What is Digiscoping?

This instructive article is courtesy of Trevor Codlin (http://www.digiscoping.co.uk/)

Simply put, Digiscoping is the practice of combining a telescope with a digital camera - either stills or movie.

The pictures below provide a good example of just what is possible, and were taken using a Nikon Coolpix 990 (left side) and in conjunction with a Swarovski AT80HD c/w 30x eyepiece (right side), the left hand picture was taken with the lens set to the telephoto setting. When the lens is set in this position it's magnification equates to approximately 2x, through the telescope this then becomes approximately 60x, far greater than any 35mm camera set up.

Through a regular telephoto lens Magnified with a telescope
Through a regular telephoto lens Magnified with a telescope

Pictures courtesy of Trevor Codlin (http://www.digiscoping.co.uk)


Why should you be digiscoping.....

For years now photographers have been taking pictures of distant subjects with a view to producing excellent quality, close up shots. A 35mm SLR combined with a long telephoto lens was the required equipment, and more often than not a lot of patience. With major advances in the optical quality of telescopes, it soon became possible to take pictures through them with the same 35mm camera. For the more amateur photographers among us this provided the ideal opportunity to take good quality images of distant birds without the need to carry around a cumbersome telephoto lens as well as a scope.

The results using a photo-adapter and a scope have for most people been fairly hit and miss. On bright sunny days the results could be good, but the limitation of a fairly slow lens aperture (usually of around f10-12) meant that getting a fast shutter speed was more often than not impossible. Recording the image onto film was the other slight draw back, it was fairly common that you could leave a site feeling satisfied with your days efforts, only to find that all your images were blurred or wrongly exposed when you got your film back.

Digiscoping offers the chance to take a picture through your telescope by combining the magnification of a zoom lens on a digital camera or camcorder with the eyepiece of a telescope. The combined magnification is usually much greater than anything that was available previously, and the images can be viewed instantly. However do not be fooled into to thinking that a camera that gets the best reviews in the magazines will be the best for digiscoping. Ideally it is best to use a camera that has a fairly small front lens with a telescope that has a large eyepiece. But as always there are even some exceptions to this rule, as the way that the cameras' lens is set up will also have a bearing on what results are possible.

Here, we will aim to give you an idea of what combinations work and what you will need to help you on the way to successful digiscoping.

Digital Stills

Digiscoping has been with us for a number of years already and is no doubt here to stay in bird watching circles.

We shall try to explain how you can get the best out of a digital still camera when used with a telescope and which one to choose.

With such a large range of cameras available from just as many suppliers all producing excellent quality images it is difficult to know where to start.

Early digiscopers have found that some of the Nikon coolpix cameras are the best for the job, but this does not mean that they are the only ones. In recent months both Fuji and Leica have produced accessories enabling some of their cameras to be used in conjunction with a scope. Some manufacturers are also producing universal digiscope mounts that will allow a camera without a thread on its lens to be attached. This method is not as simple as using a tube but it does do the job and will solve a problem if you already have a camera without a filter thread.

When choosing a camera there are a number of things that you should bear in mind:

Image quality: Digital cameras use pixels to make up a picture and quite simply, the more there are the better quality the image will be. A digital camera with 2 million pixels is the minimum resolution to look at, for better results and more cropping options three or four million should be used. To put these figures into perspective a 2 million pixel camera is capable of producing a good quality 8 x 10 inch print, but this is the limit. Whereas a 3 million pixel camera is capable of producing a good quality 16 x 20 inch print, although this may seem a little excessive it will give you the option of cutting out the background and enlarging your subject.

Optical Zoom: Most digital cameras have a built in zoom, choose a camera with a good optical zoom, this is essential when digiscoping, the zoom must be used to eradicate vignetting. Digital zooms are not recommended, it is easy to be impressed by boasts of a large magnification, but a digital zoom enlarges the pixels sacrificing image quality. A 3x zoom on a digital camera gives an equivalent 35mm range of 38mm to 114mm and 4x would be equivalent to 38mm to 152mm. When used in conjunction with a 30x eyepiece on a telescope this gives a magnification approximately 60x or 90x, far more than can be achieved with any 35mm camera set up. This zoom range will vary depending on the set up of the cameras' lens, the Nikon coolpix 5000 has a 3x zoom but it starts from 28mm. On its maximum telephoto setting a magnification of 1.5x is all that is possible, which in reality works fine, but will only give a magnification of 45x.

Lens design: Sometimes a camera will receive an excellent review in the photographic press but when it is used for digiscoping gives very poor results. It is important to ensure that the camera you want will do the right job, as a general rule it is worth getting a camera that has a front lens element that is smaller than the eyepiece lens on your telescope. With some cameras it is impossible to get rid of the vignetting, even when on the maximum telephoto, avoid these cameras as this means that you will have to crop every image hence compromising quality.

LCD screen: Always choose a camera that has a LCD screen on the back, this is essential as when digiscoping you will be unable to use the viewfinder. The design of some of the Nikon coolpix cameras are ideal, they have a swivelling camera body that allows the screen to be rotated into the ideal position to give the clearest view of the screen.

Price: Expect to pay anything from £200 upwards for a suitable digital camera, but bear in mind that the more you pay the more pixels you will get, meaning better image quality.

Accessories: Before choosing your camera ensure that you have enough money put aside for accessories. That's because:

  1. 1. Digital cameras use loads of battery power so one or two spares are essential. Check on the type of batteries required and ensure that sufficient power will be available for long trips abroad.
  2. 2. Your images are stored on memory cards the better resolution the more memory they will take up, most manufacturers supply one card with the camera but this is usually fairly small.
  3. 3. A remote control is a very useful addition to your kit because of the high risk of camera shake, make sure that there is one available for your camera. Although you may not use it all the time a remote is an essential piece of kit to help you take those pin sharp pictures.
  4. 4. A card reader, although this is not a camera accessory it is a very handy piece of kit for downloading images. Plug it directly into the USB port of your computer, the cameras' memory card can then be inserted. It frees up the camera for immediate use and does not use up battery power as it gets it power from your computer.

Taking pictures with a digital camera can be as easy or as technical as you want it to be, the image can be viewed using the LCD screen on the back of the camera. Once the picture has been taken it is immediately viewable with the built in screen, if its no good delete it and take another. When taking pictures through the scope I usually take several shots then delete the ones that are no good, remember trial and error will cost you nothing.

Trevor Codlin

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