Did you know that it’s possible to take incredible bird photography images using a process known as digiscoping? You’ve probably ran into birders in the field using spotting scopes and a point and shoot digital camera. The method we will describe in this post takes this idea one step further. Thanks to Trevor’s extensive background in astrophotography, we’ve been able to apply some of the same principals of prime focus imaging to the hobby of bird photography.
Digiscoping with a DSLR is simply a matter of properly attaching your camera to a telescope or spotting scope using a T-ring adapter. This aligns the focal plane of your DSLR camera sensor with the telescope to reduce camera shake and produce crisp images at high magnifications. The telescopes we’ve used for digiscoping in the past have focal lengths of 420mm and above. This provides an up-close look at our subject for jaw-dropping photos.
Trevor and Ashley with their DSLR digiscoping setups for bird photography
Digiscoping will never meet the extreme demands of bird photography a prime telephoto lens will, but it’s an interesting alternative to consider. When you compare camera lenses with the same focal lengths to our telescopes, you’ll find digiscoping with a DSLR to be shockingly affordable.
How to Digiscope with a DSLR
The actual process of digiscoping with a DSLR camera involves directly fastening the camera body to an astronomical telescope using an adapter. There are two parts to this connection. The adapter ring that locks into the camera body as if it were a lens, and the t-ring adapter that is inserted into the focuser draw tube of the telescope. These adapters are widely available online, and inexpensive. The ones we use for our Canon DSLR’s can be found on Amazon.
With the telescope attached via an adapter, it now acts as a super telephoto prime lens. The native focal length of the telescope is fixed, and you cannot change the magnification the way you can with a zoom lens. A typical small refractor telescope will have a focal length of approximately 400-600mm, which is more than enough reach for a wide variety of birds. Keep in mind, however, that increased magnification means compounding the challenges of camera shake and movement.
Most people tend to use a spotting scope to digiscope. These mini-telescopes were designed for birding on the go, and are much more lightweight and portable than the telescopes we’ve used to digiscope with our DSLR’s. The optical quality of the telescopes we use is also likely a big step up from an entry-level spotting scope (and so is the price). For full transparency, we used high end apochromatic refractor telescopes designed for deep sky astrophotography. The specifications of these instruments are impressive, as are the glass materials used in their construction.
Also, our method involves attaching the DSLR camera directly to the telescope, rather than pointing a camera into the eyepiece. An eyepiece or barlow lens can increase the magnification of your image, but it will also reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor and degrade image quality. We recommend using the prime-focus method of using the telescope or spotting scopes fixed native focal length for optimal image quality.
Keeping the telescope steady enough for a sharp photo is one of the most challenging aspects of digiscoping with a DSLR. The image below was captured using a Canon ESO Rebel Xs (1000D) DSLR camera through a 420mm astronomical telescope.
The Importance of F-Ratio
The aperture of the telescope or spotting scope is critically important. This is because it affects how much light will reach the camera sensor. Without an adequate amount of light gathering ability, capturing a fast exposure of 1/250 that is in focus is nearly impossible. Add in the fact that birds move very quickly to begin with, and you’ve got quite the photography challenge.
We recommend using a telescope with an F-Ratio of F/6 or faster for bird photography. This offers enough light to photograph birds in sunny to overcast weather. If you are photographing a species that sits still for a longer period of time (such as waterfowl), you may be able to capture a sharp image in a low-light scenario such as dawn.
In comparison, the 400mm prime canon lens Ashley uses has an F-Ratio of F/5.6. So, her 420mm F/5.9 telescope she used for digiscoping with her DSLR has a similar focal length and F-Ratio. In theory, you would think that the images would look nearly identical. This, of course, neglects to factor in the difference in lens construction and optical design. However, we have found that a few post processing techniques in Photoshop went a long way in improving our digiscoped images.
Ashley using a monopod while digiscoping on the shore of Lake Erie, Ontario
Best Practices in the Field
There are a number of challenges to digiscoping birds in the field that camera lens owners do not have to deal with. The overall weight of the telescope is an issue, which means that a monopod or tripod is recommended. We prefer to use a monopod because it’s less obtrusive and more versatile than a tripod. The smaller footprint of a monopod is great when you are photographing birds in a busy area. You only have one extra leg to worry about.
Focusing a fast-moving subject is challenging, as you do not have the advantage of an autofocus motor. The precision focusers found on telescopes made for astronomy were not meant to be adjusted quickly, so trying to track a bird who’s distance varies wildly can be frustrating. It is best to plan your focus beforehand, to a perch where the bird is about to land. This takes patience, experience, and a lot of luck. For songbirds and warblers, you may find it easiest to pre-focus on a row of trees in the direction the bird is moving and he they make an appearance.
Photographing waterfowl on the water, and larger birds that remain stationary for extended periods of time are much more obtainable. This includes a hawk perched in a tree, a Great blue heron fishing in a pond, or shorebirds scanning the water’s edge. The monopod is great for providing a swiveling base at low angles.
Shorebirds that are low to the ground are great subjects for digiscoping
DSLR Digiscoping vs. a Prime Telephoto Lens
Although we were able to produce some impressive bird photography images using the digiscoping technique, we likely missed hundreds of shots along the way due to the limitations involved with focusing. It was exciting to capture the amazing photos at the time, but we do not have any plans of swapping our lenses for a telescope anytime soon. It was matter of making the most of the equipment we had, on a tight budget.
Anyone who has ever transitioned from digiscoping with a DSLR to a prime telephoto lens will tell you how much easier and enjoyable it is to photograph birds after the switch. We photographed challenging species of birds using our heavy telescopes for several years before finally upgrading to prime telephoto lenses with autofocus. Coming from someone who has seen both sides of the equation, here is a brief list of pros and cons:
- More Affordable than Comparable Lenses
- High Magnification
- Sharp, Crisp Images
- Heavy and Cumbersome
- No Autofocus
- No Image Stabilization
- Focusing is difficult on fast-moving subjects
Post Processing the Digiscoped Images
When previewing the images taken using the digiscope method with your DSLR, you may notice that the images lack contrast. I believe this trait will be evident in your bird photography images whether the camera is connected directly to the telescope or through an external eyepiece. This was the case for us, and there are a few things you can do to fix it.
Use a Dew Shield / Lens Hood
The biggest culprit for low contrast, washed out images was stray light entering the optical tube. Initially, we did not use the included dew shields on our telescopes when photographing birds during the day, and this was a big mistake. The use of a dew shield or lens hood can make a big difference in your images. After applying this technique, we noticed that our photos became more vivid and had better contrast.
Some refractor telescopes include a retractable dew shield for astronomical purposes. Because these instruments were designed for observations and photographs at night, any stray light entering the objective of the telescope will affect performance. The same principal applies to bird photography during the day, as bright sunlight collected by your camera sensor will wash out the photo. Blacks become grey, and vibrant colors seem to have a white translucent film over them.
Adjust Contrast and Dehaze in Photoshop
My favorite way to improve the image quality of the photos we take while digiscoping, is to use some of the tools offered in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). When I open up a RAW image in Photoshop, ACR automatically kicks in, and I can apply a number of powerful edits to the image. Dealing with the types of bird photos digiscoping produces specifically, the most handy actions to applt are contrast, and dehaze.
Adjusting the sliders for each of these actions can often bring your photo back to reality. What I mean by that is, close to the type of image you would expect to see captured using a telephoto lens. The level of adjustment made in ACR will depend on the optical quality of the spotting scope you are using, and the lighting conditions of your shot. In general, we think you’ll find these two contrast enhancements to be particularly useful for digiscoped images of birds.
This Snowy Owl was captured using a digiscoped DSLR and monopod.
If you’ve dabbled in digiscoping with a DSLR camera before, it was most likely using a spotting scope. If you enjoy the value and challenge of this method of bird photography, you should stick with it. We did not advance our skills and evolve to prime telephoto lenses until we reached the limits of our potential with digiscoping. As we mentioned earlier, we were more than happy digiscoping with a DSLR for several years before investing in lenses.
I think it’s worth noting that once you have set your image expectations to a certain level of quality, it is difficult to go back. The crisp, vibrant images produced by our prime Canon lenses are noticeably better than our digiscoped photos. Some of our early shots rival our camera lens shots, but they required absolutely perfect lighting conditions and an uncharacteristically cooperperative bird.