Sunday, February 26, 2012

Digiscoping w/ the new Nikon V1! - 26 Feb 2012

Earlier this week I received a new Nikon V1 mirrorless camera from B&H Photo.  I'd been looking for a new digiscoping camera after using the Nikon Coolpix P6000 for the past 2 years.  I'll say right now that (until now) the P6000 has been an excellent digiscoping camera - wonderful color rendition, accurate focusing, and great exposure compensation capabilities.  But the camera suffers from some annoying shortcomings - slow autofocusing, slow continuous focusing (0.9 fps), and a bit too noisy at ISO's higher than 200.

In my search for a new digiscoping camera I decided to look at the wonderful offerings from the 4/3 or mirrorless formats.  A number of great cameras are out there, but the most important requirement would be whether the camera 'could' be used w/ my Zeiss 85T*Fl and 20-60X or 40X eyepieces. 

A trip to Best Buy in December shortened the list considerably.  I'd been really turned on by the Panasonic G2/G3/GH2 w/ the 14-42 mm internal focusing lens.  Sadly, I could not eliminate vignetting at any focal length w/ my eyepieces.  The Sony Nex 5/Nex 7 are probably the finest cameras in the bunch w/ superior image quality and noise capabilities, but I'd have to invest in lenses that 'might' be compatible w/ my scope - no luck.  I struck out w/ the Olympus Pen cameras, as well.  I had a play w/ the Nikon J1 (the V1's little brother/sister) and found that the 10-30 mm lens worked wonderfully in the store.  The camera also boasted a 10 fps continuous frame rate, but is a fully-automatic camera w/o the ability to shoot in Manual or Aperture-priorities.

The Nikon V1 has had a very storied introduction into the world of mirrorless cameras.  When first announced by Nikon the camera was quickly 'destroyed' by the pixel-peepers and 'experts' that frequent the camera bulletin boards.  "The sensor is too small".  "The camera lacks usable function buttons". "Its too simple".  "It has no bells and whistles".  And so on...  When the camera hit the market, however, the grumblers and haters were quickly silenced.  Folks like Rob Galbraith and others (Nasim Mansurov, DxO Labs, Steve Huff)  gave very positive reviews, and were able to finally show some outstanding photos from the camera that Nikon failed to provide during their advertising campaigns.  Neil Pfifer, a well-know digiscoping pioneer, was probably the first person to try the camera for digiscoping and, as usual, was able to make it sing! His images, and others to follow, convinced me that my next camera could be a winner.

My first challenge was to make an adaptor to connect the camera and 10-30 mm lens to the scope eyepiece.  When held to the 40X W eyepiece, the diameter of the eyepiece and camera lens were about the same, so a tube adaptor might be possible.  A trip to the hardware store and plumbing aisle yielded a couple options, but I settled on a 1.5" X 1.5" X 2.5" PVC pipe connector ($0.61).  This adaptor comes in Canon white, but w/ a little electrical tape (mostly to make the connection w/ the lens more snug) it can be converted to Nikon black.  The beauty of this connector is that, after removing the rubber eyepiece sleeve, it slides over the eyepiece and provides almost-perfect eyepiece/lens separation.

When connected, the camera is easily hand-holdable, but a bit unstable for hands-free operation.  I was able to remedy that by using a 6" metal bracket ($2.00) and a quick-release plate from my Manfrotto tripod.  I cut it back to about 5" and bent the end slightly upward to brace the camera against the PVC tube.  Now, when connected, the camera is stabilized and provides hands-free operation (video capture and self-timer operation).  If I choose to, I could wrap a nylon cable tie (12") around the bracket and tube adaptor to secure the camera to the tube.  However, I would have to cut the tie everytime I wished to use the camera for use other than digiscoping. So, for now I'll use it unsecured.  At 10 fps in Electronic Shutter mode I figure I should be able to get sharp captures while hand-holding the camera.

I took the camera out for its maiden voyage this morning.  I drove out to Pt. Mouillee HQ with the idea of using it near the fence where cardinals, chickadees, and sparrows are reliable.  But first, I drove out to the parking lot to scan the Huron River for something to digiscope.  I was in luck when I spotted a (2nd year) Bald Eagle perched in a snag across the channel from the parking lot.  Huddling behind the outbuilding, I digiscoped the eagle from about 300' away. 

The morning sun was still low, and the bird was side-lit, but the camera quickly (apparently the V1 has one of the fastest autofocus capabilities of any camera, including DSLR's) and easily focused on the bird.  I set the camera to auto-adjust ISO between 100-400 and shot Aperture-priority*.  I needed to adjust Exposure Compensation to -1.0 or so to avoid blown highlights.

The 10 fps (Raw** + JPG) is WONDERFUL! Lightning fast, and I was even able to capture a sequence of the eagle as it lifted off.  I never would've been able to do this w/ the <1fps Coolpix P6000.

I then stopped by the fenceline and proceeded to digiscope the Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds that appeared. 

Under sunny conditions the optical viewfinder of the camera was impossible to see.  I would normally need to use my Hoodman loupe to see the viewfinder, but the V1 has an electric viewfinder (EVF) that automatically switches on when you look into it.  The EVH is bright, sharp, and optically brilliant for focusing on birds even after the camera autofocuses.  I was able to use it to easily follow and capture images of even the frenetic chickadees that fly in and out faster than most could follow w/ a DSLR.

One thing I did notice, was that the V1 will not fire unless the autofocus indicator boxes blink 'green'.  I was shooting in autofocus-single (AF-S) but ran into a few occasions where the bird was perfectly in focus through the EVF but I would get red boxes and be unable to fire the shutter.  This will need further investigation.  Its possible that the scope was sufficiently out of focus at the time, and the camera was beyond its normal focal range (?).  Added 3/9/2012 - Turns out that the camera will not fire when autofocus is set to AF-S and the subject is out of focus.  If one puts the camera in AF-C then the camera can be made to fire whether the subject is in focus or not.  However, since the camera is continually autofocusing, it can be difficult to adjust focus using the scope if the camera is trying to focus on something else.  Therefore, it helps to make sure that there are no branches / objects in front of the bird you wish to photograph...

Exposure compensation works really well.  I had to alternate between 0.0 and -1.3 EV depending upon the amount of snow in the image (backgrounds were also very dark from the shadows/hedges).

I totalled about 400 frames in just under an hour of shooting, but had to get home.  I was able to use the camera enough, however, to be absolutely thrilled at its performance.  Viewing images in ViewNX also revealed very nice noise properties, so this camera appears to be the winning ticket! 

Other digiscopers are quickly jumping on the band wagon w/ this camera.  Check out the Digiscoping forum in Facebook and you'll see some wonderful images from other birders around the globe.

I then headed over to Reaume Rd. and found a Red-tailed Hawk in a tree about 200' away.  I was able to get a bunch of images of the bird before it decided to fly off.  Distance produced a bit of distortion (moisture in the air) but focus was spot-on!

I made a quick run over to Haagerman Rd. and found a pair of Northern Harriers (male and female) and another 2 Red-tailed Hawks working the fields.  Horned Larks were singing and flying about, but I did not see any longspurs or buntings.  It was great running into Pat Gamburd, and we chatted a bit before I headed home.

Final word? The Nikon V1 is gonna be a smash among digiscopers, and may quickly become the camera of choice.  I can't wait to give a more extensive workout when I head to Sedona, AZ this week.  There I plan to put it through its paces, and do a more formal comparison w/ the Coolpix P6000.  Stay tuned!

* - The camera auto-adjusts aperture based on focal length, so it needs to be adjusted if you want faster shutter speeds. Added 3/9/2012 - The toggle switch at the top of the camera is used to adjust aperture, and its easy to bump it to higher apertures than preferred, so be careful when holding the camera that it isn't inadvertently moved.

** - Although the camera shoots RAW, Adobe Raw Conversion is only compatible w/ Photoshop CS5, so I'm unable to process the files at this time w/ CS2.  Photoshop Elements users need version 10.0(?). Added 3/9/2102 - ViewNX2 that comes w/ the camera allows users to convert RAW files to either TIF or JPG, so images can be then opened in Photoshop.  I hope to compare RAW vs. JPG at different ISO's shortly...


Unknown said...

Hi Jerry,
Many thanks for blogging this. I have the Nikon 1 V1 with 10-30mm lens and have been looking at buying a Vortex Razor HD scope for digiscoping. But I cannot find an adapter ready made so your ideas will help a great deal as I try to decide which way to go. I also use the FT-1 adapter and mount my AFS lenses on the V1. I can get upto 1,620mm equivalent (300mmf/4+2.0TCx2.7= 1620 @ f/8) which makes auto focus a bit iffy.
But doing that costs camera flexibility so I am still serious about the Razor.



Clint Murray said...

Just now found your page. I bought a 1 V1 three years ago, but just the last two days got around to trying it for digiscoping, the reason I bought it in the first place. I started digiscoping back in 2001 with a CP 800. That one still works with my jury-rigged setup, but the pix it gets are not good enough. I originally got a PVC 1.5" female adapter for the 1 V1, but when I tried to slide the inside threaded end over the lens tube it wouldn't go on. I gave up on the project and stayed with my Canon 100-400 lens and 30D. Recently I thought I would give digiscoping another shot and started looking around for a way to make it work. I had forgotten about trying the PVC tube on it and searched in my garage for something that might work and came across that PVC adapter. This time I tried twisting it on, and it worked. It was very tight, but I was able to get it on far enough to hold the camera. The smooth end of the tube was a little loose on my Kowa 21x WA eyepiece, but four wraps of nylon camouflage tape snugged it up. Since I was unable to twist the PVC tube onto the lens tube far enough to get it close to the eyepiece, I sawed off enough of the threaded end to leave 1/4" relief from the scope eyepiece. I don't know how much is required, but I can eliminate vignetting at 18 mm. I am able to slide it onto the scope and use it hands free. Tried it out the last two days shooting Smith's Longspurs in Indiana with encouraging results. I found out the hard way yesterday about that toggle switch. It turns out I was shooting at f16 on a cloudy day and only got 1/25 at ISO 400. Today I got 1/250 at ISO 100 on a sunny day. With this setup I was able to follow birds on the ground easily through that EVF, and what a clear view it gives. I love that EVF! I still have a lot to learn about using this camera, but very pleased with how good it is. I have a remote shutter release ordered for more convenience and less chance of blurring the focus. Here is an example taken in my field today:

Clint Murray said...

I had bought two pieces of the 1.5" PVC female adapter, so I tried cutting the second one a little closer. It left me just enough thread to mate with the thread on the end of the lens barrel. The threads are not a perfect match, but the PVC material is just flexible enough. I haven't tested it yet, but should allow for less zoom to eliminate vignetting. A bit more than the smooth PVC, but at $1.32 each it's still very cheap for an adapter. I was about to buy a swing away adapter, but this lets me carry the camera on a strap around my neck rather than mounted to the scope. I also have a counterweight for the front of the scope. Several 1/2" bolts encased between two strips of opposite Velcro with rivets between the bolts to secure them in place. Weight adjustment of the bolts is fine tuned by the number of nuts added. A strip of opposite Velcro around the scope hood to keep the counterweight in place. When looking through the scope to find the target the camera hangs ready from its strap from the eyepiece end to maintain the balance. I keep the tension fairly snug on the ball head and lock down to slide camera on. Then unlock to track the bird and shoot without locking and with hands off.

Clint Murray said...

On my third day testing the setup I learned a good lesson. The sky was complete cloud cover with light sprinkles. I set the camera to automatically choose the ISO, 100-400. I was shooting feeding Smith's Longspurs from about 60 feet away. The pix weren't awful but not quite as sharp as I'd like. When I looked at the EXIF I learned why. The camera shot at only 1/125 at ISO 180. Luckily Smith's don't move around a lot when feeding, but their heads are moving some as they pick up the seed. I'd have been better off to have chosen ISO 400 manually rather than let the camera select. The camera doesn't know I am shooting moving birds, but I do. From now on I will select the ISO myself and then check to see if I am getting fast enough shutter.

Clint Murray said...

Further experimentation. I ordered the ML-L3 remote and very disappointed. It does fire quickly, but just one shot at a time, followed by the image review. That's not good for birds. That night I fashioned a holder for a cable release from one an old aluminum shelf bracket that had already been bent for my old CP 800. Had to do a little rebending, grinding to get it around the lens, and cutting out a small section to clear the battery door, but it works a treat. Very solid and today was able to fire off as many shots as I wanted very fast as I tracked a SMLO feeding on the ground. The windy cold conditions made it very unpleasant so I only practiced a few minutes. Considering the wind was so strong it didn't turn out too bad. Got a bit more noise than I like, so will try ISO 200 tomorrow.