Friday, August 4, 2006

My Digiscoping Set-Up

Friday, August 4, 2006
My first digiscoping shot. A snowy owl that the entire BWD staff got to see along the Ohio River in WV in 1999.

I took my first digiscoping shot in 1999. The subject was a snowy owl in winter along some railroad tracks in West Virginia. I held the camera (an early Nikon CoolPix) up to the lens of my spotting scope (a Swarovski AT 80 HD, angled) and snapped away. I liked the results but little did I know I had gotten extremely lucky. A still, cooperative bird, easy to find in the scope, up close, no heat haze, perfect light...

I did not take another digiscoped image until I was in Florida three months later (to see my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates play the hated Cincinnati Reds in a spring training game.) My second subject was a tired migrant prothonotary warbler male in the grass at Fort DeSoto. On this day I took many digiscoped bird images--nearly all of them bad. I could not get the camera lined up properly with the spotting scope eyepiece, so I got black vignetting around the edges of my images.
Male prothonotary warbler taken at Fort DeSoto State Park along Florida's Gulf Coast.

A bit of research on the Internet gave me a solution to the vignetting (digiscoping was catching on worldwide): two plumbing rings, one fit onto the camera lens ring, one set inside the scope's eyepiece and the camera was centered every time. The down side of the plumbing rings was that the one resting loosely inside the scope's eyepiece would cooperatively fall out every time I hoisted the scope onto my shoulder. I lost at least a dozen rings this way.

For the next several years I committed the cardinal sin of zooming up too far with my digital camera, or with the scope's 20x to 60x eyepiece. In both cases I thought I'd get better images with the birds larger in the frame. I got larger birds all right, but they were as blurry as a Jim Morrison LSD flashback. I was doing something wrong.
Zooming in too far is one of the pitfalls of the inexperienced digiscoper. Yes the subject is larger, but it's almost always blurry.

Fast forward to 2005. I'm headed to Guatemala and I really want to digiscope some birds. I consult Clay Taylor at Swarovski Optik, North America for his recommendations. Clay is a digiscoping veteran and has tried nearly every combination of adapter, camera, and spotting scope known to birding humanity. He made a few suggestions then e-mailed me a list of cameras that were good for digiscoping and what you'd need to make them work with most spotting scopes. I was now using a Swarovski ATS 65 HD (still an angled eyepiece version--my preference). At Clay's suggestion I bought a Canon PowerShot A520 (about $185 at at the time I purchased it). This camera shoots at 4.0 megapixels (plenty for my purposes) and accepts threaded adapters--this is critical for effective digiscoping.

I also purchased from Canon via a Canon LA-DC52F camera adapter which "bayonets" onto the camera after a small ring surrounding the lens is removed. This is where the DC52F adapter slots into place.
The Canon DC52F (M52) extender (right) and the threaded half of the Swarovski DCA (left).

Removing the camera's ring exposed the bayonet threads to attach the DC52F extender.

With the Canon extender in place, the DCA is threaded on. I leave the DC52F and DCA connected at all times.

The two main components of the Swarovski DCA, the threaded extender (left) and the pressure-fit ring for the scope's eyepiece (right).

From Swarovski I ordered a DCA (for Digital Camera Adapter) unit (part #49206). The DCA performs tow important functions. It threads onto the Canon DC52F and it clamps securely around the eyepiece of the spotting scope (in my case a newer 20x to 60x zoom eyepiece). This creates a very stable set-up for the camera (with adapter in place) to nest on top of the spotting scope eyepiece. With one motion I am ready to digiscope any bird I have in the scope's field of view.

The Swarovski DCA's "inner" portion is a pressure-fit ring that enclosed the eyepiece. Tightened just right, it does not slip, but still permits the zoom eyepiece to be turned as needed. A plastic inner ring protects the eyepiece from being scratched. Note, eyecup assembly is removed.

The DCA inner piece in place and the eyecup assembly is screwed back onto the eyepiece.

Attaching the DC52F/DCA combo to the camera. With a twist it locks into place.

With my new, smaller (65mm) spotting scope and a new carbon-fiber tripod from Bogen Manfrotto, I was travelling much lighter and digiscoping much more efficiently than in the "olde" days. Of course this did not guarantee that I would take perfect images every time. I still had a LOT to learn about that.

I had to unscrew the eyecup assembly to put the inner portion of the DCA onto my scope's eyepiece.

The camera with adapter slots perfectly onto the scope's eyepiece.

I do not tighten the knob on the adapters to hold the camera in place. Instead I remove the camera and carry it in a hip pouch.

I will cover some of the techniques, tips, and pitfalls I've learned in my recent digiscoping resurgence in a future post. If you are impatient, hop on over to Mike McDowell's Digiscoping Blog where the digiscoping truth will set you free. In the meantime, here are images of my digiscoping rig. Special thanks to Phoebe Thompson, hand model, and to Clay Taylor of Swarovski Optik for his early and ongoing advice.
On my recent digiscoping trip to South Africa, I learned a lot more about the craft of digiscoping from some other digi-vets. I promise to share it all with you here at BOTB soon.


On August 4, 2006 at 3:26 PM Rondeau Ric said...

Good article Bill, look forward to more.
BTW, you were late today, I didn't have anything ro read with my coffee this morning.
I save Julies for lunch.

Have a blast this weekend, 2 gigs, neat.

On August 4, 2006 at 3:38 PM Mike's Soap Box said...


Do you shoot photos using the macro setting or are you using the P mode for most of your photos?

On August 4, 2006 at 5:09 PM Bill of the Birds said...

RR: Yes, thunderstorms prevented me from posting last night--we have to unplug computers or risk losing them to power surges. And the dog also ate my homework...

Mike: I use P when the light or subject conditions call for it, but not all the time. And I've never noticed the advantage to shooting macro when digiscoping, at least not with my set up.

On August 4, 2006 at 9:44 PM Anonymous said...

On macro & digiscoping.

A very popular camera for digiscoping the in the early days were the Nikon Coolpix models that had a hinge in the middle. The last of these was the 4500. That camera had a yellow flower icon that appeared when you could do close "macro" focus.

Who was it who said "moderation in all things"? I don't know either, but it applies to zoomlenses. The yellow flower will not appear on those Coolpix cameras if it is zoomed all the way out - you have to back off a bit. Not coincidently, zoom lenses are generally at their best in the middle of their range. So the yellow flower of macro-mode got the reputation as a Good Thing for Digiscoping. Not because anyone was doing macro focusing, just because it meant you were in the lense's sweet spot.

So macro mode with digiscoping is not in itself a meaningful feature, but on some cameras it still helps. Sort of.

RH in CT

On August 12, 2006 at 12:36 PM Anonymous said...

Re: macro use in digiscoping

I'm not a digiscoper myself but have an interest in optics and photography. I noticed that when I use my Canon Powershot A620 in macro mode, it first searches for a close subject to focus on before looking for a far subject, and vice versa without macro. My theory is that by using macro in digiscoping, the focusing is easier and more accurate since the camera has to focus on a very close subject, i.e. the first scope lens in its path, hence digiscoping is essentially a form of "macro photography."

Raed A.
Minneapolis, MN