What I have learned: a year-and-a-half later

May 20, 2004-- I have learned that my style of birding and bird photography doesnít lend itself to a dedicated digiscoping setup with the camera mounted securely to the scope. I hand-hold my camera to my scope for all my digiscoping now. Why?

First and foremost, Iím a birder. I want to find and observe birds. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, I want to quickly snap an interesting photo. Photography (and digiscoping is no exception) takes a lot of time. I donít have a lot of time for birding. So during those precious spare moments, my birding takes precedence over photography.

That said, I always carry my camera and scope with me when birding. That wasnít always the case. I now set my scope up on warblers and wrens and chickadees--small, active birds that can be seen at close range with only binoculars. And, if by chance one stays on the branch for half-a-minute I can reach in my pocket, pull out my camera, and grab a quick photo.

It is also a matter of technique. I found that looking at the cameraís LCD, when mounted to the scope, that I couldnít accurately focus the scope on the bird (or, in bright light, even FIND the bird in the LCD). Now, I set the scope on the bird, focus as accurately as possible, then hold the camera up and take photos. KEEP TAKING PHOTOS UNTIL THE BIRD FLIES AWAY. Refocus the scope. Let the camera focus automatically. For active birds, use the multiple-photo setting. The sandpiper will raise its head out of the water eventually. The preening bird will raise its head and look about. Donít forget, though, that a whole series of 5 or 6 multiple photos will all have the same focus and exposure settings. They may not be ideal. Take several sets of multiple photos and let the camera choose several focus and exposure settings. I use the lowest scope setting (20x) and the highest camera setting (3x, which is really 2x actual), for a combined magnification of 40x. Zooming-in loses light and becomes soft-focused. Again, experiment with your own equipment.

Equipment matters. The lens of my rather inexpensive camera fits exactly flush into the huge eyepiece of my scope (and unique twisting eye-relief device). I chose the Pentax PF-80ED for its brightness and large diameter eyepiece. My camera, the most inexpensive that still had manual settings ($225), was the Canon PowerShot A40. The camera is only 2.1 megapixels. I had intended to get a new camera with more resolution as soon as practicable. But what I have works fine. Itís hard to choose a new one. The reviews donít really discuss lens quality, which is more important than increasing megapixel count. My next step in spending money will probably be on a superior fixed 20x lens for the scope, not a new camera.

The best camera setting for my particular camera and my style of photography happens to be ISO 50. I took many series of photos of cooperative birds and found that my cameraís light sensitivity was as good at 50 ISO as it was at 100 ISO. The ISO 50 setting also had a higher percentage of in-focus shots in low light compared to 100 ISO, counter-intuitive as this may be. At ISO 200 the camera was able to shoot in lower light, but had slight graininess. Using full Auto mode was less sensitive to light, even though it theoretically could choose any setting between ISO 50 and 150. Experiment with your own camera. Read the manual. Try it out for yourself. Experiment with the various macro/landscape settings. Some work better than other, but the normal automatic setting seems to work best on my camera. Macro also does well, with fewer bad photos, but it has to be re-set every time I turn the camera on, and I usually forget. A newer camera with ALL the setting pre-programmable would be nice.

Adobe Photoshop Elements is your friend. My standard routine is to Crop appropriately to throw out all the unnecessary out-of-focus branches, adjust contrast and brightness with Levels (highlights, shadows, and mid-tones separately adjustable), increase color saturation, use Unsharp Mask to sharpen photo, and then Resize (shrink, which also improves sharpness) the photo (and then the remaining side of the canvas) to a standard size of 640x480, or a big 800x600, or even 1024x768 for a full-screen shot appropriate for my Windows desktop wallpaper (if itís a really good close-up). Save with a NEW NAME (jpeg at compression level 7 to create 35-125 kilobyte files for web use and e-mailingónever e-mail a multiple-megabyte photo as it came out of the camera with no compression). Always save your originals. You may learn a new technique and be able to save some that you had given up on earlier.

Well, thatís about it. Go out and experiment. Keep track of what works best for you.

Greg Gillson
May 20, 2004