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Digiscoping: The Basics

by Richard Ford
Experienced digiscoper, Richard Ford, discusses the basics of the technique, illustrated with his own photographs.

The essentials

Digiscoping set-up
Digiscoping set-up
  • A scope
  • A digital camera
  • An adapter to connect the scope and camera
  • A sturdy Tripod
  • A cable release
  • A computer

Other useful accessories

  • Monitor shade or Magnifier
  • Spare batteries or a battery pack
  • Spare memory cards
  • A good imaging software package

Scopes

Most birders own a scope so this expense in most case will be taken care of. If you own a high definition scope so much the better. As usual you get what you pay for, and scopes with high definition glass will ultimately produce better images. That is not to say the mid range scopes cannot produce good results.

The Camera

The Nikon Coolpix range of Cameras (Coolpix 990, 995 or 4500 ideally) are the popular choice for Digiscoping, though with new cameras becoming available all the time the choice is finally becoming a little wider. Good results have come from the recently released Contax and Kyocera range of tiny light weigh cameras, there are limitation with settings and availability of Digiscoping accessories but bonuses such as very fast shooting. The Coolpix and Contax range are sadly both discontinued. The Canon Powershot A95 seems to be producing good results too, along with some of the DSLR's.

Vignetting
Severe vignetting

The two main reasons the popularity of the Coolpix range are the Zoom, which moves in and out within the body of the camera, so cameras lens can be placed close to the scope eyepiece, without fear of external movement. The small lens compared to many Digital Cameras, keeps vignetting (the circle or dark corners of the image due to the scope eyepiece - see right) to a minimum. The split swivel body design is also a useful feature.

Tripod

A matter of personal choice, but the more ridged the better as always.

Ideally though a nice fluid movement for following moving subjects, and something you can move and adjust with one hand, leaving the other free to click the shutter and or focus.

Adapter and Cable release

Linnet
Linnet

Essential if you want to minimise camera shake, remember the magnifications involved when Digiscoping are very large so any amount of movement is magnified also, camera shake is the main cause of blurred photos, so anything that helps to minimise this is a god send.

Adapters to fit a variety of scopes are available and fix the camera lens and scope eyepiece within millimetres of each other keeping vignetting to a minimum.

The cheapest and overall most reliable cable release option is to use a bracket, which enables the use of the standard mechanical cable release; these are available from most good camera shops.

Batteries and Memory cards

Before long you will probably find that the standard package supplied with the Camera is not enough, Digital cameras consume power quickly, and it is necessary to have the LCD on for much of the time. It's no fun, running out of battery power, just at the wrong moment. Get a few spare batteries or a power pack and you will not regret it.

Cameras are often supplied with a low capacity memory card, which will hold few good quality pictures. If you can purchase or get the retailer to throw in at least a 128mb compact flash memory card with the camera, you will be able to store many more pictures, larger cards and the IBM micro drive are also available allowing storage of many images.

Monitor shade of magnifier

These are a useful addition to the Digiscoping kit. Its often difficult particularly on a sunny day to see the LCD screen clearly, which inevitably makes focusing difficult. A simple home made shade is useful, but another option is to use a magnifier, this gets your eye right up to the lens helping you to achieve a crisp focus, there are a few options available.

Digiscoping: Technique and camera settings

The below settings relate to the Nikon Coolpix 4500

Whinchat
Whinchat

Here I have touched upon the main points to help you Digiscope. This information should be treated as suggestions and guidelines only.

You may be aware that Digiscoping has its limitations; there are not many digiscoped shots of birds in flight for example. Ideally you want a perched bird within range of your equipment and in good light. One of the best places to start would be your garden.

Finding the bird in the monitor is the first step and as anyone who has Digiscoped will know its not always as easy as it sounds. At these magnifications you can be working in a very small area, and particularly in the case of smaller passerines, they are not going to stay still for long. Birds like Herons for example are much easier. If all else fails and the subject is still there, zoom out with the camera, find it and zoom back in again. Some people use a form of locating site to help with this problem, there are always exceptions but you may find your hand-eye co-ordination is good enough in most circumstances, and as with everything it takes practice.

Shooting Modes

Willow Warbler
Willow Warbler

My preference is continuous shooting mode, you hold down the shutter to shot around six shots in succession, or just click it to take one. The down side is that the camera then takes a while to write these images to the memory card, a few seconds that seems like minutes if the bird if still posing beautifully.

Image size

Keep the resolution at its maximum size ideally (2272x1704 for Coolpix 4500) and the image quality to fine, it may be tempting to use high, which saves the image as an uncompressed TIFF, it takes a long time to write to the card and takes up a lot of memory for little noticeable difference in image quality.

Exposure

The main aim when Digiscoping is to freeze the movement both any movements of the subject, and camera shake which is inevitable to an extent in almost all conditions. As with all forms of photography, to freeze any movement, you will need a high shutter speed, which can only be obtained in good light condition. The beauty of digital however is that to some extent an underexposed picture (one which appears Dark due to the high shutter speed) can be brightened 'in computer' once you have it on the monitor at home. Obviously you can only push this so far but it does allow you a little leeway when it comes to the correct exposure.

The aperture priority setting means that you control the aperture setting and the camera chooses what it thinks is the appropriate shutter speed, the reverse is true of the shutter priority setting. Shutter speed is far more important than aperture when Digiscoping, since depth of field (The depth of Focus, front to back) is limited when taking pictures through a scope. Aperture priority is perhaps the best place to start, keep the aperture setting as low as possible to enable the highest shutter speeds.

Focus Settings

Spotted Redshank
Spotted Redshank

Set the Camera to Single AF (Auto Focus) Mode, this way it will only try to find a focus lock when you halve press the button (before a full press to take the shot) rather than continually searching for focus. The Macro setting (Tulip) is considered by most to produce the crispest focus.

Spot AF area, for Exposure Metering and Focus

The Nikon Coolpix 4500 has five areas, which can be selected manually; the camera can be set to take its exposure reading and its point of focus from these areas.

Select Spot AF area under the Metering menu. This takes the exposure reading from the manually selected area using the small joystick and is basically the same as spot metering except that you select the spot.

These areas are useful to pick out the point of focus (select Focus options, AF area mode, manual) and or exposure; due to the limited depth of field it's often preferable to pick a particular point such as the eye of the subject for the crispest part of the image.

Most of the other settings can be left on their default values, but it is useful to play with the different setting and familiarise yourself with what the camera is capable of.

Imaging Software

Grey Heron
Grey Heron

Do not be fooled by the pin sharp images you see on the web, they did not necessarily look like that when they came off the camera. Familiarising yourself with the basic techniques used to enhance and sharpen digital images, is probably as useful as knowing what to do with the camera itself.

Of course it all depends what your priorities are, personally I want to produce the best images I can for my own pleasure, prints and hopefully publication by others. Many people need nothing more than an identifiable record shot.

Many packages exist and are often included with the Digital Camera. It is often possible to turn good images into excellent ones with a few mouse clicks. If you own a copy of PhotoShop, PhotoShop Element or similar software, some of the most important features are Levels and Brightness/ Contrast adjustments, an image that is dark i.e. slightly under exposed can often be corrected to become a brighter more acceptable image very quickly.

Next is of course the sharpening tool referred to as 'Unsharp mask' in Photoshop, most images will benefit from a little sharpening but it is important not to overdo it resulting in very false looking images.

As always, good pictures will come with a lot of practice, trial and error and luck, you will learn a little more about what you can get away with each time you try.

Most importantly don't forget to enjoy it.

Richard Ford

www.digitalwildlife.co.uk

The text and photographs in the above article are Copyright © Richard Ford and may not be reproduced anywhere without permission.