Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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While I was researching bird photography, I noticed some people suggest using a spotting scope in front of digital camera instead of a super-telephoto lens - this technique is called digiscoping.

So far, I've understood there are such major differences when compared to using a super-telephoto (400+ mm) lens:

  • a much longer focal length (1200+ mm);
  • lower price;
  • smaller weight;
  • manual focusing only;
  • zoom option when shooting through zoom eyepiece;
  • smaller maximum aperture (f/8 seems to be common);
  • support (e.g. tripod) is a must, which makes the equipment less maneuverable;
  • need equipment for attaching and/or adapting the camera to spotting scope;
  • some spotting scopes come with angled ocular - good for minimizing neck fatigue, but makes hard to follow action.

Are there any other important factors to bear in mind when deciding which way to go about birding?

I am aware of the option to get the birds closer with bait, but this question is more about photos in action other than gathering food (in air, on nest), so I'm afraid a short focal length will not do.

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Great question! I've never seen anyone do that but in the mean time you can read everything I read about it ;) at luminous-landscape.com/reviews/lenses/vortex_digiscoping.shtml –  Itai Jun 20 '11 at 18:23
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The images in that link look quite soft compared to a 'real' lens. I would imagine thats to be expected, but somebody had to bring it up. –  rfusca Jun 20 '11 at 18:55
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I think part of the reason you can get spotting scopes for such "relatively" cheap prices is that they are not designed to be used by cameras...they are designed to be used by human eyes. To @rfusca's point...I can't imagine even the best spotting scope for $1500 coming anywhere close to the sharpness or brightness of an $8000 600mm f/4 professional-grade lens. There is a reason the two have radically divergent prices. Add to that that a 600mm lens on APS-C is like 980mm, which is close enough to 1200mm on FF, that the extra reach becomes less valuable than lens quality. –  jrista Jun 20 '11 at 23:32
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1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

spotting scopes can be useful and you can get publication-caliber images from them with practice (just check the birdwatching magazines). The downside is the lenses are relatively slow (F8 or slower) so they are useful in good lighting conditions but not nearly as good in marginal conditions. They are manual focus, and setup/use can be cumbersome and doing it well can require practice. The manual focus and slow speed mean they are useful primarily for stationary or mostly stationary birds. Since most birds aren't stationary most of the time, you are going to be trading off time setting up for a shot and being patient for the bird to step into the frame against a more flexible lens that might lend itself more to catching the bird in action.

The images are going to be softer, too. The lens quality just isn't up to the top end lenses, although on the higher end the quality is quite good.

So, cheaper, but slower, less flexible, and softer. And sometimes, it's the only way to get the magnification needed to get a shot without winning the lottery and hiring a forklift... it's a viable option, but realize that if you research the guys getting published using scopes, their rigs are probably closer to $3,000 US than $1,000. I don't think I've seen a scope i'd consider capable of publication quality images for under $1,000 US, although if everyhing goes just right, you might get one here and there. But predictably?

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This is the answer I was looking for. Can you recommend one for an amateur photographer budget around $1k? –  Gaurav Jain Feb 27 '13 at 19:38
    
I just upgraded my scope. My new one is a Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 12-36 x50, which ran me about $350US at Amazon. Haven't put a lot of use in it, but it's a nice upgrade from my old, $150ish scope that had seen better days. I'm looking forward to trying some digiscoping on it using my iPhone as camera, just to see how it works. –  chuqui Feb 27 '13 at 22:25
    
You might also want to look at the Canon SX50 camera. It's getting some buzz among birders as an alternative to digiscoping. Take a look at what the Stokes say, for instance: stokesbirdingblog.blogspot.com/2013/02/… -- I'm going to be experimenting with one soon and see what I think. –  chuqui Feb 27 '13 at 22:27
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