Does glimpsing the bright yellow throat of an Eastern Meadowlark through the trees, or the sight of a black-eyed bee sipping nectar from a peony, an impossibly delicate pink Lady’s Slipper growing in a forest clearing, or the sculptured ripple of sand at low tide quicken your pulse just a little? With digiscoping, close-up photos formerly captured by only the strong and wealthy can be snapped by anyone with a digital camera and a spotting scope.
Digiscoping is a photographic technique that pairs a digital camera with a field spotting scope — a portable telescope used for viewing wildlife, birds, and insects — to create breathtaking high-resolution professional-quality photos usually found only in slick publications like Audubon or National Geographic.
The advent of digiscoping has coincided with the burgeoning popularity of bird watching and digital photography. Birders with cameras realized a new world of possibilities simply by taking a digital photo through a spotting scope. Startlingly clear and vivid photos of birds in flight or perched on a branch near their nests; wildflowers at the peak of their gold, blue, or fuchsia splendor; bright-eyed fawns; even intricate architectural details can be shot from 80 to 100 feet away, with results rivaling those that requiring heavy and expensive telephoto lenses, 35 mm cameras, and tripods.
Your digiscoping equipment doesn’t have to cost a lot. A beginner-level digiscoper may enjoy using refurbished quality equipment, readily available at Internet auction sites. New spotting scopes can be found for as low as $50 and new digital cameras sell for as low as $150. A plethora of tips and advice from hard-core amateurs and professionals can be found on the Internet, along with recommendations for equipment and accessories once you’ve mastered the technique and want to graduate to the next level.
A basic understanding of magnification will make the learning process easier. Standard digital cameras offer a range of magnification levels — called optical zoom — usually between 2X and 4X. High-end cameras can offer 10X or 12X. Optical zoom is not the same as digital zoom, which many photogs deem irrelevant, since the same effect can be created by later image editing.
Spotting scopes offer magnification ranges of 20-60X, 15-45X, 12-24X, even 80X for razor-sharp pictures from as far away as a quarter-mile. An angled lens facilitates upward viewing; straight body scopes work well for other viewing. Field of view relates to the width of the area seen through the eye piece from 1,000 yards, commonly ranging from 140-80 and 113-55 feet, although top-of-the-line spotting scopes can max out at 189 feet, especially important for photographing rapid movement. Digiscoping, which enables a combination of the camera’s optical zoom with the spotting scope’s magnification, allows about four times the magnification offered by a super-telephoto lens used with a 35 mm camera, and at a more practical cost.
The downside to greater magnification is that it’s not limited to your intended shot — it also magnifies camera shake. Although it’s not required, an adapter or bracket can join the camera and the spotting scope, enabling a steadier camera, especially desirable for framing motion shots. A lightweight tripod offers further steadying capability.
Although a 2-megapixel camera is sufficient for learning to capture beautiful pictures, some experts recommend moving to a 4-megapixel or greater digital camera with a two-inch LCD screen and a 3x – 5x optical zoom, along with a continuous shooting function if you want shots of birds or animals on the move. As with most hobbies, the sky is the limit when it comes to professional-grade equipment: The price of a Swarovski or Leica spotting scope can zoom to more than $2,000, and a high-end 10-megapixel digital SLR camera can exceed $1,000. Throw in a tripod, adapter, additional eyepiece, carrying case, neoprene cover, extra batteries (rechargeable batteries are recommended, which necessitates the purchase of a charger) and a 128- or 256-MB flashcard, and although you’ve made a significant investment, it is much less than comparable 35 mm equipment and accessories, and is still one that will enable you to shoot unique photos suitable for sale to publications and galleries. (Cost of long johns, hand warmers, and ear muffs for those stunning winter shots of owls and cardinals not included.)