(This article originally appeared on my Point & Shoot Landscape blog in December of 2007. It has been revised an up-dated here.)
Major advantages of P&S digitals are, of course, their compact size and low weight, their simplicity, and their relatively low cost. They are “carry anywhere/carry always/anyone can use and own them” cameras.
However, when most people think of wildlife photography, they immediately get a mind’s-eye-view of a Canon DSLR on the end of a…well…what appears to be a cannon. Last time I checked, a Canon f4 600mm stabilized lens weighed almost 12 pounds and cost $9000, and, despite its stabilization, needed to be mounted on $500 tripod to work right. It has the reach for larger mammals in the field. Intimate portraits or close-ups of smaller creatures like birds require a 1.4-2x extender (another $200 and several ounces more) and, most often, days of field-craft…generally involving long hours sitting in blinds.
Anything but simple, easy, and affordable.
Today, we have a crop of newer P&S digitals with 30-36x zooms which reach into the 800mm plus equivalent range. We are speaking of 35mm equivalents…the focal length that would be required on a 35mm camera to equal the magnification of the P&S lens. It has to do with the difference in size between the digital sensor and 35mm film. You can fill the small sensor with a much shorter lens than it takes to fill the 35mm frame, so that the 144mm lens on your super-zoom produces the same size image of the animal within the frame as a 800mm lens would on a 35mm camera.
800mm is more than adequate for frame filling images of larger mammals…and even smaller animals that will allow a close approach: cooperative reptiles, bigger butterflies…and larger birds (or even at least somewhat cooperative smaller birds).
And, of course, if you want to employ the same level of field craft necessary with the DSLR/long lens combination, you can get more intimate portraits in more natural settings, even of birds as small and active as warblers. Many of these super-zoom P&Ss have built in image stabilization, similar to the big Canon lenses, which, makes a tripod unnecessary. How can you beat that?
For more on using today’s superzooms for wildlife, see Point & Shoot for Wildlife, Superzooms: Part 1 and Part 2.
Of course, even 800mm is not all that long a lens. If you really get into wildlife photography, and you don’t want to go the long lens and blind route, you are quickly going to want more reach…to be able to take images from further away, or at least fill the frame from further out.
What many of you might not know is that most P&S cameras, when combined with a relatively inexpensive, fairly light weight, high quality spotting scope and a decent tripod, are capable of wonderfully satisfying wildlife images, right up to frame filling portraits of sparrow-sized birds like the one at the head of this article.
It is called “digiscoping” and birder/photographer/wildlife types have been doing it for a number of years now. We have a fairly large community of digiscopers, 100s of web-sites dedicated to digiscoping, forums specifically for digiscopers, and at least 4 digiscoping flickr groups. Links are provided at the end.
“Relatively inexpensive, fairly light weight, spotting scope and decent tripod” are, of course, relative terms. Inexpensive compared to a 600mm Canon lens ($3000 vs. $9000). Light weight compared to the same (4 lbs vs. 12 lbs). And we are still talking a $500 tripod weighing another 4 lbs.
There are less expensive spotting scopes on the market…however, photography is much less forgiving than the human eye. We might accept the flawed image of an inexpensive scope while looking at it in real time. A photograph through the same scope freezes every imperfection and makes it visible for eternity. If you are going to digiscope, you need the best scope your budget will encompass. Skimp on the P&S camera if you have to, but get a good scope.
How does it work? Simple. Because the sensor of a P&S digital camera is about the same size as the retina of the human eye, you can put a P&S right behind the eyepiece of a focused spotting scope, where the eye normally goes, and take a picture of what the eye would see! That’s it. That’s all there is to it.
Given today’s P&Ss, the auto focus and auto exposure work just as well through the eyepiece as they do in normal use. Not all P&Ss work for this. In fact, the same super-zooms that are ideal for general nature, creative, and landscape imaging do not work at all for digiscoping. The zooms are just too long and you never do get a full frame view through the scope. Smaller, more compact, 1-3x zoom P&S work best.
Features you would look for: low lag time between shutter release and actual image capture; big, bright, sharp lcd; and a decent burst or continuous shooting mode. Todays Back-illuminated CMOS sensors are capable of 4-5 frames per second, and HD video capture as well. The scope provides a lot of magnification, so sensors in the 8-14 mp range are all you really need…and an 10 or 12 mp sensor will allow higher shutter speeds and show lower noise than the new crop of 14-16mp sensors.
When hand holding the camera behind the lens you will quickly find that the limiting factor is how still you can hold the camera. Digiscopers quickly came up with home made adapters (generally involving PVC pipe fittings and assorted bottle caps, bits of wood, and a quantity of black tape) to center the camera behind the eyepiece and hold it steady. Enterprising folks offered their services to fashion more commercial solutions, and as of today, most makers of high quality spotting scopes also provide some kind of adapter for mounting small digital P&Ss behind the eyepiece.
When you get to the adapter stage, then another feature of the P&S becomes important. Many of the adapters out there require front filter threads, or a filter adapter on the camera. Fewer and fewer P&Ss have such threads or such adapters.
There are platform style adapters that do not require filter threads. These tend to be larger and clunkier than screw-on-over-the-eyepiece adapters, but they have the advantage of working with any P&S camera. Some, like the Zeiss Digital Camera Adapter, also allow you to mount the camera on the scope full time, and to swing it out of the way when you want to focus or simply observe. (see photo)
Finally, no matter what kind of adapter you use to hold the camera behind the eyepiece, you are going to want some kind of remote shutter release. It is very difficult to get sharp images when you are moving the camera every time you press the shutter. There are vendors who make universal cable release brackets that adapt a regular 35mm cable release to a P&S. They work. (see photo for example) (Actually, with the advent of BICMOS sensors and higher frame rates, the remote release is less important. You can fire off a burst of 5-8 frames and pick the sharpest one.)
Digiscoping has some primary advantages over conventional long lens photography. The reach is longer, so you can fill the frame from further away. This makes field craft less critical, and practically eliminates the need for blinds, but, just as importantly, it makes your work less intrusive…less disturbing to your subjects. The equipment is considerably smaller and lighter, so you are more likely to carry it out into the field. It is also considerably less expensive, which opens wildlife imaging to a much broader range of people (like me).
At a conservative estimate there have been more high quality images of wildlife, especially of birds, taken since the discovery of digiscoping than were taken in all the time up to then. Don’t believe me? Browse around on the internet. Do a search for “digiscoped” or “digiscoping” on any of the image sharing sites. You will be amazed.
There is way too much to the art and craft of digiscoping to cover here, and that’s not my intention. I just want to make you aware of the possibility. Don’t sell your P&S short. With an investment, you can use it for wildlife photography, and very satisfying wildlife imaging at that.
The images that follow were taken with the Canon SD4000IS, 10mp Back-illuminated CMOS sensor Point & Shoot behind the 15-56x Vario Eyepiece on the ZEISS DiaScope 65FL spotting scope.
5000mm effective field of view, 1/320th @ ISO 400, f14 effective.
1500mm effective, 1/60th @ ISO 500, f5 camera limited.
1100mm effective, 1/25th @ ISO 800, f4 camera limited.
3600mm effective, 1/1000th @ ISO 125, f10 effective.
1700mm effective, 1/200th @ ISO 125, f5 camera limited.
3000mm effective, 1/640th @ ISO 125, f8 effective.
940mm effective, 1/25th @ ISO 800, f4.5 camera limited.
1800mm effective, 1/320th @ ISO 125, f5 effective.
3300mm effective, 1/80th @ ISO 200, f9 effective.
1200mm effective, 1/100th @ ISO 250, f4.5 camera limited.
Digiscoping is just getting started…or maybe I should say digital imaging from a distance, or maybe even wildlife P&S. The best is yet to come. Like I always say: watch this space.
For more, visit any of these sites. And be sure to read my article on the current state of the art equipment…as far as I am concerned. My Equipment.
Carl Zeiss Birding
Digiscoped on Wide Eyed In Wonder.
Mike McDowell’s Birding and Digiscoping Blog
For Digiscopers on flickr
The digiscoping forum on BirdForum.net
for universal cable release brackets