I recently spent 3 days talking digiscoping, spotting scopes, and binoculars with patrons at the ZEISS Stand at the Great British Bird Fair at Rutland Water in the UK. In real, verifiable numbers, upwards of 11,000 people visit the fair over the three days, and it sometimes feels like at least half of them come to the Optics Marque and visit our booth. And of those 5100, I, personally, talk to at least half…that’s 2550 people over 3 days. Of course that’s only what it feels like. In reality I probably don’t talk to more than a thousand people :), and only about 2 out of 3 of them want to talk about capturing images of wildlife with a spotting scope. Still that is a lot of people to tell “well, honestly, the camera I use is discontinued. You can’t get it anymore.” I can read their faces (even their British faces): “Fat lot of help you are!”

{Note: though I was assured it was discontinued several months ago by people at Canon who should know, and though it disappeared from retailers and Canon’s web site, it looks like the Canon SD4000IS might be “back by popular demand.” Canon must have made another production run, since it is, as of 8/30/11, readily available on on-line retailers. And it is still one of the best cameras behind the scope eyepiece I have ever used. Get one while they last! Or read on…}

So, I came home, did a bit of poking around on the internet, and ordered the camera I’d actually been recommending for 3 days, as one of the few current models I had reason to believe would work: the Nikon Coolpix P300. (I use the long zoom Nikon Coolpix p500 for the other half of my P&S for Wildlife rig, as well as for general photography. It has the same sensor as the P300, and I have been very pleased with it.)

The P300, like my retired Canon SD4000IS, or my P500, uses a back-illuminated CMOS senor, instead of the more conventional CCD sensor. I have been impressed with the speed of the BiCMOS sensors. They capture a rapid burst of images (between 4 and 8 frames per second) and they do, these days, full HD video (1080p).They also have very good high-ISO noise performance. Rapid burst (8 frames per second for 7 frames on the P300) and high ISO capability make them ideal for capturing images of wildlife through the eyepiece of a spotting scope. Full HD video just makes them that much more fun. The kind of close up video of wildlife in action that today’s P&S can capture through a spotting scope is simply addictive! Too much fun.

The P300 is also similar to the Canon SD4000is in having a faster than average zoom (in the fast lens sense of fast). The Canon was among the fastest on the market when I bought it at f2.8…the P300 is an f1.8. While this might not help a lot with digiscoping exposure, where the scope most often limits the f-stop, it does mean that extra effort has gone into lens design…something which, in my experience, does pay a dividend behind the eyepiece. The sharper the camera lens, the more detail you will see in your images.

Keeping with the theme, the P300, like the Canon before it, has a big bright LCD for viewing the image you are about to take, or the one you just took. In this case, as with the lens, the newer model goes the older one better, with a significantly bigger LCD. Initial trials show it to be plenty bright enough for use in full sun, for both viewing and touch-up focus.

Of course, the major consideration when purchasing a Point & Shoot to use behind the eyepiece is how the zoom interacts with the scope optics. Some of the finest P&Ss for general photography simply do not work behind the eyepiece of a scope…there is either no zoom setting where you can get a full frame image, or the only zoom setting that gives a full frame is the highest power setting…neither the sharpest position of the zoom, nor the most useful since the slightest vibration at such high power will destroy image quality. Many P&S zooms also lengthen as you zoom them, so that you have to reposition the camera behind the eyepiece every time you zoom. I like to find a P&S zoom that gives me a full frame image over at least half the zoom range, with the eyepiece of the scope at its lowest power, and without repositioning the camera. The Canon SD4000IS was exceptional in that it gave me the upper 2/3s of the range. The P300 gives me the upper half…but, since it is considerably wider at the wide end (24mm equivalent vs. 28mm equivalent), it amounts to about the same usable range of equivalent focal lengths once behind the scope. I can live with it.

One issue with BiCMOS sensors is always image quality. The inner structure…the granular structure…which shows up when you enlarge the image to full size (sometimes referred to as 1 to 1, or 1 image pixel to 1 display pixel) is very different in an BiCMOS sensor than it is in a conventional CCD sensor. In a BiCMOS image you can see a somewhat pebbly structure, and lines and edges in the image are not as well defined. CCD sensors of equal pixel density tend to produce a smoother inner structure, with better definition. I am not talking about noise…this effect is more like grain structure in film. No BiCMOS sensor I have seen equals the fine grained look of CCD sensors.

On the other hand, given the high pixel counts of today’s BiCMOS sensors, you will rarely be looking at, and certainly not printing, your images at 1 to 1. The 12.1mp BiCMOS senor on the Coolpix P300 produces incredible detail at normal viewing and printing sizes…even at somewhat abnormal sizes. And certainly the other advantages of the the modern BiCMOS sensor…rapid capture, high ISO performance, access to creative modes based on rapid capture, full HD video, etc, etc…more than make up for any shortcomings. You will notice that almost all of the pro-level DSLRs today feature BiCMOS.

I continue to use the ZEISS DiaScope 65FL as my primary optic, with the 15-56x Vario eyepiece. I mount the camera on the ZEISS Quick Camera Adapter. The Nikon mounts, if anything, even better than the Canon. It is a solid feeling camera, slightly bigger than the Canon, with a good sized flat bottom and a well placed tripod socket so that it snugs down on the adapter plate very solidly. It is easy to set up. It needs, in my first experiments, to be just inside the distance from the eyepiece where you get a sharply defined circular image at wide on both zooms. Once centered and in place there, zooming up to about half zoom eliminates vignetting, and you have the rest of the zoom range with a full frame. You can also use the the full range of the scope zoom. That is about as good as it gets.

The SRB-Griturn Universal Cable Release mount works very well with the large flat shutter button on the P300. Many shutter release buttons, including the Canon SD4000IS, are domed, which tends to throw a cable release adapter off to one side or the other over time. The P300 is ideal.

In use, the Nikon P300 focuses rapidly and fairly accurately through the eyepiece of the scope. As always, a half-press is mandatory. You need to give the camera time to lock on focus, observe the focus indicator light, and check to make sure it has focused on some part of the bird you value and not, in a worst case, on the vegetation behind the bird. The P300 has several focus modes I am experimenting with. Center focus seems fairly accurate so far. There is a follow focus mode which is supposed to lock on a moving subject and follow. I mean to try that more fully when I can find a cooperative bird. And there is a manual focus mode (not that kind of manual…this lets you select the position of the focus square within the frame using the control wheel). For stationary birds there is also a best shot mode, which takes a series of high speed exposures and selects the sharpest of them. I need to try that too.

My general impression is that it is easier to restore focus when a bird moves out of range with the P300 than it was on the Canon. It is very possible to touch up focus on the LDC, without swinging the camera out. I never got so I could do that with the Canon.

I have been out twice with the camera looking for birds to test image quality. So far I am impressed. The exposures are spot on, and in good light, at reasonable distances and powers, the image detail is everything I could hope for. In most situations chromatic aberration (color fringes around high contrast edges, a lens problem) and purple fringing (a purple halo around bright objects, a sensor problem) seems well controlled. The Canon always showed false color in the eye-point (sun reflection) of any bird that showed one. The Nikon P300 is remarkably free of any color under identical circumstances.

I have included a few of my best shots so far for your review. All are linked back to my Wide Eyed in Wonder galleries where you can blow them up to your hearts content using the image size controls across the top of the lightbox window. These should be taken as first efforts. I never fully judge a digiscoping camera until I use it in Florida or Texas, where the light is digiscoping perfect and the birds are close! I will be posting more as I catch them.

Things I miss: with the Canon I could just hold the shutter button down and take a burst of images at 4 fps for as long as I wanted. With the Nikon on continuous, a single press of the shutter takes 7 shots at 8 fps. In the long run this could be better…as I used to come back with 30 shot sequences from which I would save one image. 7 is likely enough. Still…

It took me three months to come to grips with the way the Canon focused. I am hoping it won’t take the same to come to grips with the P300.

Now…I am really hoping Nikon will keep the P300 in the line for at least a year. I don’t like that “Fat lot of help you are” look.