Digiscoping with Swarovski's ATM-80 HD

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If you shoot stills or video with optics 500mm and longer you already know the pluses and minuses of taking pictures with narrow angle-of-view (AOV) optics. They range from the 'wow' factor to the 'this thing is far too heavy to schlep around all day' factor.

Depending on your particular needs, spotting scopes can prove to be the ideal solution if you're looking for a narrow AOV imaging kit small and light enough for hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking, and other off-road photo jaunts.

Spotting scopes are primarily designed to allow birders and wildlife enthusiasts to go eye-to-eye with Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, ocelots, wildebeests, and other such creatures from a safe and stealthy distance. They are also quite popular among stargazers, and can even be seen at target ranges, where precision shooters use them to check their accuracy without having to leave their shooting positions.

Spotting scopes have had a long-time following among nature photographers, especially with the advent of digital imaging. The problem has been how to integrate the camera/lens assembly and spotting scopes quickly, easily, and most importantly, precisely. Until now photographers have had to use jerry-built couplers cobbled together in home workshops. But despite this demand, professional quality camera adapters for spotting scopes have been lacking in the marketplace.

Swarovski Universal Camera Adapter

Swarovski's solution to this problem is their Universal Camera Adapter (UCA), the first turnkey digiscope system that enables you to secure most DSLRs* to a Swarovski spotting scope with the same effort it takes to changer a lens. The UCA allows for 3-way adjustments of the camera/lens assembly for aligning the camera lens with the light path of the scope. Once locked into place, the UCA guarantees sharp, accurate imaging.

Setting up and using the ATM-80 HD digiscoping kit is as plug-and-play as it gets, and most first-timers should be able to assemble the components without having to crack the instruction sheets.

Camera & Lens Adapter
Swarovski ATM-80 HD with 25-50x Eyepiece & Spotting Scope Rail

* Note- Canon's 1Ds Mark-series and Nikon D3-series full-frame DSLRs sit too tall in the UCA cradle for proper alignment with the scope. Canon's 5D / 5D Mark II along with Nikon's D700 and all other compact DSLRs should work without exception.

About Digiscoping

The actual magnification range of spotting scopes is determined by the magnification rate of the spotting scope combined with the magnification range of the ocular, along with a few other factors, which for the sake of time and space will be detailed in a follow-up article in the near future.

For our test I used a Swarovski ATM-80 HD with a Swarovski 25-50x Eyepiece, which together gave me a zoom range of about 2.5° to 1°, which depending on the camera's sensor size, makes it the equivalent of a 1200-1800mm-or-so lens. In practice I found it better to shoot at the wider end of the eyepiece's power zoom, which minimizes light loss and the need to increase ISO sensitivity, which in turn guarantees sharper results. And if your image files are sharp, you can always crop into them for stronger compositions. Then again, if you need the magnification power, it's there for the taking.

Current video-enabled DSLRs use capture technology that automatically locks the mirror out of the light path when shooting video, which blacks-out your viewfinder just when you need it. This means you will be relying on the camera's LCD screen for composing and focusing your images. If your camera's LCD is 920,000-dots or more, so much the better. If your LCD tilts and/or swivels, that's better yet. And if you rely on reading glasses make sure they're always handy.

Whether you need glasses or not, you might want to invest in a Hoodman Professional LCD Screen Loupe, which makes fine-focusing and image viewing under bright lighting conditions an easy chore when shooting in Live View mode.

Be advised it can be a bear focusing spotting scopes at distant subjects at higher magnifications, especially when heat mirage starts making the straightest of lines jiggle like Jell-O. Camera shake due to wind and tripod stability are also crucial factors when shooting at high magnifications. Despite their svelte profiles, spotting scopes are still affected by crosswinds and less-than-stable tripods. Even in the lightest of breezes, make a habit of using your body to block the wind. The ATM-80 HD has a built-in sliding shade, which you should also retract when the wind kicks up, especially if the wind is coming at you.

And you should use a cable release or radio-controlled shutter-tripping mechanism to help reduce camera movement when shooting through a spotting scope. You can also use your camera's self-timer to trigger the shutter, but keep in mind the time delay can easily make the difference between a great shot and a missed opportunity. The payoff for all this effort is that when everything comes together, the results can be remarkable.

The Camera Lens

Digiscoping requires the use of a camera lens. As for your choice of lens, you want to stick with a lens in the 'normal' range (40° - 46° AOV), and preferably a pancake-style lens in order to keep the camera-to-eyepiece distance as short a possible.

For our test drive we used a Pentax K7 with an SMC Pentax-DA 40/2.8 Limited, which only protrudes about a ½" from the camera body. If you're a Nikon shooter, a 45mm/2.8 GN pancake lens (manual focus) has been in and out of production from Nikon over the years. Unfortunately it is currently out of production but with a bit of hunting around can be found used (check with our Used Department). If you shoot 4/3-format, the Olympus 25/2.8 ED Zuiko is the lens you want. And if you don't have access to a pancake lens, a standard 50 will suffice.

(Note- Swarovski suggests avoiding macro lenses for digiscoping).

A quirky attribute of spotting scopes is that like mirror lenses, telescopes, and binoculars, spotting scopes have fixed apertures, which means you're always shooting wide open. You control exposures by varying the camera's shutter speeds and/or the imaging sensor's ISO rating. During my test run using the Pentax K7, I usually set the camera to Aperture Priority (with the camera lens set to it's widest aperture) when shooting stills. When shooting video with the K7 the camera pretty much goes into autopilot by making adjustments to the exposure and ISO settings to match the scene requirements.

Shooting through spotting scopes takes a wee-bit of attitude adjustment on the user's part before it all falls into place. First off, there's no autofocus, which means if you plan on shooting auto races or basketball games you better hone your manual-focusing skills with the scope before you sign any 10-year contracts with the NBA or NASCAR. Secondly, there's a measure of light loss when shooting with spotting scopes, which means you might find yourself shooting at higher ISO ratings than you'd normally prefer using. (Just keep in mind it's preferable to have a sharp noisy picture than a blurry picture with smooth tonal gradations.)

The amount of light-loss you experience depends on the scope and eyepiece you use. When used with the 25x-50x eyepiece the Swarovski ATM-80 eATM up 3 to 5-stop loss of light. Interestingly, because the mirror and prism are bypassed when using the Live View function, the image on the camera's LCD is brighter than the image you see in the camera's viewfinder.

Spotted Fawn from about 50 yards

The Swarovski Digiscoping System

The quality of Swarovski glass is complimented by the design of Swarovski's digiscoping components. Most all functions incorporate dual locks and releases, and the finish of each component is first-class. The components of the system described and illustrated in this article; the Swarovski ATM-80 HD, 25-50x Eyepiece, Spotting Scope Rail, and Universal Camera Adapter, are available piecemeal or in kit form, with or without a tripod and head. (If you do have a tripod, make sure it's stable, and preferably with a video head.)

The benefits of digiscoping have to do with weight, size, and price-per-millimeter when compared to conventional super telephotos. The Swarovski ATM-80 HD, depending on what magnification ratio you set the eyepiece to, has a narrower angle-of-view (1°- 2.5°) than Canon's 1200mm/5.6L EF super-tele (2.5°). It also weighs far less (45.2 ounces vs. 36.2 lb) and is less than half the length of the big boy (13.9" vs. 32.9"). In other words, this is a super-tele you can use without the need of a pack mule.

The stills and video clips that accompany this article and podcast are first-time images captured over the course of several biking/hiking outings with the scope. Setting up, shooting, and breaking down became rote in short order, and the number of 'keepers' increased dramatically by the end of my first time out. To see video shot through the Swarovski ATM-80 HD click here.

As for the price, a complete Swarovski ATM-80 HD is less than 3% of the purchase price of the used Canon 1200/5.6L we have on display in our NYC Super Store ($120,000). And you won't hurt yourself lifting the Swarovski digiscoping system.

The combination of high magnification, heat mirage, wind, and salty mist makes for a surreal beach scene (image cropped from original image file)

Boats passing about ¾-mile from the camera position