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Bird Photography

Before long you will probably want to take photographs of the birds and other wildlife that you see. Even in the recent past the photographic equipment and skills needed to do this was solely in the realm of the professional and dedicated amateur photographer.

Bird photography has traditionally used 35mm SLR cameras with a telephoto lens and often many hours of patience in a hide waiting for that “magic” moment. This has given us breathtaking, close up pictures of birds, but still mainly in the realm of professional photographers. Photo-adapters are available that allow a 35 mm SLR camera to use a spotting scope as a fixed length telephoto lens, typically about 1000 mm. Sadly, the small aperture size means fast film and slow shutter speeds are often needed and so results are mixed.

The Digital Revolution

Since the late 1990s, however, digital cameras have revolutionised photography, especially nature photography. The digital camera is more compact than an SLR camera and usually has better low-light performance than film. Further, the technology has moved, and still is moving, at such a pace that the resolution needed to capture fine detail is now available and at progressively more competitive prices. Birders, often already equipped with spotting scopes and tripods, are able to take very good photographs of distant birds without additional bulky equipment or hides - just a small digital camera in the coat pocket - and so digiscoping was born.

Digiscoping is simply using a telescope as a telephoto lens with a digital camera and you can keep it as simple or as sophisticated as you like. At its simplest, you point your digital camera down the eyepiece of your spotting scope. The best results come from digital cameras having a small external lens diameter and a scope with a large eyepiece. However, depending on the make and model of camera you may need to adjust the optical zoom to reduce the vignette and focussing so that you focus on the image and not the innards of the scope.

The effective magnification is typically 20-150 times so the slightest movement will have disastrous effects on your photograph, but technology comes to your aid. Digital cameras store the photographs you take on memory cards rather than film and most have built-in LCD displays, this means you can take many photographs, view them on the display and erase those that are poor from the memory card – without ever having to go to print. Alternatively, there are accessories available to assist in taking photographs more effectively, such as adapters that fix the camera to the eyepiece and shutter release cables.

For more information, check one of the many web sites dedicated to digiscoping.

My Experiences

Pentax Zoom 105-R

For many years I used a Pentax Zoom 105-R compact film camera to take photographs. This camera is fully automatic and reliably takes photographs with minimum fuss. However, the photographing of birds is limited to close quarters, which is not always possible.

Pentax Zoom 105-R The Pentax Zoom 105-R is a compact, fully-automatic camera with a 38-105 mm zoom lens.

In addition to taking "ordinary" photographs, there are built-in modes for:
  • Macro photography
  • Flash photography
  • Continuous and interval shooting
  • Multi-exposure photographs

Canon EOS IX7

I purchased the Canon EOS IX7 and a 75-300 mm USM zoom lens in October 2000; the zoom lens gives a maximum magnification of about 5 times. The fully automatic mode is incredible, producing great photographs time and time again, and only occasionally did I switch to one of the other modes to set a more appropriate aperture or shutter speed.

Printing and developing costs became prohibitive, especially when perhaps only 1-in-10 of the photographs of birds was usable.

Canon EOS IX7 The EOS IX 7 is a compact and lightweight Advanced Photo System SLR camera that can use Canon's fast focusing EF zoom lenses. The Advanced Photo System (APS) allows three print formats C/H/P, mid-roll change and increases focal lengths (magnification) by 25%. Other features:
  • 3 Point wide-field auto focus system
  • Full auto mode and 5 PIC modes for ease of use
  • 6-zone evaluative and partial metering patterns
  • Built-in TTL auto flash with red-eye reduction
  • Auto exposure bracketing
  • Single and continuous frame advance
  • Date/time and caption printing function
  • 3 Zone flash metering
  • Self-timer

Nikon Coolpix 775

The Canon EOS IX7 is not the type of camera to keep in your coat pocket so, in 2002, I decided to buy a mid-range compact digital camera.

The Nikon Coolpix 775 is an ultra-compact (87 x 66.5 x 44mm), lightweight (185g) point-and-shoot digital camera with 3x (38-115 mm) zoom lens and 2.5x digital zoom, and 2 mega-pixels for 1600 x 1200-pixel images.

The Mode Dial on top of the camera sets one of seven scene modes to provide optimal image results for a broad range of shooting situations: party/indoor, back-lit, portrait, night portrait, landscape, beach/snow, and sunset. There is also a fully automatic mode and a movie mode.

An LCD monitor on the rear of the camera allows playback, as well as composition, of photographs. The camera stores its images on CompactFlash cards and connects to computers using plug-and-play USB interface.
Nikon Coolpix 775

I was then enticed to try digiscoping, simply by placing the camera against the eyepiece of a spotting scope (or even a pair of binoculars). The results were amazing.

Nikon Coolpix 4500

Having become hooked on digiscoping, I decided in 2004 to invest in a better camera and all the adapters and other fitments needed to affix the camera to the spotting scope eyepiece.

The Nikon Coolpix 4500 is a 4 megapixel compact digital camera with 4x optical zoom lens and a swivel body that allows you to take pictures from almost any angle.

There are sixteen scene modes, including a macro mode for close-up photography - ideal for photographing flowers and insects.

Like most digital cameras, this has an LCD monitor on the rear of the camera for playback and composition of photographs. The camera stores its images on CompactFlash cards and connects to computers using plug-and-play USB interface.

Nikon Coolpix 4500

The Nikon Coolpix 4500 was regarded at the time as being the camera for digiscoping.

The camera is attached to the eyepiece using an EagleEye 28mm Nikon Coolpix DigiMount Adapter - this screws on to the camera using the filter thread and then clamps over the spotting scope's eyepiece. A shutter release cable is also fitted to reduce vibrations. The two main difficulties or annoyances with this set up are:
  1. The delay between pressing the shutter release and the shutter actually opening is often too long and the bird will have disappeared.
  2. The need to attach the camera to the scope means the spontaneity of taking photographs is lost or, if it is already set up you cannot watch the birds through the spotting scope.

The results that this set up can produce, however, are breathtaking.

Digiscoping Set Up

Last revision: 21 Feb 2015
Copyright © David Gains 1999-2018.
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