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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    \$\begingroup\$ 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 \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 18:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 23:32

2 Answers 2


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?

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the answer I was looking for. Can you recommend one for an amateur photographer budget around $1k? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 19:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$
    – chuqui
    Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 22:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$
    – chuqui
    Commented Feb 27, 2013 at 22:27

Expanding on chuqui's answer slightly, Roger Cicalia of LensRentals.com did a comparision of a high-end digiscope (Swarovski) against some high-end Canon lenses in 2012. Summarising the results briefly:

  • In the centre of the frame, the sharpness of the digiscope compares well with the sharpness of the Canon lenses.
  • Away from the centre of the frame, the Canon lenses have a significant sharpness advantage.
  • In real-world shots, the digiscope doesn't do so well - Roger's belief is that this is due to diffraction softening.
  • On the other hand, the digiscope is cheaper, smaller, lighter, has greater magnification and is waterproof in a way that even the high-end Canon lenses aren't.
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ It must be noted, though, that a DSLR was used without mirror lock-up; serious digiscopers seem to prefer mirrorless cameras for less weight and less shake during exposure (which might have helped with sharpness). Also, photographer's experience was strong with lenses and none with scopes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Imre
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 13:06

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