Placing the lens of a digital camera to the eyepiece of a spotting scope to take photos is called “digiscoping.” It’s caught on big-time with birders because you can take good (often great) pictures without a long, expensive, heavy telephoto lens. These days, there are even digiscoping birding tours. The annual World Series of Birding competition in New Jersey includes a digiscoping category.
There have been many improvements in scopes and digital cameras since 1999 when Lawrence Poh of Malaysia is credited with inventing digiscoping. Almost any good quality spotting scope will work. The higher the megapixel value of your camera, the better your final images will be.
Photo courtesy of Swarovski Optik
The processing speed of the camera is crucial—the newest models now take multiple, rapid-fire shots which increase your chances of getting the image you’re after.
There can be different goals in digiscoping. It can be practiced slowly and patiently to capture frame-worthy, artistic images. Or it can also be used in guerilla fashion just for general birding and to back up a rare-bird sighting.
There are a variety of ways to bring the camera lens and scope eyepiece together. You can just hold the camera in place yourself. It’s quick, but it takes a steady hand and there’s a chance the center of the camera lens may not line up properly with the center of the scope eyepiece. When that happens, part of the image is cut off. The two lenses also need to be very close. You’ll get shadows if light leaks in between the scope and camera lenses. Too much space between lenses will also worsen the “vignetting” effect, creating a dark, circular frame around your image.
A simple homemade adaptor, perhaps a plastic ring from a cutout bottle cap, can be attached to spotting scope eyepiece to prevent the camera lens from touching it and to keep it a fixed distance away. There are many commercial adaptors, but they are not universal, so make sure you get what fits your gear. These adaptors can be expensive. There are also pivot mounts that allow you to quickly flip your camera on and off the scope lens to switch from viewing to digiscoping.
The magnification produced by digiscoping is just what you need to pull your subject in close, but it can also magnify any small movement from wind or a shaky trigger finger. A quality tripod provides stable support and prevents your photos from turning into a blurry mess. If your tripod is not rock-steady, you can make it better by keeping it as low as possible and/or adding some sort of weight to keep it firmly settled.
Left: Gimbal type of tripod head, photo courtesy of Wimberley.
Right: Bogen/Manfrotti - #3130 Fluid Head with Quick Release
The combination of scope and camera can be unbalanced when attached to a tripod and you may have to experiment with adding weights to the front of the scope to keep it from tipping. A better option might be to use a quick-release plate on the tripod head. Some of these allow you to slide the scope forward and back to find the right balance.
To prevent blurr-inducing vibration from the act of pressing the camera shutter, some digiscopers use the timer built into many cameras to avoid handling the camera while the photo is being taken. Using a cable release system to fire the shutter remotely is another hands-off way to get the picture.
Common Image Problems
Vignetting: the image does not fill the complete field of view, resulting in black corners. You can crop them away after the fact or prevent them by keeping camera and scope lenses as close together as possible. Zooming in will reduce the effect but may also result in a darker image.
Shadowing: when light leaks between the camera lens and the scope eyepiece. Practice holding the camera next to the eyepiece of the scope, or use an adapter to eliminate this problem.
Dark image: Zooming the camera lens reduces vignetting but can lead to a darker, fuzzier image and increased sensitivity to vibration. You may have to readjust exposure and focus to compensate for murkiness.
Blurring can come from moving the camera as the shot is being taken or by vibration from wind and other factors. Make sure you have a sturdy tripod and try putting the shutter on a timer or use a remote cable to vibration.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Like any new skill, the key to improvement is practice. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Digiscopers do what they do because it’s fun. So go out there and have fun!