Some preliminary thoughts on digiscoping  [January 2004]
all photos & text by Don Roberson


After reading many on-line digiscoping articles, and corresponding with a variety of digiscoping practitioners, I got a rather inexpensive digital camera for Christmas 2003 to try this photographic outlet. I've done film photography for 3 decades with some success as an amateur, but I've never attempted to reach professional levels in either equipment or results. I have, however, been very impressed by the near professional results of some digiscopers in the last couple of years. This page is created within a week of trying out this concept, to present some things that had to be worked out early in the game and as a way to look back later on just how naive I was.....

In my research I found that there were essentially two types of current digiscoping:

I already had a Leica Televid APO 77 telescope with a straight-through 20X60 zoom eyepiece. To do "type 1" digiscoping I needed only a 3 megapixel or greater digital camera, and there is a huge choice of those out there. Many of them have designs that have the lens telescope out from the camera, and the optical zoom extends or pulls in the lens. One can deal with this lens movement while digiscoping in "type 1" but if the lens is connecting to the camera, an internal focusing lens becomes a necessity. So for "type 2" digiscoping, one is almost forced to go with a Nikon CoolPix 990, 995 or 4500 (but not most newer models or other Coopix; some Coolpix do not have the internally focusing lens). These have internally focusing lens; connecting adapters are possible because there is threading at the base of the lens (many, many other digital cameras do not have treads); and there are a wide array of accessories possible. But what if I didn't like this type of digiscoping? Plus, things are changing so rapidly in the digital camera field that much better equipment may be available next year for less money.

It is my opinion at this stage that one must choose which "type" of digiscoping you want to do. One is not necessarily "better" than the other, but you have to decide whether (a) you want the ability for quick bird shots through the scope while birding or (b) you want to get good bird photography, including the ability to print out good quality photos from your printer, from your digiscoping. I decided that, for the moment, I'd like to try "type 1" digiscoping. In this shot (right; by Rita Carratello) I'm holding the camera up to the scope as its wedged in some rocks out in Death Valley.

For one thing, "type 1" digiscoping was a lot less expensive. Looking at prices on Amazon.com and on a variety of "compare price" sites, it looked like a new Coolpix would cost about $400, and the various connectors perhaps $150, not to mention batteries and storage media cards. It appeared to me that starting "type 2" digiscoping would cost a minimum of $600. In contrast, I could pick up a "type 1" digital camera for about $250 at local stores (e.g., Circuit City, Office Depo) without waiting for something to arrive by mail. In the end, I bought an Olympus Camedia D-560, 3.2 megapixel camera, with 3X optical zoom for $220, plus $80 for rechargeable batteries and storage cards, for a total outlay ($300) of half of what just starting "type 2" digiscoping would have cost. [Some lower prices are available through E-Bay, or by buying used equipment, if one accepts those risks.]

As it turns out, the Camedia D-560 has a smaller diameter lens than the Camedia D-550 that has been successfully used by some (e.g., Joe Morlan). This means that vignetting is a greater problem. My 20-60x zoom lens on my scope also produces much more vignetting than would a standard 30x wide-angle lens. So my new camera is not ideally suited to my scope. Of major importance, though, is the basic rule to use the scope on its lowest power (20x in my case) but the camera's optical zoom at its highest power.

My initial efforts with the camera were very frustrating. But I worked out some of my problems with Graham Catley's fine article on the Lincolnshire Bird Club site. Joe Morlan then supplied a very helpful hint from an Ontario Field Ornithologists' site that showed how to make a "centering" device from a spice jar lid. I made one just like shown in that link and found most of my major problems solved. I can now quickly "center" the camera over the lens (without touching the scope lens) and see an image quickly. It takes a bit longer to size the image as desired and to work with the optical zoom and auto focusing, and then there is a slight delay (half-a-second, maybe) between snapping the shutter and taking the photo, but the process is not too onerous. I can still actively use the scope while the "centering" device is on, or, if I don't want it, it comes on and goes on very, very quickly.

I've had the camera for one week now. I wanted to create this page while still in the learning stages. I expect to get better at technique and in understanding the camera. Here are also some points that were very helpful to me so far:

Following are some shots that illustrate some variations I have found so far. They also illustrate some of the limitations of hand-held digiscoping with my particular camera and my particular scope. It is probable that other combinations of cameras and scopes would have less vignetting than does mine, but I also illustrate here how I've attempting to minimize this problem.
This Long-billed Curlew is taken handheld at 1x power (no optical zoom); there is complete vignetting but a crisp image in center of scope.
The same curlew handheld at 2x optical zoom; vignetting is reduced to corners only.
The same curlew handheld at 3X optical zoom (maximum zoom); no black vignetting but optical vignetting at upper left and probably lower left corners (darkening of the image).
I then took each of the photos above and worked on the images in PhotoShop®, including cropping, unsharp mask and/or sharpen edges, and image balancing techniques (various color or contrast balancing). The results are shown below in the same order (1x but cropped; then 2x and cropped; and finally 3x with minimal crop) at full size (e.g, about 800 pixels wide):
To my eye, these look like perfectly adequate digiscoping but slightly soft, and I attribute this to the fact each is handheld and (possibly) the result of a very lightweight tripod. I understand that crisper photos can be obtained by using a heavier tripod, or (in "type 2" digiscoping) by attaching the camera to the scope and using a shutter release to minimize camera shake. Whether this degree of softness is acceptable is a personal choice. I consider it about the same as my handheld film photography, all of which would be better if on a tripod and better yet with shutter release. It is a question of trade-offs; a professional photographer would not be content with either these digital images nor my film images. But the purpose of my photography is personal enjoyment, documenting the event, and an ability to share the images with others, all while having photography minimally interfere with birding. More expensive, heavier, and bulkier equipment can significantly lessen the enjoyment of the day in the field. Again, it is simply a personal choice. These images are sufficient to discuss in detail the individual feather patterns which is a reason I wanted to have a digiscoping option. Of these three photos, I think the best crispness came with the 3x optical zoom.

In addition to showing these comparisons of different levels of optical zoom on the overall quality of the photographs, I have already noted that the optical zooms produce slightly different colors. I believe this is a function of the built-in light meter and how much of the image it is measuring to produce the automatic light balance. Consider these three shots, taken moments apart. These have been cropped and sharpened, but no color balancing was performed:

This sleeping Willet was taken at 1x (no zoom) and then was cropped significantly in PhotoShop®: the overall color is on the warm, brownish side.
In this 2x shot (about mid-level optical zoom), cropping was still necessary to delete vignetting, but the color is cooler and probably truer.
In this 3x (maximum zoom) shot, the color is much cooler and grayer (possibly too much?) but the depth of field is smaller and the rock is quickly out-of-focus. It is possible the background of the sea (upper left) is white and not blue because of the foam from a crashing wave.

Finally, I also tried some landbirds at my feeder at much closer range than these waders. The bird's image almost fills the frame of the scope, so I found that I had to use some degree of optical zoom to keep the whole image within the non-vignetted part of the frame. Here is an example of a Golden-crowned Sparrow. It appears to my eye that this is about as crisp as one could hope for from my set-up with a hand-held camera. I am impressed with the depth of field that even allows the tail to be somewhat in-focus:

Anne Spence provided this list of web sites with digiscoping information:

http://www.digibird.com/whatisdir/whatis.htm
http://www.md.ucl.ac.be/peca/test/a.html
http://www.laurencepoh.com/
http://www.shortcourses.com/how/digiscoping/digiscoping.htm
I wish to thank those who corresponding with me on this topic: Graham Catley, Alvaro Jaramillo, Kevin McKereghan, Joe Morlan, and Anne Spence. In addition, Anne Spence brought her album of digital photos to a Christmas Bird Count for me to peruse, and this was very helpful. I also benefited from information in the on-line commentary on the chat lines referenced above, and in various articles, both recently in Birding magazine and on-line.

All photos & text © 2004 Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

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