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Imagine seeing an incredibly rare bird at a great distance through a spotting scope. Those birding next to you cannot see the same bird. You need to prove to them, and to your own life list, that you have spotted this rare species. It is way too far away for your camera to capture. What can you do? This is a job for… digiscoping!
Digiscoping with a spotting scope, telescope, or binoculars turns your camera—even your cell phone camera—into a powerful optical device with a telephoto reach that blows even the most expensive DSLR lenses out of the wetlands, and for a fraction of the cost of a premium telephoto lens.
In this, the last of a four-part series on birding optics, we will talk about how to enter the exciting world of digiscoping to help you record and share your birding adventures.
“Digiscoping,” according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird Project Leader Marshall Iliff, “has made bird photography accessible to thousands of people who might not otherwise take bird photos.”
When he’s asked about digiscoping, 40-year birder Bill Stewart, Director of Conservation and Community at the American Birding Association says, “There are so many different ways to go birding today.” The word “digiscoping” is derived from the combination of digital camera and spotting scope. Digital photography and digiscoping have changed the way we document and share the observations of birds.
In the previous segment of this series, we discussed birding and photography of birds through long telephoto lenses and superzoom point-and-shoot cameras. However, when it comes to long lenses, to match the level of magnification provided by mid-power binoculars and spotting scopes, the cost and weight of those telephoto lenses may make that option unattractive to many birders.
Marshall Iliff says, “Even for those who have invested in expensive SLR cameras, there are times where the lenses just don't provide enough zoom to get identifiable photos. Having those bird photos in hand lets you look back on favorite birding memories; you share your birding experiences with others, and even help your observations become part of the scientific process.”
eBird’s Iliff says, “Discovering a rare bird is often one of the most exciting moments in birding, but it may come with some trepidation. Have you identified it correctly? Will anyone believe me? What will the eBird editor say?
“Having a photo can often mean the difference between a “mystery bird that got away” and the next exciting rarity that is enjoyed by thousands of birders. Sometimes you just need a second opinion or a friend or local expert to confirm your suspicions or to help with a tricky bird ID. Any digital image can be added to an eBird checklist to help with the review process and make your observations more beautiful. Getting documentation for rare birds you see is an important part of the scientific process for those that report their birds to scientific endeavors like eBird. Rare birds are rare, after all, and we all make mistakes. Getting a photo, even a distant or poor one, can allow for independent assessment of your birds so that the unusual ones can become part of the scientific record. More than anything else, digiscoping has made it possible for almost anyone to document rare birds that they encounter.”
When it comes to identification, photo resolution and optical quality are of high importance. When identifying a rare bird, “A field impression is often needed as photo colors can be inaccurate—especially in shades of gray,” says Patrick Comins, Director of Bird Conservation at the Audubon Society’s Connecticut office and President of the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Subtle variations in the bird’s mantle may separate one species from another, and these variations may not be captured accurately by the camera, even when apparent to the eye.
Walker Golder, Deputy Director of Audubon North Carolina, spends a lot of his observing reading letters on tiny leg bands on a bird’s tarsus. These bands can be as small as one half inch, and he has found that the superzoom camera “does really well for us in [this] field work.”
Imaging Through a Spotting Scope
Attaching a camera to a spotting scope is the way digiscoping entered the birding vernacular. The exceptional magnification capabilities of the spotting scope, coupled with the fact that it is almost always mounted on a stable support, shows the combination of scope and camera to be a fantastic tool for capturing images of distant birds.
Years ago, in the early days of digiscoping, connecting photo equipment to a scope was a chore and not for the faint at heart. Today, not only is it much easier, but the cost of the required accessories (and cameras) has come down considerably. Many early digiscoping accessories were designed only for connecting point-and-shoot cameras. DSLR connections followed, but the early designs were overly complex and lacked the necessary ruggedness for field work.
The advantage of the spotting scope over a telephoto lens is that you can get image magnification far beyond what even the most expensive telephoto lenses produce and, if you are already in the field with a spotting scope, there is no need for bearing the burden of an extremely large, heavy long lens. Spotting scopes pack great magnification into relatively small and light packages.
How much magnification? If you attach an APS-C (1.5x) format camera to a Swarovski ATX 95 modular objective lens with the ATX Spotting Scope Modular Zoom Eyepiece (30-70x) you will get an equivalent magnification of 1350mm to 3150mm! That magnification is unheard of in the world of all but the most exotic SLR lenses. And, when you talk exotic SLR lenses, you have to start talking about exorbitant prices and back-breaking weights. The Canon 1200mm f/5.6L EF USM lens weighs 36 pounds, while the Swarovski and angled eyepiece check in at just under 5 pounds.
Connecting a Camera to a Scope
There are many ways to connect SLR and point-and-shoot cameras to your spotting scope or telescope. On scopes with removable eyepieces, many manufacturers market a camera attachment that mounts to the scope in place of the eyepiece. At the other end of the adapter is either a proprietary lens mount for a particular type of camera, or a generic thread that allows any number of cameras to be attached with an optional T-mount. The T-mount is a narrow ring with a proprietary camera mount on one side and threads on the opposite side.
On scopes with non-interchangeable eyepieces or, if you want to photograph through your scope’s eyepiece to gain added magnification, there are various mounts that allow you to attach a camera to the eyepiece itself. Some manufacturers also make adapters that are designed to hold specific point-and-shoot cameras, or thread onto a standard diameter filter ring.
If you already own a scope, check out the B&H Photo website to see what accessories you need to attach your particular camera to the scope. If you are shopping for a spotting scope or telescope, be sure to look at the different options each scope has for attaching a camera. You will likely get bitten by the digiscoping bug as soon as you start birding with your scope!
Connecting a Smartphone Camera to a Spotting Scope
Many of today’s scope manufacturers have designed smartphone adapters that are custom-made for different phones and are designed to mount the lens of your smartphone camera directly over the eyepiece. If you find yourself in the field without an adapter, there is really nothing to keep you from holding your smartphone over the eyepiece and getting an image without using a specialized adapter. Audubon Constitution Marsh Center & Sanctuary’s Center Director Eric Lind calls this “digiscoping for fun.” However, you will certainly find it easier to keep the phone centered over a relatively small extreme-zoom exit pupil if you use a dedicated adapter.
This is the magic of digiscoping today—ease. Not long ago, adapters were complex and cumbersome. Today, there are many that you can rig and start taking images within seconds.
Imaging through Binoculars
The origin of the term “digiscoping” can be a bit misleading; just as podcasts are no longer listened to only on iPods, so, too, has digiscoping moved beyond its spotting scope origins. Cameras and smartphones can be attached easily to binoculars, as well, via custom adapters. If you are heading out for a long hike, or want to travel light, this might be the best option for you, as you are not burdened by a larger spotting scope and the needed tripod or other supports. Remember: digiscoping is not just for spotting scope users anymore!
Unless the binoculars are tripod mounted, this can be a fairly tricky operation, but many have had great success getting images.
More Benefits: Video, Sound, Remote
Today, many point-and-shoot cameras, DSLRs, and smartphones have the capability of capturing HD or 4K-resolution videos—an incredible leap for digiscoping. This gives you the ability to not just snap a few photos at these resolutions; some video editing software will allow you to grab high-res stills from a video. Imagine the experience of taking a video of an eagle launching from a tree and then having the ability to play it back in slow motion or capture the perfect still from the sequence.
Another part of bird identification is sound. Many cameras that record video will also record sounds for your birding films, but if you are serious about the audio, B&H Photo certainly recommends a dedicated microphone rig to make sure you are capturing all of the birdsongs.
With today’s digiscoping technology, it is now possible for you to set up your optics and view the live image remotely, via Wi-Fi or the Internet. You could fix your digiscoping rig on a nest near your house and have the kit broadcast the view to your home computer, so that you could observe nesting and feeding without disturbing the birds or, in the field, stay away from your setup while watching the live image birds on your smartphone from a discreet distance.
Another boon to the world of digiscoping is the ability to share your images wirelessly and instantly. With a Wi-Fi-capable DSLR or a smartphone coupled to your binoculars or spotting scope and a working cellular signal, you can instantly text or email the image to friends and family, or post your images to social media.There are also a number of birding websites, including eBird, which use images as part of wide-ranging citizen science projects.
For ornithologists in the field, beaming bird images back to offices from the field has had a definite impact on the science. Most importantly, the sharing of birding images has only served to increase the social fabric of the birding community and has attracted new adventurers to the world of observing birds.
Exit Pupils, Support, and Vibration
Yes, it is possible to just hold your camera or smartphone up to your scope or binoculars, but you will inevitably find that you will get much better images, and save some frustration, by using a dedicated mount.
At extreme magnifications, the binocular or spotting scope produces a very small exit pupil. When you look through the scope, you might notice that unless your eye is perfectly aligned with the scope, you will get heavy shading on one side of the image or no image at all. Also, if your eye is too far away, you will see dark vignetting around the image. A mount will go a long way to helping you get your imaging equipment properly aligned with the exit pupil.
It is unlikely that your spotting scope was designed to have a heavy camera hanging from the end of it. Be sure your scope’s support can handle the additional load, as well as the shift in the center of gravity of the rig. Experiment with your setup before you head into the field. Do you need counterweights? Is your tripod up to the task with the added weight of a camera and digiscoping mount?
Speaking of tripods, you will need a good-sized support for a digiscoping rig. At the extreme magnifications accessible to the digiscoper, dealing with image shake is an exercise in not only the proper gear, but patience, as well. You will want a tripod that not only supports the scope plus assorted photo gear, but will help you deal with minute vibrations caused by buffeting winds and thumping footsteps, things that can give your digiscoping image an unfortunate softness, due to shake. As I mentioned in the spotting scope segment, the heavy fluid tripod head is great not only for spotting scopes, it is fantastic for aiming your digiscoping rig. Sandbags and alternative supports can increase your flexibility in the field, as far as gear, but will not allow you all of the aiming options of a dedicated tripod and head.
Finally, due to the high magnification, even the lightest tap on the screen of the smartphone, or press of the shutter release on the camera, will shake your world. You will even find that wind is your enemy when viewing at extreme distances. At high magnifications, this will severely limit your ability to get sharp or usable images. To improve the odds, use a remote release (wireless or cable) to fire your camera. If you do not have a release, try to use a timer function to delay the image capture for a few seconds after you press the button. I have found that, even after engaging mirror lock-up on my DSLR, I need to wait several seconds before making a photograph, as it takes time for vibrations through the rig to damp.
Often, photographers can spend too much time looking through their cameras and not enough time enjoying the surroundings that exist outside of the narrow field of view of a lens. Birding is about discovery, enjoying nature and, as Eric Lind says, “Connecting to the world around you.”
Marshall Iliff cautions the digiscoper, “As with any photography, the balance between observing and photographing can be a tricky one and it is worth deciding which is the priority. If you focus too much on photography, some birds are bound to fly off before you have even had a chance to enjoy them through the scope. If you focus too much on observing, you will regularly be left with images that are not up to your standards—or worse—none at all. Try to find the balance that works best for you.”
Walker Golder’s office employs several spotting scopes and his staff and volunteers often digiscope without the benefit of the dedicated mounts. For their purposes, they are not striving to get the best image possible; their mission is more for recording the bird’s presence at a particular place and time, and image quality is not of the highest importance. “Almost everyone here has a small camera for field work,” he says.
Patrick Comins has seen birders miss “the moment” while they were fumbling with photo gear and trying to capture an image. One way to avoid this is to practice setting up your gear, or discipline yourself to view first and capture later.
One way to help you digiscope efficiently in the field is to practice, practice, and practice. You don’t need a bird at a great distance to work on quickly setting up your gear, sighting your scope, and firing off a few frames. Remember, you will not have the luxury of autofocus, and, with some camera/scope setups, you will have to employ manual exposure control. Not only that, but your in-camera light meter might also not be functional, requiring you to take test shots and evaluate histograms to measure proper exposure.
Organizing your gear, having it at the ready, and being able to set it up quickly might mean the difference between getting your shot and wondering where the bird went. It is best to get intimately familiar with your digiscoping gear before you are in the field and seconds count.
Time to Go Birding!
In conclusion, bird photographer Arthur Morris says, “If you enjoy watching or photographing birds, you owe it to yourself to get the very best optical gear that you can afford. You simply can’t beat the view through a good pair of binoculars or a high-quality spotting scope.” There are more spotting scopes than ever on the market, and companies are producing mounts that make digiscoping easier than ever. There are many relatively inexpensive spotting scopes on the market today that will allow you to dive into the digiscoping game without making a serious investment.
We hope this series has answered some common questions pertaining to optics and birding and has inspired you to, once you finish this article, head out to see some birds and enjoy the great outdoors!
As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to engage us here in the Comments section, below.
Want to read more? Check out Part I of our birding series, Guide to Birding with Binoculars.