Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Digiscoping: Taking that picture

Take that Picture!  Digiscoping opportunities come quick, so having a rig and being ready to get that memorable image requires a bit of speed, discipline and luck. Being familiar with camera and settings is critical, as is the ability to get the scope on the subject and camera attached to the scope in time to capture image(s). Just knowing which direction to turn the focus knob on the scope for longer or shorter focusing is important. Also is having the camera / adapter ready to go when needed. Once all the pieces are in place we now have a rig with incredible magnifications, so additional items must be addressed in order to get keeper images. Some additional items to consider are:  

Stable tripod – add weight A good, solid tripod is a must for digiscoping. I was shopping for a tripod and wanted to get a mag-fiber, light-weight tripod that everyone was raving about. Half the weight of the more traditional aluminum tripods (and twice the cost), and extremely sturdy, I thought it would be a joy to carry in the field. Unfortunately, I could also imagine the setup easily blown over by the wind, especially with a backpack attached to it to act as a sail or windcatcher. So I opted instead for a heavier tripod. I carry my scope/tripod attached to a backpack so that my hands are free to use binocs and my Nikon D500 and 300mm f/2.8 VRII, which I also carry. Bottom line: carry the heaviest system your frame can stand; it will provide more support for your digiscoping setup than a light-weight system will. And don't skimp on a video head. The digiscoping rig must be stable, so professional ball head / video / fluid head system is of utmost importance. I use the Manfrotto 501HDV Pro video head.

Long-lens technique - brace scope and shoot continuous - stay low to subject- keep sun to your back - depress shutter half-way, focus w/ scope - hold breath, fire away Many photographers will use their bodies to help add weight to their system and to reduce vibration. I 'lean' into my scope with my arm draped over the scope and finger on the focus-wheel. Once my focus is confirmed, I depress the shutter and fire in Continuous Mode (12 fps on the Sony a6300). The first image may be blurry from the initial press of the shutter button, but the 2nd and 3rd images will be sharp since the camera is shooting faster than I can move. 

Self-timer (5-10 seconds or less) or cable release The 'Twilight Snowy Owl' photo I took in March of 2006 was taken under heavy overcast skies and at sunset. With the self-timer set to 2-seconds I was able to capture images at speeds of 1/8 to 1/30 sec. at magnifications of up to 180X. When the subject permits, by all means use the self-timer function on your camera. 
Many digiscopers emphasize the benefits and need for a cable release to take quality images. Until this year I didn't have the setup to support a cable release, so I had to resort to hand-held shooting, or self-timer shooting. I didn't feel like I was missing out at all, since I wasn't convinced that a cable release system was necessary. Reason? A cable release helps minimize vibration to a camera when depressing the shutter button, however, it does nothing to alleviate vibration that is inherent to a scope sitting atop a tripod and exposed to wind. Unless you're shooting in a vacuum or on a dead-calm, windless day, the scope is going to see much more vibration than the camera will. So I preferred to use long-lens technique perfected by many of today's top nature photographers. The key to vibration damping is 'weight'! And our bodies can make great vibration-damping tools if used properly. I now have a cable release that plugs into the HDMI port of the Sony a6300 so I can shoot continuously and electronically. A wireless remote is also available for as little as $9 but it only allows single exposures to be taken. Just make sure the scope is stable.

Lower magnifications = more keepers! Self-explanatory. Vibration increases with magnification as light-gathering capabilities drop and longer shutter speeds are required. You'll see better results by photographing your subject at 60X and then cropping your image afterward than trying to get a full-frame 180X image. Check out my article about Limitations.

Overcast days? – expect the grainies! Compact, Point and Shoot cameras are generally criticized by film-buffs for their poor white-balance capabilities, especially under cloudy conditions. This is because the sensor will mix blue and red pixels to make white colors. So, when you blow up an image taken on a cloudy day, you'll see lots of grain. Don't expect too many award-winning images on cloudy days. You might even consider leaving your camera at home when its cloudy and overcast, and just enjoy the view through your scope's eyepiece. But, the advent of mirrorless cameras and larger 1" sensors have improved noise and dynamic range of images taken under low-light conditions. So, consider getting a mirrorless camera if you live in an area that does not afford the kind of lighting you'd expect in Florida or Caribbean climates.

Best distances ~ 30 – 100 ft Image quality degrades exponentially with distance. The best digiscoped images are taken when the subject is closer to the scope. Longer distances mean that you're increasing the amount of air that light has to travel through to get to your scope, resulting in more light-scatter caused by thermal currents and humidity. Remember, however, to keep your subject's well-being your first priority. Digiscoping is meant to reduce stress on birds by being able to photograph them at longer distances and thus minimize direct interaction with them. But, image quality will improve the closer you are to the subject. Err in the safety of your subject when choosing distance.

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