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Digiscoping - A Primer

What is 'Digiscoping?

It was by accident that I discovered that I could shoot through my spotting scope in February 1999. This was soon after I had just bought a digital camera. I did that in desperation to record a raptor perched on a distant tree which I could not identify. At that time, I had a Olympus C-900 Zoom camera. My early photos suffered from strong vignettes (darkening at the corners) due to the difficulty in positioning the telescoping camera lens to the Leica eyepiece. When Nikon 950 came out later that same year with internal focusing, aperture priority, swivel body,plus a host of other features, I had found the perfect camera.

Since that time, I am determined to introduce this unusual yet fascinating method of bird photography to birders and bird photographers around the world. Actually, it was a member of birds-pix@yahoogroups.com Mr. Alain Fosse from France who coined a new name for this method of photography by calling it 'digiscoping' which stands for digital camera scope photography. There are now more than 50 members of birds-pix from all walks of life all over the world using this novel way of shooting birds.

To shoot birds conventionally with a 35 mm camera system usually means shooting with a Single-Lens-Reflex (SLR) camera with powerful and costly and not to mention heavy lenses. The available lenses are often not powerful enough. A mirror reflex lens of 500 mm has an aperture of f8 which renders the image through the lens dark and difficult to focus. A Nikon super-telephoto 800 mm, f5.6 ED IF AIS lens alone costs US$6399.00 and even when fitted with a teleconverter is still short for small birds.

With digiscoping, the integrated 3x optical zoom on the camera plus the 20 X magnifications on the spotting scope means we are getting over 2800 mm magnifications 35 mm equivalent. With such magnifications, one can even use this system to photograph and identify the bands on the legs of banded birds. To illustrate the power of digiscoping, I have taken 2 photos from the same location of a Crested Honey-Buzzard nest. One taken with the Nikon 990 at the wideangle end which is equivalent to a 38 mm of the 35 mm camera system and another taken with the camera set at telephoto end which is equivalent to 115 of the 35 mm system through the Leica Apo-Televid scope set at 20X.

Cost wise, total investment for digiscoping is much lower. A Nikon Coolpix 990 which replaced the Coolpix 950 is currently (November 2000) priced at US$850 and the Leica Apo-Televid 77mm with the 20 ~60X Zoom eyepiece is priced at US$1580 which adds up to a cost of US$2430. Throw in another one or two larger capacity lifetime Compact Flash storage cards and spare sets of Nickel Metal-Hydride batteries, the total cost is still much lower than a 35 mm camera system with little running cost like films and processing to worry about.

It is therefore logical for a birdwatcher who owns a scope and is interested in taking photos of the birds they see, should buy a Nikon Coolpix 990 digital camera and shoot through it. In my opinion, the advantages outweighs the disadvantages of this setup.

For what it is worth, through my pictures mentioned earlier of the raptor, it stirred up enough interest to bring in experts from out of town who later helped identified the raptor as a resident race of the Crested Honey-Buzzard.

One major advantage of digiscoping is the ability of bringing back home the birds they see in the field so that the birds can be studied and admired once again after the sun has set.

Some other advantages are:
1) Immediate feedback is possible once the picture is taken through the Play mode and by zooming up to 4 X magnifications and scrolling around the captured image.

2) Exposures can be judged and corrected after the 1st shot by the LCD image as it is written to the Compact Card for storage. Bad pictures can be disposed off immediately or later on without film and development costs.

3) No waiting for third party to process film. Pictures downloaded to computer can be self-processed within minutes instead of hours or days.

4) No more film or print scanning to digitize photos and all the inherent problems such as dust marks in the scans.

Some of the disadvantages are:
1) Presently, the cameras are still slow when writing to the storage card and shooting opportunities are often lost due to this.

2) One has to be computer literate to download files and manipulate the pictures taken.

3) Dim LCD can be difficult to see in bright outdoor.

4) No control of Depth-of-field.

All you need to start digiscoping is a scope with an eyepiece diameter larger than 30mm because this is the lens diameter of the Nikon lens. If you have a Leica spotting scope with the 20 - 60 X zoom eyepiece, you will need to make a ring adaptor with an outer diameter of 40mm, inner diameter of 31mm and about 5mm thick. Basically this is just a thin spacer to keep the lens from hitting the scope lens and for centering the camera lens with the scope lens. I made mine from a lowly plastic milk bottle cap and a piece from Kodak film canister.

The shooting is done afocally, i.e. capturing the image with a camera that would otherwise be reaching your eye. For this you must first focus the scope on the spotted bird and place the camera against the said ring and shoot. Composition is via the LCD screen on the back of the camera. However, there are some settings best suited for bird photography through the scope. Shutter speed must be sufficiently high to stop motion and camera shake. I normally shoot with Aperture Priority with the aperture opened fully to f4.0 and let the camera set the highest shutter speed possible. In full sun, I might get shutter speed as high as 1/1000 sec. Under cloudy condition, I might get shutter speed as low as 1/60 sec. Another of my preference is using Center-weighted metering which is Nikon's original metering design of the '70s with emphasis of 80% on the center of the screen and 20% on the peripherals. However, if the needs arise, such as a strongly back-lit bird, the Coolpix 990 can be set for spot-metering. The Nikon 990 even have 5 focusing brackets found in the professional Nikons. This is an useful aid for focusing subjects that are not smack right in the center.

That is how I grip the camera against the scope to shoot

Many of my friends have built special brackets to mount their camera to the scope. This has the advantage of being able to shoot at shutter speed as slow as 1 second or more. They were able to shoot owls at night lit by powerful spotlights. To take advantage of this they also have to make a cable release mount to trigger the shutter. The disadvantages of bracket shooting are slowness in targeting the bird and setting up the shot due to the complexity of mounts using brackets and ball-joints. I too have made one but I just cannot get used to using it after trying it out. I found it too slow and cumbersome after so used to the freedom I have been enjoying.