Friday, September 4, 2015

Support! - 05 Sep 2015

I was recently asked by a friend "How do you carry all of that camera equipment in the field with you?". She was also interested in my thoughts about tripods, heads, etc. so I decided to summarize my thoughts here. In somewhat chronological order here is what I have used for digiscoping, and what I'm currently using, and why.

My first tripod
I purchased my Zeiss 85T*Fl Diascope in 2003 and immediately needed a tripod for it. I purchased a Bogen 3020 aluminum tripod and a Bogen 3025 tripod head. While the tripod was heavy it was sturdy, and the legs extended easily when the locking clamps were released. I liked it for its quick setup and how easily the legs slid out when the clamp was released. The 3025 head is a typical 3-way camera head and not suitable for spotting scopes. For one thing the tilting ability was horrible, and the center tripod screw did not stay tight on the scope. I had the scope fall off the head several times before upgrading to a true fluid head.

Because of the weight of the tripod and scope I didn't want to carry the rig into the field, especially at a place like Pt. Mouillee SGA where 11 miles of dikes need to be navigated on a routine basis. Because I ride a bike while birding places like Pt. Mouillee I also need to keep my hands free to handle the bike. So, I improvised a scope pak using a simple school backpack. I've used JanSport and LL Bean school backpacks, and these work fine. Thread the center post of the tripod through the center loop of the backpack so that the loop is sandwiched between the top of the scope and tripod head. Secure the base of the straps to two legs of the tripod using velcro strips. This allows the scope and head to be carried on your back and allow for hands-free use (riding bike, using cameras and binoculars). I ride w/ the legs extended on the tripod so that I can simply step out of the pack and be ready to use the scope (critical for digiscoping). It is critical to have a tripod head that is sturdy enough to secure the scope so that it doesn't come loose while you're walking or riding.

I replaced the Bogen 3020 with a Manfrotto 3021BPRO, which allowed me to extend the legs a bit farther and wider for low-to-the-ground digiscoping. I still use this tripod on occasion as I still like to have a sturdy base for the scope. If weight isn't a factor this is a great tripod for digiscoping!

I then took the foray into carbon fiber tripods with the purchase of a Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber Tripod and 3130 Fluid Head w/ Quick-release Plate. This is a small, lightweight tripod that is great for travel and sturdy enough for full-sized scopes. Here is a review. If I need to travel light this is a terrific tripod to use and will be sufficient in most cases. Where it tends to fail is in windy conditions and where I need more height.  The 3130 head is smooth and good for scoping, but not good for digiscoping. The quick-release plate has only a center screw and is apt to loosen in the field, especially with a full-sized scope and camera attached. I use this combo now mainly with the compact Nikon ED50 Spotting Scope, and its a perfect setup!

Needing a better fluid head for digiscoping I then tried the Manfrotto 501HDV, a videocamera head. This thing is massive (compared to the smaller 3130) but extremely stable and very nice to use in the field with full-sized scopes. Its top-heavy on the 190CXPro3 but is perfect on the Manfrotto 3021BPRO. The quick-release plate allows a scope to be attached and secured with no worries about twisting or coming loose. Since its normally used for video work the head is smooth for both panning and tilting. The unit shown left is the new 502HDV, which replaces the now-discontinued 501HDV.

The only cons with this head is its size, weight, and its tendency to be cumbersome when trying to digiscope a moving object, like shorebirds on the mudflats or warblers in a tree. You almost need 3 hands: one for the video head handle, one for the camera, and one for the scope. Don't get me wrong, for digiscoping its a recommended head to get, but I still wondered if there was an even better system out there.

Last year I purchased a Jobu Jr. 3 Gimbal Head with Swing-Arm to compare with the 501HDV.  For telephoto photography this is a wonderful system that allows you to mount a big lens, camera, and balance the system for finger-tip panning and tilting. Its perfect for following subjects and is second only to hand-holding for tracking moving birds. Its a bit more challenging with scope, however!
Without a camera attached the scope becomes front-heavy. With a camera / digiscoping adapter attached the scope is perfectly balanced and is wonderful for tracking moving objects. If you're like me, however, and use the scope for birding as well as digiscoping, then its a bit awkward using the gimbal head with just a scope attached. I manage just fine, but would prefer the 501HDV if I were to only be scoping.

I also replaced the 3021BPRO with a new Manfrotto 055CXPRO4 Carbon Fiber Tripod. This tripod has 4 leg-sections and is larger and sturdier than the 190CXPRO3, so not only does it give me the stability of the 3021, but is compact and light enough for packing in a suitcase! With the Jobu Jr. 3 it is a light enough combination for all-day field trips with a scope and digiscoping equipment. I'm also using a Swarovski Heavy Duty Backpack that I won in the 2008 Digiscoper of the Year Contest. It is my current rig for scoping and digiscoping.

But I also carry a Nikon D7100 and 300/2.8 VRII when I'm out, so I wear a CottonCarrier Vest for this combo. It allows me to hang the camera and lens (all 10 lbs worth) and takes the weight from the neck and distributes it to the shoulders and back. With the scope, tripod and backpack I am now carrying all of my camera gear evenly-distributed. No back aches!

I'll continue to swap and experiment with different setups depending on the situation, but the bottom line is that there is no absolute perfect setup of tripod and head for digiscoping that is also perfect for  telephoto lens photography. If I plan to use the scope only then the 501HDV will be used. But for now, I'll continue w/ the Jobu Jr. 3 for both digiscoping and telephoto work.

My next challenge is to figure a way how to mount a scope and the telephoto lens to a single tripod using a dual head system so that I don't have to swap scopes and lenses when I'm in the field. :)

Thanks to Dr. Bob Setzer for the photos of me in the field.



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