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Picture This: Zooming In

'Digiscoping' marries cameras and magnifying optics to create close-up shots.

By Earl Nottingham

Most wildlife watchers, when looking through a spotting scope or binoculars, have thought at some point: “Hey, if I hold a camera up to the back of the eyepiece, maybe I can take a close-up picture.” What usually follows is an exercise in fumbling futility as the photographer tries to get the camera lined up with the rear lens while blocking out any extraneous light as well as keeping the critter centered in the frame. Impromptu solutions are sometimes employed in an effort to join the two. Duct tape is often involved.

Some consolation can be gained, however, in knowing that the process of mating a camera to a separate magnified optic device can be done properly and even has the bona-fide name of “digiscoping.”

While astronomers and other telescope enthusiasts have connected 35mm cameras to their devices for many years, the ability to capture good photographs through consumer-grade spotting scopes and binoculars has been elusive because of the mediocre optics of the scopes and the limited resolution and light-gathering capabilities of earlier digital cameras.

However, serious digiscoping has finally come of age with better optics in scopes (spurred by demands of the wildlife viewing community, especially birders), quantum leaps in the image quality of digital cameras and the proliferation of smartphone cameras. The developments afford many possibilities for taking good quality, highly magnified photographs that can rival images taken by professional (and very expensive) telephoto camera lenses. Magnifications of the camera-to-scope configuration typically can equal the magnification of a 1000 to 3000mm lens on a 35mm camera, making digiscoping a very affordable alternative to high-dollar camera lenses.

Here is what you need to get started digiscoping.

1. Spotting scope. Start with a good quality spotting scope (typical brands include Alpen, Bushnell, Kowa, Leupold, Nikon and Swarovski). Invest in a scope with a zoom lens (approximately 20-60X). Best results will usually be at the lower zoom range. At higher zoom ranges, less light is available through the lens, resulting in slower shutter speeds on the camera that could show camera or subject movement.

2. Digital camera. Most DSLRs, point-and-shoot cameras with zoom lenses (up to 4X) or smartphones with built-in cameras will work just fine for digiscoping. The camera’s zoom lens in combination with the zoom on the scope can result in extremely close-up images. However, you will need to experiment with different zoom combinations to find the sweet spot for your particular camera/scope setup.

3. Adapters. Many scope, camera and third-party manufacturers offer a variety of digiscope adapters and connectors for most cameras, including smartphones. For simple point-and-shoot cameras, an inexpensive bracket is often used to brace the camera next to the scope’s rear lens. For full-size DSLRs, most camera and scope makers (like Kowa, above) offer proprietary digiscoping systems. Visit their websites to see their solutions.

4. Tripod. A quality tripod is a must for sharp images. High-magnification lenses that aren’t stabilized will inevitably produce blurred photographs. Every effort to stabilize the camera and scope should be taken. Even with a good tripod, motion can still be induced just by pressing on the camera shutter button. For DSLR or point-and-shoot cameras, consider using an electronic cable release to mitigate vibration. For iPhones, you can connect the ear buds and use the volume control as a shutter release. If you intend to shoot video, consider a fluid head, which will make camera movement much smoother than the typical pan and tilt tripod head.

For the birder, hunter or anyone else who enjoys the outdoors, digiscoping brings a new dimension to the enjoyment of watching wildlife by preserving the moment with a photograph or video that can be shared with others.

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