A 'Birds of India' feature

Bird Photography for beginners - II by Sumit Sen                                    

Part - V                                                                                      

Specialty Techniques/Tools



igiscoping is a photographic technique where a digital camera is coupled to spotting-scope or telescope enabling the camera to record distant objects. Popular with birdwatcher's, digiscoping typically combines a compact fixed lens digital cameras with a spotting scope using a technique called afocal photography. Other aids include various stability devices including a sturdy tripod and a shutter release mechanism.

Digiscoping was brought to prominence in 1999 by a bird-photography acquaintance of mine, the late Laurence Poh of Malaysia - often called the father of digiscoping. All of us learnt the basic skills from him (and a few others) through the popular bird photographers forum “birds-pix" Yahoo Group. At that time DSLRs were still in their infancy and film cameras were unable to provide any degree of reach. Digiscoping caught on with birders because you could take good (often great) pictures without a long, expensive, heavy telephoto lens at a relatively low investment. The novelty of this approach lay in the fact that by combining the magnifications of the telescope (typically 20x to 30x), and the camera (4 x optical zoom) you could end up with a total magnification of approximately 80x, which is equivalent to shooting with a 4,000mm lens on a 35mm film camera! With the interest in digiscoping increasing, it was inevitable that the days when cameras were simply held up to the eyepiece by hand were going to be history. Nowadays, you have specialized equipments offered by major scope manufacturers which include fancy couplers and other devices for mounting both DSLR's and compact cameras making it much easier to perform digiscopy. The advent of affordable DSLRs with crop factors slowed down the progress of digiscoping to an extent and many of us gave it up because results were worse than what a 6mp DSLR with a 400mm lens could deliver. But it remained very popular with birdwatchers who used it to record sightings and with those who developed it into an art form. With the improvements in compact camera technology and with manufacturers making specialized tools to aid the technique, it is very likely that digiscoping will make a strong comeback as a viable and popular bird photographic technique.

Laurence Poh in the field with his digiscoping set up. Grey-headed Fish Eagle by Laurence Poh

What are the tools you need for digiscoping?
 - A digital compact camera with a maximum 4x optical zoom or a DSLR with fixed 50 mm objective lensSome suggested models are Leica D-Lux 4; Nikon P5000; Sony W5; Nikon Coolpix S5100 and a list is available here: http://www.swarovskioptik.us/en_us/digiscoping
 - A terrestrial optical telescope, usually a spotting scope with maximum 30x magnification.
 - Popular and quality spotting scopes are made by Swarovski, Leica, Nikon and Kowa
 - A sturdy tripod, the sturdier the better
 - A coupling adapter usually sold by the scope manufacturer, like Swarovski's UCA Universal Camera Adapter. You can even make one at home, I have even used a bottle cap with success. Anything that allows the camera to be attached to spotting scope eyepiece in a way which prevents the camera lens from touching it and keeps it a fixed distance away will usually work!
 - A remote shutter release is preferred to minimize shake.
There are other add-ons which you can find on any site devoted to digiscoping.
You can also try digibinning (using digital camera with binoculars or monoculars), and phonescoping (using a digital camera phone with a spotting scope). Here is an example of a shot with a digital compact and a 8x25 Kowa monocular fitted with an adapter:

Greylag Geese with a Nikon Coolpix 995 and Kowa Monocular

Key tips:
 - Higher megapixel cameras allow for larger cropping and that is useful if there is vignetting.
 - High processing speed and low shutter lag is is good to have.
 - A large LCD screen which can be pivoted is an added bonus.
 - For DSLRs, full-frame cameras with Live View are best.
 - The high magnification results in shake from wind movement or a unsteady trigger finger. A quality tripod with a quick-release plate on the tripod head will help the balance.
 - If you don't have a remote release you could always use the built-in timer.

Most digiscoped images suffer from an amount of :
 - Vignetting, when the image does not fill the complete field of view, resulting in black corners.
 - Shadowing due to light leaking between the camera lens and the scope eyepiece.
 - Dark image because of zooming to avoid vignetting.
Modern equipment has minimized these issues to a great extent.

Focusing the subject with the camera attached to the scope is recommended though some independently focus the scope first. Try both and see which works better for you. I prefer the former.

Finally a word of caution. It is very rare to be able to do both digiscoping and conventional DSLR bird photography together. Understand the type of photos you want to take and then concentrate on just one of these techniques.

Brown Shrike digiscoped with Nikon Coolpix 995
and consumer grade spotting scope

Flash Extenders

Most wildlife photographers make judicious use of fill-flash under harsh lighting conditions. This is generally achieved with either the built-in flash flash or by external units units which produce daylight balanced fill-flash. These are very convenient aids which can provide a high percentage of successful images. However, in case of bird photography you have situations where fill-flash is needed but difficult to accomplish because of the long lenses used. Even the best or strongest external flash will find it difficult to reach beyond 50-60 feet because their light gets being dispersed over too broad an area. As the primary aim in bird photography in most cases is to illuminate the bird and not the scene, this light-spreading leads to wastage and often poor results when a small bird is a distance away. This is where the flash extender comes in. The purpose of the extender is to concentrate the light output of a flash head so that it has a greater reach. They do this by redirecting the emitted light into a narrower beam (or cone) than that originally emitted by the flash head using a Fresnel lens. Thus, the light rays that would have been wasted on the background are instead redirected onto the subject. Additionally, the extenders help conserve battery power when the subject is close.
Fresnel extenders are sold under brand names such as Better Beamer, Flash X-Tender etc. They usually claim increases of flash output by about 2 to 2 2/3 stops and are inexpensive. Most flash extenders work only with telephoto lenses of 300mm or longer.
Check out http://www.rpphoto.com/store/default.asp for more information.
Incidentally, the use of a flash extender can cause damage to your equipment, and possibly even personal injury because of accidentally keeping the Fresnel lens pointed directly at the sun. Be aware of this risk when using one.


A quick word on teleconverters. They usually work best with the most expensive lenses which are properly balanced on a tripod. There are no free meals here and converters produce poor results with consumer zooms. Generally the 1.4x converters cause the least loss of image quality and autofocus speed/accuracy. Teleconverters can also be stacked by attaching two or more in tandem to achieve even higher magnification. You will possibly lose autofocus ability as well as have to set the exposure manually. But you will have reach! :)
Most cameras will not focus with a teleconverter if the lens has a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or smaller. This is often overridden by taping the electrical contact pins on the teleconverter. I have heard of damage to camera as a result, so you are warned.

The next part deals with Flight Photography.




A presentation by Sumit Sen; September 2012
Image copyright with the photographers. All rights reserved.

 Last updated 17 Sep 2012