Column: Digiscoping for affordable photography

Published 6:47 am Thursday, August 24, 2006

By Staff
If you're like most outdoor enthusiasts, at some point you've snuck up unbelievably close to a critter with your little point and shoot pocket camera and taken what you assumed would be that super shot. Upon looking at the photo, though, you realize unbelievably close is nowhere near close enough. "See that brown dot there in the middle? That's an eight-point buck."
Your partner replies, "looks like a speck of dust to me." Realizing you're under equipped you check out a more serious set up with a strong telephoto lens. Let's see, camera, at $1,000; 500mm telephoto lens, $3,000 – yikes! So much for that idea.
There is an affordable alternative to a multi-thousand dollar set up. It's called digiscoping and a lot of folks are having a ball with it. In a nut shell, digiscoping is using a typical, small digital camera in conjunction with a spotting scope, binoculars or telescope for some amazing close up photos. Most practical for this is a spotting scope, which many shooters or bird watchers already have. A typical film camera lens for long range photography is 500mm. That's mere child's play compared to digiscoping. The average digital camera on telephoto setting is the equivalent of a 115mm film camera lens. Most spotting scopes range from 20x to 60x. Said digital camera coupled with a 60x spotting scope (115 times 60) gives you the equivalent of a 6900mm film camera lens! For just a few hundred bucks you get nearly 14 times greater magnification than the multi-thousand dollar 500mm lens.
Before you start doing back flips, though, realize that National Geographic will not be jumping all over your photos. The digiscoped images look pretty darned good to you but the quality is not suitable for most commercial purposes. Digiscoping is simply an inexpensive way to have fun with hobby photography. It can also be a great practice and learning tool if you have future aspirations for more serious wildlife photography.
It's best that the camera lens fits inside the scope or binocular eyepiece to ensure that the camera lens is within the eye relief length of the scope and that light doesn't leak in from outside the scope eyepiece.Therefore, the smaller digital cameras like the Nikon CoolPix series are ideal. The scope eye relief can be a big issue. The higher the magnification the shorter the eye relief. If the camera lens is beyond the scope's eye relief it's just like your eye being too far back, you see a little bit of image in the middle surrounded by a black border. That's called vignetting.
There are two ways of linking camera to scope. One is to mechanically lash them together. There are some commercial appliances that mount certain cameras to certain scopes (check you camera store or surf the Internet). If you happen to have the right combination that's the simplest way. If you're the handy type you can also Rube Goldberg your own set up. The camera and scope could be fitted to a piece of 2×4 or metal plate using clamps, heavy rubber bands and perhaps a screw into the camera tripod mounting hole. Just be sure the camera and scope are perfectly aligned. The problem with them being bound together is you can't see through the scope and the viewing screens of these small cameras are impossible to see in bright light. That's why many prefer to solidly mount the scope to a beefy tripod or something and simply hand hold the camera to the scope. This requires good light so the camera can use a fast shutter speed. Otherwise the image will be blurred from your natural tremors.
As with any high magnification photography controlling camera shake is paramount for a clear image. That 200x image magnification also multiplies every twitch 200 times. There's no way you can just hand hold the whole works. Only the heaviest camera tripods will do and something like a car window scope mount is better yet.
This only scratches the surface of digiscoping. For details and tips hit the Internet. Try and for starters. Carpe diem.