Digiscoping Basics for Birders

Digiscoping, the art of taking photographs through a spotting scope or binoculars, is becoming increasingly popular among outdoor enthusiasts.

Cameras used for digiscoping can range from high-end digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) and point-and-shoot cameras to smartphone cameras. Generally, cameras with more megapixels are going to produce higher-quality images. Point-and-shoot cameras with a zoom of 5× or less will perform better than those with more powerful magnification.

Optics used for digiscoping can vary as well, but higher-quality optics will naturally produce higher-quality images. Spotting scopes are preferred, but folks often use binoculars and telescopes for digiscoping.

Tricolored Heron

Tricolored heron, photographed through a spotting scope. Image by Kyle Carlsen.

Digiscoping can be challenging at times, and a sturdy tripod is necessary to obtain quality images. A light tripod is going to cause a lot of vibration in the spotting scope and will result in blurry photographs. If it is windy, you can weigh your tripod down by hanging a backpack off the bottom or binoculars off the front of the spotting scope. Additionally, you can hold the spotting scope like a telephoto lens if it is extremely windy.

Cameras can be attached to spotting scopes and binoculars in a variety of ways using an adapter, but photos can also be taken by simply holding a camera or smartphone up to the lens (hand held).

There are many adapters on the market that vary in size, shape, and price for both cameras and smartphones. Many adapters are made for specific types of cameras and spotting scopes, but there are also universal adapters. I suggest getting an adapter that works for your specific camera and spotting scope combination. This will cut down on any unnecessary weight near the lens of the spotting scope and will allow you to take photographs more quickly. Universal adapters often take more time to set up. There is also a plethora of adapters especially for smartphones on the market, such as the Phone Skope. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and weights, as well. A few of the adapters are universal, but the majority fit specific optics. Again, adapters made for your specific smartphone and optics combination will most likely produce higher quality images.

A Bluetooth® shutter button may be a worthy addition to your arsenal to facilitate non-blurry photographs.

American Redstart

American redstart, shot with an iPhone 5 and a spotting scope. Image by Kyle Carlsen.

When digiscoping with a DSLR or a point-and-shoot camera, I generally use the “aperture priority” setting and use the lowest aperture, or f-stop, setting. This still allows you to use exposure compensation. It is much easier to adjust exposure compensation for various conditions than to guess at which ISO and shutter speeds work best.

Smartphones come stock with a standard camera application, but a few aftermarket apps are available that I use regularly. When shooting video, I use either the standard camera app or the Horizon app for iOS. The Horizon app has become my go-to application for digiscoping, because it allows me to shoot “horizontal” videos whether my iPhone is positioned vertically or horizontally. I can also take photos while recording video with the Horizon app. When taking still shots, I use the standard camera, Camera+ and Camera! apps for iOS. I use the Camera+ app when shooting in challenging light conditions because it allows me to adjust exposure compensation. When I want to shoot in burst mode, I use the Camera! app. Another feature available on iPhone 5s allows one to shoot in slow motion.

Lastly, images are often clearer when the sun is at your back and there is plenty of natural light on the subject being digiscoped. In low light, images often come out grainy and undesirable.

There are many options for folks who use smartphones to digiscope—a variety of adapters and apps available for reasonable prices. DSLR and point-and-shoots are more expensive, but will generally provide better results. The choice really depends on the preferences and budget of the person digiscoping. All in all, digiscoping is a great way to study the animals one is observing and to document wildlife in any situation.