Digiscoping Techniques
Taking a photo

My friend Don's maxim is: "full frame, full sun." If you want the best images, then get as close as you can, filling the frame with the bird. Get as much light on the subject as possible. Digital cameras focus and give better results with more light. More light means a faster shutter speed, freezing motion. More light means a smaller shutter aperture, giving more depth of field. The more you magnify, the less light reaches the camera, so keep the scope on 20-30x and don't push magnification all the way up to 60x. The camera needs to be set at 3x to keep from vignetting.

If you are close and have lots of light, and no obstructing branches, then Auto mode may give you the best results. Things are rarely this ideal.

I assume now that you have your camera mounted to your scope and have sighted down the barrel and have the bird in the camera's LCD viewfinder. That's a trick in itself!

At this point you have two focusing options.

Focusing option 1 (Automatic focus):
Keep the camera in Auto focus and adjust the focus on the scope until the image appears sharply focused in the LCD viewfinder. The LCD always looks better focused than the final results on your PC. Try some sort of camera hood to shade the LCD. Turn the focus knob on the scope one way until it goes out of focus, turn the other way until it goes out of focus, adjust to the center of the range. That should do it. Step the camera shutter down half way to lock camera focus and settings and make sure the camera indicates focus lock and that you have enough light. Slowly and smoothly depress the shutter fully to take the photo. A remote shutter release will remove hand shake from depressing the shutter. Alternatively, use the 2-3 second self-timer delay setting on the camera to allow all vibration to subside.

Focusing option 2 (Manual focus):
Focus the camera and scope as above, but then set the camera to Focus Lock, so it doesn't change. Then adjust the focus through the camera LCD and take the picture. Some cameras seem to give better results if the camera is set to INFINITY or, conversely, to the close-up MACRO mode. You'll have to experiment and find which is best on your equipment.

Camera settings:

  • Lower ISO (50 or 100) creates the sharpest photos. ISO 200 may be acceptable. Low ISO requires more light, though. You can use ISO 400 or 800 if you absolutely need more light, but these produce grainy results, just as on a film camera.
  • Center spot focusing and metering is usually preferred, as you have likely placed the bird in the center of the frame. Thus, turn off the zone metering or averaging metering.
  • Aperture Priority is a programmed mode (half way between Auto and manual) that keeps the most light on the subject, and changes the shutter speed to compensate. If the light is not good, or if the subject is moving, then you want Full Manual so you can set a faster shutter speed. On the other hand, you get more depth of field (more in focus in front and behind) with a smaller aperture and slower shutter speed--everything in photography is a compromise.
  • Shutter speeds slower than 1/125 of a second will suffer from camera shake or bird movement. Automatic focus requires plenty of light to work correctly. If you go to a slower shutter speed than 1/100 of a second when digiscoping, you should try manual focus. You can go to a slower shutter speed and eliminate hand shake by using a remote shutter release. Alternatively, use the 3 second self-timer delay.
  • Exposure controls to get the exposure right when photographing a backlit bird, for instance, or a white bird against a dark background. Keep in mind that the LCD viewfinder is intended to be bright in outdoor conditions. The image can appear 25-30% brighter on the LCD than it will on your computer. Image Bracketing, if available on your camera, takes 3 photos at once, at lower and higher brightness settings.
  • Keep the photo mode on fine or super fine (rather than normal). Experiment with the quality and file size of the different quality settings.


Links to digiscoping techniques...

Digiscoping Technique by Digiscoping UK Birds

Digiscoping primer by Digibird.com

Digiscoping with Don

Downloading to your PC

Your camera will include PC software and cables for downloading your photos. Your photo editing program will also have downloading ability. This is the time where you actually can view the camera settings on your individual photos.

Downloading is accomplished by plugging the PC cable into the camera. It should download automatically, but check you camera manual for details. A serial cable is very slow to download. You should use a USB cable and be sure both your camera and PC have a USB port.

Even better is a USB card reader. Keep the card reader plugged into your PC at all times. Eject the memory card from your camera and insert into the card reader. Your card reader must take the same memory card types as your camera. The card reader becomes a removable drive, like your floppy drive. You can copy files to and from the card reader. Why would you want to do so? To put pictures back on your camera to show on TV. (See section below on "Displaying on TV").


Downloading links...

Photo editing procedure

That nice heron picture that introduces this article did not come out of the camera like that. Oh, it was a good photo. But it wasn't a great photo. If I was submitting a rare bird photo for documentation purposes, then I would submit it just as it came out of the camera. But most photos need adjustments to brightness, contrast, color saturation, and sharpness. Some people are worried that this adjustment is somehow "deceitful." But remember, there is software in the camera that already does modify all these things when you take the picture. We're just adjusting the picture to make it more like the real bird, and make up for our choosing the "wrong" shutter speed, aperture, white balance, focus, ISO, or metering target.

Take a look here at the original photo. (Click on the photo to see the full-size version. 1600 x 1200. 200 kb)
Great Blue Heron

The first thing I did was trim the photo so it was composed nicely. (Click on the photo to see the full-size version. 1213 x 635. 106 kb)
Great Blue Heron

Now I want to get rid of that annoying cattail stalk. I used the clone tool to copy adjacent blue background right over the cattail stalk. (Click on the photo to see the full-size version. 1213 x 635. 99 kb)
Great Blue Heron

I'm going to use this photo mostly on web pages. Older monitors are 640 x 480. So it's a good idea to make web pages only 640 or 720 pixels wide. I crop most of my photos to 600 pixels wide and try to keep the PC monitor standard 4:3 ratio (600 x 450). But this heron has too long of a bill for that ratio. The full sized version is 600 x 314 (and half that below). (Click on the photo to see the full-size version. 600 x 314. 28 kb)
Great Blue Heron

Now I'm ready to adjust the brightness (-12) and contrast (+9). This makes the photo just a bit darker and separates white and black, giving a more natural appearance to the bird. [See Contrast and brightness for an example of "fixing" a severely under-exposed photo.] (Click on the photo to see the full-size version. 600 x 314. 30 kb)
Great Blue Heron

Apply 1 sharpening step to the whole photo (or use the 3-variable "unsharp mask" funtion for more control). Sharpening should be done last, or at least after resizing. [See Sharpen for more information on the effects of this 1 step sharpen function.] (Click on the photo to see the full-size version. 600 x 314. 38 kb)
Great Blue Heron

Finally, I go to the hue/saturation function and give it just a bit more color saturation (+16). Now I'm satisfied! Save this file with a new name (don't write over your original!). Save in JPEG (JPG) format with moderate compression. [See What compression is best? for examples of the effects of various compression settings.] (Click on the photo to see the full-size version. 600 x 314. 40 kb)
Great Blue Heron

Photo editing procedure links...

Editing digital photographs by Short Courses

Digiscoping with Photoshop by Digiscoping UK Birds

Image processing primer by Digibirds.com

Displaying on TV

Your camera comes with cables to plug into the RCA jacks probably labeled INPUT on your TV or VCR (or DVD) recorder. You know all those fuzzy, slightly out-of-focus shots that you were going to delete? They will look amazing on your TV. The television only has about 350 horizontal lines (unless you have the new Digital or HDTV's). That's less resolution than an old VGA computer monitor (640 x 480). If your photos are larger than 480 x 360, they should look better on TV than on your computer monitor.

Run the inputs into your VCR and record the photos for 10-15 seconds each. Most cameras have a "slide show" setting that cycles through the photos on the memory card.

But don't show your original, unedited photos. Go ahead and crop and sharpen and fix them up with your photo editing software then resave them in a jpeg format. Use the same name (but next in sequence) as other files on your memory card (my Compact Flash card photo file names were Img_0066.jpg, etc.). Transfer them back to the camera memory card via your card reader (see Downloading to your PC for details on Card Reader). You must keep the 4:3 aspect ratio, though (640 x 480, 1024 x 768, etc.).

INCOMPATIBLE JPEG FORMAT: When you alter photos with your photo editing software you lose the photo camera settings (another reason to keep the original photo). Your camera will not preview these on the LCD screen, but will display them on TV. One exception (that I know of). The Canon cameras evidently use JPEG 2000, which Adobe Photoshop doesn't recognize. So I take my photos from my Canon camera, previously edited with the preferred Adobe software, and load into Broderbund's PhotoShop PhotoPro, then resave at quality level 7. Then upload to the memory card via the card reader.


Links to displaying on TV...

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