A close-up view of a sought-after bird can be immensely satisfying, but the quest to get one can bring birders and photographers too close to wildlife. Luckily, technology has a solution. Digiscoping—via a camera or even a cellphone attached to a spotting scope—enables you to observe birds from further away. And because the birds are unaware of your presence, they’ll behave more spontaneously and exhibit more natural behaviors.
Digiscoping has become my primary way of capturing up close, detailed photos of birds and wildlife since discovering this technique four years ago. While people have been digiscoping since the 1990s, advances in optics and camera technology have now made it more mainstream.
For serious birders who own scopes, digiscoping is a very easy way to document and capture the birds you see. For serious photographers it is also the only way to capture shots not otherwise possible. Depending on your setup, you can achieve focal lengths of 1000 – 3000 mm or more. And then there’s the optical advantage: Scopes work like no other lens. They produce amazing details with forced depth of field, and they are fantastic in low-light situations.
You will need a few essential pieces of gear to digiscope. I recommend a high-quality flourite crystal or HD glass scope for best image quality. While more expensive, they handle chromatic aberration (purple fringing caused by wavelengths of color failing to converge on the same point) much better than less-expensive scopes. Chromatic aberration has historically been a shortcoming of digiscoping, but new scopes have largely solved this.
Scopes come in straight and angled versions. Birders tend to prefer angled while photographers prefer straight for the most part. It is a personal choice. While it takes some getting used to an angled scope, it sits lower to the ground on the tripod and makes the scope more stable. Stability of the setup is key, so I recommend a sturdy carbon-fiber tripod and a video head, which stabilizes both photos and video and has excellent controls to enable smooth tilting and panning.
The type of camera or cellphone you use is an important decision when starting out. Cellphone technology has advanced considerably, and the latest generation of iPhone and Android phones produce impressive results. Having been a professional photographer for 30 years at Lockheed Martin, I never imagined using a cellphone as a camera and am amazed at the quality of the images I’m producing using my cellphone attached to my Kowa 883 scope. Plus, it's great fun sharing the action on the screen with others and even posting the photos or video on social media right from the field. I’m now finding great interest from Eagle Watch volunteers in this method, especially using the Kowa 1.6 extender that extends the zoom from 60X to 96X with little loss of light or clarity.
When it comes to cameras, some work much better than others for digiscoping. I started with a 35mm DSLR APS-C camera but quickly learned the mirror slap of these cameras caused enough vibration to produce slight focus problems. In DSLRs, a mirror flips up to allow the light passing through the lens onto the sensor. This motion causes vibration, and vibration reduces the sharpness of the image due to the extreme telephoto range of the scope. I realized a mirrorless or micro 4/3 camera solves this problem by eliminating an optical viewfinder and thus the mirror. I use a Panasonic GH3, which is capable of shooting HD video and producing beautiful still images printable up to 16x20 (resolution cellphones lack). I also recommend a Bluetooth remote shutter release to keep your hands off the camera, further reducing vibration.
Once you've tried digiscoping, you'll discover the clarity, closeness, and sharpness it provides is like nothing you have experienced. I've spent my entire life in nature photographing and viewing wildlife. I've never been more connected to the natural world since discovering this very unique technique.
Robert Wilson has been digiscoping for three and half years after a 30-year career as a staff photographer for Lockheed Martin. He currently is the US Field Ambassador for Kowa Sporting Optics and gives talks and workshops on digiscoping at birding festivals.