Digiscoping: Don’t Try This at Home!

Digiscoping?

Those of you who asked may regret doing so, but here’s my lengthy explanation of what it is and why I do it.

It starts with a basic interest in birds and photography. In that order, because I think the order is significant.

Digiscoping is an odd little niche of nature photography, with an equally odd subculture of enthusiasts. Digiscoping is what you get when you combine a spotting scope (sometimes called field scopes, or telescopes) with a digital camera. Some crafty tinkerer figured out that when you stick the eyepiece of a spotting scope in front of the lens of a humble point-and-shoot camera, you get a big telephoto boost and a whole world of potential.

A scope generally has 20-60x zoom, and the camera has anywhere from 3-10x zoom. The formula is not simple multiplication, but when you combine the magnification of both the scope and camera, you wind up with incredible power to zoom in on subjects that are far away. Attach the scope and camera together, you wind up with a digiscoping rig. It’s like slapping a big telephoto lens onto a camera that was never designed for it. If the concept sounds jury-rigged, a little hokey, and possibly fraught with issues, you’re starting to catch on. This is is the poor-man’s way of shooting wildlife photography. Digiscoping rigs are often ghetto contraptions of hand-machined parts and DIY solutions, the Rube Goldberg corner of the photographic world.

But…. The challenges involved in digiscoping can teach you a whole lot, fast, about photography.

I admire the natural world.  Last November or so, I decided I needed better birding equipment, and I also had an interest in taking pictures of the birds I spotted. So a friend and I started shopping around for scopes. We took along our digital cameras and became a nuisance at the local optics stores, testing every possible combination and asking a million questions for which nobody seemed to have answers. No one will tell you to buy this scope and that camera and start digiscoping. You have to figure out what works for yourself, and it ain’t easy.

So we tested our hearts out, and eventually I bought a scope. It’s a Vortex Skyline ED 20-60x 80mm, kind of a mid-range scope with ED glass and a big aperture for light gathering. You can spend 3-4 times as much money as I did on a scope, but this is my first one, and I’m having a ton of fun without a lot of buyers remorse. Oh, and Vortex gives their customers a VIP lifetime warranty on their stuff. So when it dropped off my tripod and broke because the mounting screw stripped the threads on the scope, they replaced the scope with no questions asked.

The camera I use now is the same one I’ve had awhile, a Pentax Optio W60. It’s the upgraded model to the Optio W30, which I dropped from my kayak into the channel at Ewell on Smith Island, MD. Which was previously the upgrade to the Optio W10, which I dropped from my kayak into Little Creek near Dover, DE. Caveat emptor: Waterproof cameras DO NOT FLOAT. My Optio W60 is a trusty little point-and-shoot with some nice features, and currently the only digital camera I own. It doesn’t go out now without its own floatation; I attached two of those foam keychains they sell at boating stores.

So I use the scope for birdwatching. I take it everywhere I go, and mount it on a tripod whenever I have a few minutes to scan the shoreline or treetops for interesting birds. Having 20-60x magnification is like gaining X-ray vision; suddenly you see things you’ve never noticed before. It’s a big mistake to assume most of the birds we see flying around are familiar sparrows and Cardinals, because there are gazillions of kinds of birds and they’re mostly elusive. Birdwatching is NOT boring — it’s like a treasure hunt or Where’s Waldo game, that you can play anywhere you go for free.

And I use my Pentax camera for, well, everything. I’ve got a couple decent film cameras, but I got a compact digital for the ease of documenting my adventures. I chose the Optio because water won’t kill it, it has nice options, it takes decent photos, and it’s small enough to fit in my pocket. With the abuse I’m likely to inflict on equipment (see above), the last thing I need is a camera I’m too scared to take out and play with.

When I go out digiscoping, I’m often looking for wild birds as subjects. They’re not easy to find. They don’t come anywhere close to humans, they’re very twitchy, and they don’t stay in one place very long. Even to get to where I might have a chance of spotting them, I may have to drive, hike, kayak, camp out, and be freakishly observant. Birdwatching takes close attention, patience, and persistence.

So say I’ve done all that — drove to a launch point, kayaked out to an island, pitched my tent, woke up painfully early, and hiked to a good spot lugging all of my heavy, awkward birding equipment. And say by some stroke of luck I spot an interesting bird. Now I have to pull out the gear and set it up — quietly and quickly mind you, because birds are skittish and likely to bolt any second. Extend the legs of the tripod, get the scope out of its carrying case and quick-mount it to the tripod head, screw on the adapter and attach the camera, then adjust the adapter (with no fewer than 4 adjustment screws) so the camera is looking through the scope. Okay, now the equipment is set up but still not sighted at the subject, so I point the scope at the bird and focus the lens. I try to remember to change settings on my camera — maybe macro focus, or an ISO limit, or the all-important 2-second shutter delay — to get the best picture. Then finally I press the shutter and cross my fingers that I’ll get published in Audubon magazine……. Is the bird still sitting there in the exact same spot? Are you freaking kidding me?!?!? If so, that is one very cooperative critter, and I owe St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of birds, another thank-you.

Even if the approach went well, there are so many photographic challenges in digiscoping that the odds of getting a great shot are agonizingly low. Any photographer knows that high magnifications mean the slightest camera shake can cause a blurry photo. A bombproof tripod and solid fittings are critical, and having some kind of shutter delay or cable release is desirable. Digiscoping adapters (the mechanical gizmo that holds the camera to the scope) come in many forms and are sold by several manufacturers, but a lot of people make their own in their tinkering workshops. In digiscoping it’s tempting to cheat by hand-holding the camera to the scope, but setting up the adapter is always worth the trouble if I have the time. And even then, a shaky observation platform or a sudden stiff breeze can ruin the photo.

The strategy is always to take a gazillion photos and hope for a handful that turn out marginally well. My rating system for photos is from 1 to 5 stars. In my photo selection sessions, 1 star means it’s barely worth keeping, just good enough to identify the species. 2 means at least it’s in focus. 3 means it’s the best of a category, the one I’d use in my own “field guide” for that bird. 4 means it’s worthy of publishing and showing off. And 5 stars would mean it’s a great shot that I could submit to a contest or magazine. In less than a year of digiscoping, I have a vast majority of 1s and 2s, very few 4s, and no 5s. This is not a hobby for anyone who wants instant results.

A digiscoping setup can play havoc with a camera’s composition, light-metering, and auto-focusing features too. Because of the difference in focal lengths between the scope and camera, there’s often vignetting. Because of how they interface, there are light leaks and kidney beaning. Because of high magnifications and sometimes low-quality glass there’s often chromatic aberration. So I have to experiment a lot and be highly aware of how the camera’s ISO, EV, focus, and other settings affect the outcome in various situations. I know what I can do manually with my camera, and when it’s better to let the automatic features do their thing. And more than ever, I’ve had to learn photo editing techniques and be willing to correct the blemishes after the photo is taken. One of my idols is Sam Abell, who has always been a photographic purist, wanting to show only full-frame photographs in their original, unedited perfection. I’ve always wanted to be like Sam, but digiscoping has taught me humility and I’m quickly getting over that hubris.

There is probably no beginner photography class in the world that would’ve taught me as much about how to make pictures as what I’ve learned digiscoping in the past year. Most people buy a point-and-shoot digital camera and never read the manual; the manual for my Optio W60 is dog-eared and tattered. Digiscoping is about taking so-so equipment and making it do what you want, and THAT is the challenge and the learning experience that I find irresistible. And I have to do it fast, because that bird isn’t gonna sit there for long, so my knowledge has to be instinctual. Trust me, my skills have a lot of room for improvement, I only hope my patience holds out that long.

I had a memorable conversation with one of the staff photographers at National Geographic, where I work, about digiscoping. He had been to a popular birding spot on an assignment to shoot Bald Eagles, and he’d run into droves of digiscopers. As he described the encounter to me, he was atypically animated and dramatic. The digiscopers were obviously rabid about birds, because they knew where to find the eagles and how to predict their behavior. But more than anything, he was absolutely fascinated with their quirky array of equipment, which to him looked complex and worth a lot of money. He wondered how they could afford all the gear, since in the middle of a weekday, it appeared they didn’t have regular jobs. I tried to explain that the gear adds up to a much smaller sum than the big DLSR cameras and lenses that he has access to, and that digiscopers are driven by passion.

People ask, as this pro did in an indirect way, why I don’t just go out and buy a high-end camera with a big honkin’ telephoto lens or a teleconverter and save myself a lot of trouble. There are several good answers, but what leaps to the top is because it’s expensive, and expense is a liability where I like to go. I wish I could walk into the Photographic shop at National Geographic and check out all the cutting-edge gear I want for a shoot, but I don’t have that luxury. I can’t imagine what I’d pay for a high-quality lens that would duplicate the magnification I get with a 20-60x scope, and I’m baffled how I’d stuff it into my kayak. I spent less money, on gear that is multipurpose, and when pieced together gives me added value. Plus it would be uncharacteristic of me to go geeky on photographic equipment. Going back to the beginning, this started with a primary interest in birds, and a secondary interest in photography. I take two relatively inexpensive pieces of equipment, one of which I already owned, and put them together; voila, I have the ability to document my adventures and take photos of some of my discoveries. I’m an adventurer and nature freak first, and a photographer second.

Still it’s reasonable to wonder why, after all the trouble I go through to get a bird in the lens, I’m willing to sacrifice the quality of the image with all of the handicaps imposed by digiscoping. Right now, the equipment I use is waterproof, portable enough to take almost anywhere, and cheap to replace. If and when I get to the point where I can’t learn any more from it, or I get frustrated because my inability to make a perfect photograph is clearly due to limitations of the equipment, I might consider upgrades. I’m interested in the new micro four-thirds cameras (e.g., Panasonic Lumix G-series) for their lightweight format and portability. Many folks are testing them in the digiscoping arena, but they’re worthy of use for other types of photography beyond just nature and wildlife. When my skill level merits a new manual to dog-ear, and I can trust myself not to drop it in the drink, then I’ll go shopping.

In the meantime, I don’t think National Geographic will ever promote me from the IT department to a photographer in any capacity. But I’m learning every chance I get, and I’m gaining a sense of what it takes to “get the shot” as a wildlife photographer.

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~ by pasadenagina on October 22, 2009.

One Response to “Digiscoping: Don’t Try This at Home!”

  1. Gina, if you don’t use Adobe Lightroom, you might give it a try. It’s great for cataloging but beyond that, it’s editing tools are quick, easy to use and can easily address some of the issues you describe. For example vignetting, it has a tool that enables corrections to an image with lens vignetting in a moment. I’ve been using Lightroom for awhile now and end up going into photoshop much less frequently (unless I am going to print something seriously) Check it out.

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