How to Hack Your Smartphone to Take Good Photographs of Birds

An expert shares her tricks on mastering the art of digiscoping.

You know that part in Casablanca when Ilsa tells Rick, “You’ll have to do the thinking for both of us now”? Well, that’s exactly how I feel about my iPhone camera.

I’ve been digiscoping, or taking photos with a camera attached to my spotting scope, for about 10 years. I’ve played with everything from point-and-shoot cameras to complex single-lens reflex cameras. With practice, pairing just about any camera with a good spotting scope will get you extraordinary images.

I love digiscoping with my Nikon D40 and Nikon V1, but they’re complicated cameras and are bulky in the field. When I see a new bird or a new bird behavior, I get so excited that I don’t always pay attention to my camera settings. Then, I get home and discover that my memory card is full of overexposed or blurry images. But my iPhone camera takes care of the settings for me. I don’t need to worry about F-stops or ISOs; the iPhone figures it all out.

Keep in mind that the best images will come with better quality scopes. Full disclosure: I do represent Swarovski at certain events and the company sometimes sponsors my talks at birding and photography festivals. 

Here are some tips on how to get the best photos by digiscoping with a smartphone. 

Get a digiscoping adapter for your phone. While it’s possible to hold your iPhone up to the eyepiece of your scope to shoot, it’s easier to keep it in place with an adapter. Swarovski and Meopta make iPhone adapters that fit their scopes, but there are universal adapters, too, like NovaGrade and SnapZoom. Universal adapters are ideal for someone who may be switching phones or scopes in the near future. Keep in mind though that universal adapters generally require a lot of adjusting in the field, and that can be inconvenient, since birds don’t always stay still. Another option is PhoneSkope, which asks for the make and model of your phone and scope to design an adapter just for you.

Your headphones can be used as a remote shutter release. Many people don’t realize that if you plug in the headphones that come with your iPhone, the volume-down button acts as a remote shutter release. It’s especially handy when it’s a windy day and you don’t want to risk shaking the phone by tapping the screen. If you don’t want the headphones to get in the way, there are remote shutter releases that can control your iPhone camera via Bluetooth. And with Android phones you can set up a voice command to “shoot” pictures.

Take advantage of exposure adjustments. Most people already know that tapping the iPhone screen make it autofocus its lens. But if you tap where the image is brightest, the iPhone will self-adjust the exposure levels, too. This is great for photographing pale birds like swans and egrets. If you want to seal the exposure, hold your finger until you see “AF/AE Lock.”

Use camera apps for editing. Upload the photos on your phone to apps like Hipstamatic and SnapSeed to make minor adjustments. The apps can enhance sharpness, contrast, exposure, and warmth with a few swipes of your finger. Some of them also have beautiful editing tools to enhance photos—good or bad. If you’re on Instagram. bad bird photos are great with a filter; those photos tend to get more likes than crisp field-guide-like images. Hipstamatic and SnapSeed also offer some cool filters to give your photos an artistic edge. If a photo is totally blurry, try Waterlogue or Brushstroke to turn it into a painting or illustration.

Hold your phone horizontally to take video. Most video uploading sites, such as YouTube, Vimeo, and even Facebook, are built for horizontal images. Try to remember that while filming.

Digiscoping is a great tool, but don't just take my word for it. Check out this video of me photographing a Snowy Owl with the phone-and-scope sandwich.


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