The optics in the spotting scope you use for digiscoping must be of highest quality to get the best digiscoped pictures from it. In general, the fixed eyepieces are of better quality than zoom lenses. Nevertheless, some manufacturers make high-quality zoom lenses. Check the latest models and reviews.
The scope must focus sharply--even to the edges of the lens. There must be no specks of contamination inside on the lenses. The view must be bright, even at higher magnifications. The glass must be fully coated optics or low dispersion glass. This compensates for the different colors of light in the scope. Prisms and lenses inside the scope reflect and bend the light. However different color frequencies bend a different amount (violet bends less than red, for instance). Thus, if the scope doesn't have fully coated optics, or is otherwise optically inferior, the light won't recombine in the eyepiece correctly into a single image. You'll notice color aberrations (mismatches) around bright objects. These are things you would look for in any scope. These problems will be especially noticeable when digiscoping--the camera is much less forgiving than your eye.
For digiscoping, you want to pay attention to the diameter of the eyepiece, and the eye relief. The larger the diameter of the eyepiece, the less vignetting will appear looking through the camera. Vignetting is the black circle that surrounds the image, as seen through the scope. It is good if the diameter of the eyepiece of the scope is actually larger than the lens on the digital camera. Eye relief describes how close the eye (or camera lens in this case) can get to the eyepiece lens. You'd like the camera lens to fit flush up against the eyepiece lens, if possible, to reduce vignetting.
Straight or angled?
Scopes with angled eyepieces have the advantage of not having to be extended as high as straight through scopes--you look down on them. Several people of different heights can look through an angled scope without raising or lowering it as is necessary for a straight through scope. Also, you look down on the camera, which is convenient. This would be especially nice for photographing a bird high in a tree--a difficult contortionist problem on a straight through scope. A camera's weight is usually better balanced on an angled scope than on a straight through one.
That said, I find the angled scopes awkward to use. I feel I can aim a straight scope more easily. Angled scopes are difficult to use from inside your car on window mounts. No doubt if I had an angled scope I'd be perfectly happy with one--many people love them. I think you should choose this feature based on how you like it for normal, everyday birding, unless you are only going to use your scope for digiscoping.
More information on spotting scopes...
Popular scopes for digiscoping
- Leica APO Televid 77
- Swarovski AT 80 HD
Why Greg Gillson likes the Pentax PF-80ED
Digiscoping Spotting Scope Reviews
Digital Camera & Accessories
Maybe I should just tell you to buy the Nikon CoolPix 990, or 995, or 4500, or whatever the latest in this line of internal focusing, swivel-bodied cameras is today. There are adapters that fit most scopes. The picture quality is good. There are better digital cameras but this one is perfect for digiscoping.
However, these new state-of-the-art cameras are also rather expensive. The CoolPix 990 and 995 are obsolete already. The new cameras are 4 Megapixels and larger. I don't think we need more Megapixels than this for digiscoping (I may be proved wrong). In most cases 2 Megapixels is adequate. I am hoping that excellent 3 Megapixel swivel cameras at a lower price will soon be on the market. I hate paying $700 for one of these state-of-the-art cameras when the price in 6 months will be half that. I'm looking for a used CoolPix 990 or 995 (with software). If you have one you'd part with for under $200...
I purchased a Canon PowerShot A40 for $225. It is a 2 Megapixel camera. It is the cheapest camera that still had a (mostly) full manual mode for focus, shutter speed, and shutter aperture. The lens moves in and out when focusing (unlike the internal focusing Nikons). Thus, I can't mount the camera flush against my scope's eyepiece. I wish it had a remote shutter release. A lot of blurry photos occur from pressing the shutter release by hand. I get around this by using the 2 second self timer delay, which allows the tripod to stop wiggling after I press the shutter. But that gives the bird a lot of time to move or fly after I press the shutter. This movement is minimized in bright light by the faster shutter speed. I also wish I knew what setting the camera was using in Auto mode (you can see this when you download to the computer, but by then it is too late to decide I should have used a manual setting). I don't recommend this camera for digiscoping, necessarily, but it is a great camera.
The most important thing you can do after you purchase your camera is read the manual. These are rather complicated devices and can do amazing things. Most users aren't taking advantage of even a small portion of the camera features. I recommend "digital photography for dummies" for a good overview of camera functions and photo editing.
Desired features in digital cameras for digiscoping...
- The very minimum is 2 Megapixels for digiscoping. The more Megapixels the larger your photo (and bird). Remember, though that 4 Megapixels does not mean the photo will be twice as large as 2 Megapixels (it will take up twice as much memory, though). To get twice as large you need to double both horizontally and vertically. So 8 Megapixels delivers a photo twice as big (2x) as 2 Megapixels. The difference between 3 Megapixels and 4 isn't all that great-you don't have to run out and get the latest new camera.
- New Nikon CoolPix 4500 is 4 Megapixels. I think this will be more than enough for digiscoping.
- Telephoto 3x-4x optical (turn off digital zoom--it degrades pictures). You want this to eliminate vignetting (see Problems page).
- Aperture priority. Optional setting that always set automatic modes to gather more light. For moving birds, though, you may want Shutter priority to keep focus sharp.
- Full manual mode (shutter speed and aperture, focus). This gives you the most control over your photos.
- Self timer (2-3 & 10 second delay). Handy to get rid of camera shake when depressing shutter if no remote shutter release is available for your camera.
- USB. This is the preferred format (connector, cable) to transmit your photos from your camera to your computer. A standard serial bus may take several minutes to download photos. Please consider a USB card reader.
- Battery type (rechargeable NiCad batteries or proprietary?). How many photos will the camera take before the batteries go dead? What about with the LCD on? What about flash (not digiscoping, of course)?
- Battery charger included? Digital cameras eat batteries-get rechargeable.
- Max shutter speed for stop action (1/1500 or greater). Down to less than a second for astronomy or night shots.
- Lens threaded to accept adapter mounts to attach camera to scope.
- Lag time (autofocus, shutter release). The camera may take 1.5-2.5 seconds to autofocus. Additionally, there is a lag of a second between pressing shutter all the way down to take a picture, and when the picture is actually captured by the camera. (See Technique page, Taking a photo.)
- LCD viewfinder (swivel on Nikon CoolPix). Necessary for digiscoping for manual focus.
- Remote shutter release eliminates camera/scope wiggle when depressing the shutter to take a picture.
- Tripod mount allows the camera to screw to the tripod. It is also handy to attach homemade adapter to scope, if you don't have a threaded lens adapter that fits your scope.
- Fixed position lens (Nikon CoolPix 990, 995, 4500). In most cameras the lens moves in and out to focus. On these Nikon cameras the focus mechanism is internal and the external lens does not move--perfect for digiscoping!
- Metering. Center metering allows you to compose the picture lighting based on the brightness of what's in the very center of your photo (hopefully a bird). Otherwise the camera will choose brightness based on an average of the whole photo.
- Focus (manual, automatic, single AF). Do it yourself or allow the camera to focus. If the bird is at the center of most of the photos you'll take, you can force the camera to auto focus there with Single AF.
- Memory (total size, file size). Each photo is about 1 Megabytes on a 2 Megapixel camera in the Fine mode (5 times larger in SuperFine). Cameras with more Megapixels will create larger files. Fortunately, memory cards or memory sticks (proprietary, depending upon camera) are fairly inexpensive. Buy an extra 128 Megabyte or 256 MB card.
Digital camera links...
Digital Camera Reviews by Digital Photography Review
Glossary of digital camera terms by Digital Photography Review
- Camera System
- Digital Imaging
More information on digiscoping equipment by Digiscoping UK Birds
Adorama photo supplies, mail/internet order
Nikon camera manufacturer
Digital photography for Dummies by Julie Adair King, order at Amazon.com
Canon PowerShot A40 review by Imaging Resources
Digital cameras by Digital Camera Experiments
Digital Photography Instruction by Short Courses
Memory card readers by Adorama
It is possible to hand-hold a camera up to the scope eyepiece and take a picture. However, because of the extreme magnification the results are often blurry because of camera movement. Under bright sun the shutter speed may be fast enough that the photo will turn out ok, but see the sidebar link on the Merlin photo and see the difference a good camera mount makes. In order to keep camera movement to a minimum, and line up the lenses, it is important to secure the camera to the scope.
There are two ways to mount your camera to your scope. One way is to have a camera adapter that replaces your eyepiece. Thus the scope can't be used for general birding without removing the camera and replacing the eyepiece. Most people prefer an adapter which allows the camera to be attached to the eyepiece. You can remove the camera and the scope is all ready to use for birding.
Finding a mount for the latest camera to fit to your scope is not always easy. You will find many home-made adapters and mounts. Some swing out of the way to quickly change from photography to general birding.
Adaptors page by Stephen Moniotte. See the Merlin photo examples.
Different mounting options by Eagle Eye Optics
Adapters by Scopetronix
A sturdy tripod eliminates camera shake and frees your hands to make camera and scope adjustments. Buy a heavy-duty tripod to firmly hold scope and camera combination.
As the digiscoping setup needs to be disconnected from the scope to transport by car, most people like a "quick-release" plate.
Gitzo tripods: a popular model is Gitzo 1325
Bogen/Manfrotto tripods: a popular model is Bogen 3021BN
Each photo you take will be at least 500 kbytes. It is imperative to have a huge hard drive (20 Gigabytes minimum? Computers advance at such a pace that it is hard to keep up.) to store your original images--even if you delete all the hopelessly bad shots. A large amount of internal computer memory is important for the image processing software to work on those big photos you produce.
You need a high resolution monitor (1024 x 768 minimum). A large monitor is nice for editing your photos (17 inches diagonal minimum).
What you have now will most-likely work. But the next time you upgrade your computer do so with photo editing and disk storage in mind.
A USB port for transferring images from camera to PC is very nice, or even essential for higher megapixel cameras. You can download your photos via a serial cable, but it takes a long time.
You may also want a photo quality color printer. These take photo paper for best results.
PC reviews by ZD Net
Photo printers by Steve's Digicams
Choosing a photo printer by Short Courses
Photo Editing Software
Some photo editing software may come with your digital camera or other software or already be installed on your PC. My PC came with Adobe PhotoDeluxe Home Edition. It is adequate and has most of the features I need (except level controls for getting rid of "purple fringe" (see Problems page) and a multi-level "undo" function). The next step up is the $100 Adobe PhotoShop Elements. If you really want all the works (and the learning curve) then the $500 Adobe PhotoShop 6.0 (or latest version) is arguably the best.
Photo editing software links...
Adobe PhotoDeluxe for Dummies order at Amazon.com
Photoshop Elements for Dummies order at Amazon.com