Words and Images Jason Smalley
Once in a while photo mags run features about dream equipment - stuff that's not even a twinkle in a designer's eye. You know the gear I mean - a fisheye to super telephoto zoom that fits in your pocket and has a maximum aperture of f/1.0, or the much desired medium-format camera that's the size of a matchbox! Incredible figments of our imagination, suitable for publication in the silly season when we've nothing better to do than lounge in a deck chair on a beach and be entertained. Last summer I stumbled across some dream kit by accident. How does a 3000mm to 8000mm telezoom sound? Three noughts, that's right, it's not a typo!
As a nature photographer I take great pleasure in studying the subject so I treated myself to an Optolyth TBA80mm bird watching telescope with a 30x wide angle and a 20-60x zoom eyepiece. Testing it out in the garden by scoping the local Tree Sparrows I casually pressed my Coolpix 950 lens against the eyepiece expecting nothing more than an out of focus fuzz on the LCD screen. Imagine my surprise to see a chirruping sparrow filling the frame. He was over fifty yards away! I pressed the shutter button again and again until the batteries packed in and then hastily retreated indoors to download the images onto my Mac. Out of about twenty shots one was quite sharp. It even printed okay.
A quick trawl of the Internet soon showed that I was not alone in the discovery. The technique of 'digiscoping' was alive and well and living in Singapore, France, Australia and Japan to name a few.
Digiscoping is the technique of shooting with a digital camera through a telescope or other optical device that magnifies significantly. Binoculars can be used quite successfully, especially with subjects that are too close or mobile for the telescope. Astronomical telescopes are not really suitable as they give don't transmit enough light and the lenses are not of a suitable quality, unless you spend several thousand pounds. Go for a bird watching scope with a front element in excess of 70mm - the bigger the better. Favourites among digiscopers appear to be Kowa, Leica and Optolyth. The main criteria is the diameter of the eyepiece's exit pupil - bigger scopes have bigger eyepieces. Scopes of high quality can be picked up secondhand for 300 to 400, look in Birdwatching magazines for advertisers.
| Mate the scope to the right digital camera and you're nearly there. The lens of the camera must not be much bigger than the telescope eyepiece element and any zooming must take place internally. This cuts down the options somewhat - one of the most versatile is the Nikon Coolpix 990 or it's smaller sister the 950 and they both have the added advantage of a rotating LCD screen that gives good viewing flexibility.|
Mounting problems can be overcome with some Blue Peter style adaptations. Many workers make a collar that fits snugly over both the telescope eyepiece and the camera lens, locating them together quite well, although it is still necessary to hand hold the camera against the scope. I'm not used to holding my camera while firing the shutter so I hunted around for a method of fixing the two components together and eventually came across the Manfrotto Magic Arm. For 95 this triple jointed arm, that can be locked into position with one handle, is almost made to measure!
Two solid bars are held together by a swivelling mount and both the free ends have a ball & socket joint with various clamps available. One end screws into my Manfrotto tripod head, the other into the base of the camera, I line the camera up with the scope eyepiece and then throw the lever. The two units are then mated together as if by glue, but can be separated quickly when I want to use the scope for its intended purpose.
To complete the set up I use Nikon's remote release and a Quantum battery pack with the appropriate power lead. Otherwise my overdraft would have suffered from the obscene battery consumption of the Coolpix 990.
On first sight the equipment looks impossibly daunting and unwieldy but, if the tripod is up for it, shooting is quite simple. Firstly 'scope' your subject - catch it through the viewfinder. Focus and zoom the telescope eyepiece and then position the camera. Use the optical zoom to get rid of any vignetting and half press the shutter button to fine tune the focus using the camera's onboard system. As soon as you see a sharp image take your shot. And then take another more considered composition. The secret is to take lots of shots using the Fine compression setting, reverting to Normal if card space is at a premium. The whole process in the hands of an experienced digiscoper takes about two seconds, first timers will probably need the subject to stay still for ten or more. Small birds are the most difficult, they simply don't hang around for long but can still be practiced on - and it won't cost you any film!
The worse thing to overcome is the need for lots of light. Anything less than a sunny or slightly overcast day really is no fun. On a dull day expect to be shooting at 1/8sec or 1/15sec. It is possible to handhold the camera against the eyepiece to achieve acceptably sharp shots at this speed, providing your tripod is as sturdy as a lamppost, but you also have to rely on a fairly static subject.
To get the highest possible shutter speed, shoot on either aperture-priority or manual with the aperture wide open. Depth-of-field is so slim, even at small apertures, that it really makes no difference. Switch off automatic sharpening, it's far better to sharpen the images with image editing software on screen later. When available, choose manual focus zone selection and link it with spot metering. Obviously the viewfinder is redundant and all composition and focussing takes place on the LCD screen, the 'what you see is what you get' benefits are wonderful.
To put the system to the test I went on an intensive two-day shoot around the North West of England with the goal of photographing fifty species. Beginning at first light I started on the coast and stalked waders, then roamed around a few lakes to shoot wildfowl, capturing a few commoner species along the way. Woodlands proved to be the most difficult due to the lack of light and the high mobility of most woodland species, but I still reached my target. The list of species is posted on my website.
Lakes and open fields are the best hunting grounds for newcomers, ducks are relatively slow moving, pheasants and crows can be quite easy, just remember to take lots of shots.
For the foreseeable future 35mm cameras and long wide (expensive) lenses may still rule the proverbial roost, but digiscoping is being adopted by birders who want a good record of their sightings, as images print out surprisingly well with minimal image editing. The proliferation of online publications have also thrown a spanner in the works. When viewed on screen digiscoped images are perfectly acceptable, Even a couple of birding magazines are beginning to publish digitally captured shots, usually video grabs through scopes, when nothing else is available, so the technique has a bright future. Learn more about digiscoping
Several users of this technique have built their own websites to show case their work and links to some of these can be found at www.wildscape.co.uk
. Alternatively I could strongly recommend that anyone interested in digiscoping subscribe to the egroup at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/birds-pix
where the masters post images daily.
This large colourful crow makes an ideal practice subject. The high contrast plumage can make life difficult on bright sunny days though. Captured by a coolpix 950 through 10x50 binoculars.
Small perching birds are by far the most difficult. Being highly mobile, it can be quite a challenge keeping them framed through an 100x lens.
The high lens quality of birders scopes makes them an ideal supplementary lens for certain digital cameras.
The rotating screen of the Coolpix duo makes them the camera of choice. A sun shade is available to shield the lcd screen from bright lights.
I spent ages with this female Kestrel, tracking her and gaining her confidence as she hunted over this meadow. I had to work very hard to get her on the screen and, when I took this shot she had just dropped below the horizon after being framed against a bright white sky. I didn't have the chance to cancel the compensation that I had dialled in. Consequently the image was overexposed by a good two stops. However Photoshop soon put that to rights. Coolpix 950 and Optolyth scope (x60)
Good wildlife shots can be captured from the most unpromising locations. This wader was photographed from Morecambe promenade from a good eighty yards. Coolpix 990 Optolyth
| Pintail |
Hides are useful places for digiscoping and provide the opportunity to practice panning and exposure compensation techniques in the knowledge that the subject will still be there for the next batch of comparison shots. Other birders looked on in bemusement as I worked but were stunned when I downloaded the image onto my Mac laptop in front of them and demonstrated the crispness of this Pintail shot.
Taken from a hide at Martin Mere with a Canon Eos1n and a 300mm f4 lens. The red square shows the approximate coverage of the digiscoped shot below.
Taken from the same position as the shot above, the bird is now revealed in all it's glory even though it was very difficult to even see with the unaided eye. Coolpix 950 Optolyth.
Working from the North west of England Jason Smalley specialises broadly on nature and the countryside, working for a range of publishers including the photo press, general interest magazines and nature titles.