lens swapping. This was just a terrible idea all around. I started with the 18-55 kit lens that came with my D5300, and that was fine. Partway through the show, I decided to swap it for my 70-300 tele, and that was not fine. It needed reframing, it needed focusing, the DX crop factor meant I couldn’t fit a whole burst into frame – and, of course, in swapping the 18-55 off and back on again, I messed up its carefully configured focus, too, which is why a number of images in this gallery are blurrier than they should be.
I had in mind that, since I was already treating this effectively as a practice run, I may as well take the opportunity to find out whether or not a tele, or a lens swap mid-show, were even things that’d work – and I suppose I did find out, after all. They are not even things that work! They are not even things that work at all. So I won’t do those things again.
Chimping. I know, I know! But I’m new and insecure at this. ;_;
In all honesty, I wasn’t being too bad about it; I checked, I think, about a half-dozen shots – which probably means I actually checked a dozen. I know I missed at least a few good exposures because I was too busy looking at the back of my camera, worried about whether I had the aperture open far enough to properly capture single shell bursts with two- and three-second exposures. Turns out it was fine and I shouldn’t have worried. Next time, I won’t.
Showing up way too early. It topped out around ninety degrees yesterday. I left the house a little before one in the afternoon and took the train down to Camden Yards station, then did an almighty lot of walking. To be sure, it helped me find and then secure the spot I wanted – but I could’ve just as easily left a couple of hours later, once the heat of the day had already peaked and begun to wane, and spent less time finding a spot. It might’ve even worked out better, since I could’ve grabbed a waterside bench with the same high shooting angle I mentioned Rash Field offering. Also, I wouldn’t have spent so much time regretting that I didn’t think to bring a camp chair…
Choosing the Inner Harbor fireworks show at all. It only ran fifteen minutes, and ended with the most disappointing finale I’ve ever seen in a fireworks show – I was just starting to experiment with focus and zoom adjustments during the exposure, as one of the images in today’s gallery reflects, when they decided they were done. Next year, I’ll spend a few bucks and go to the Oregon Ridge show, or to any of the several shows that carried on a good half hour and more after the Inner Harbor show called a halt.
But it wasn’t entirely a matter of making mistakes in order to learn from them! After only a few prior experiments with bulb mode and a cable release, and after not having been to a fireworks show in more years than I can count offhand, I was basically guessing at my camera configuration and hoping for the best. Judging by at least a few of these shots, it appears I guessed pretty well – and, as far as the rest of them go, I’m pretty sure I know how to do considerably better next time. Perhaps you’ll let me know what opportunities for improvement you see here that I don’t!