Digiscoping is the practice of making photographs using a high-powered spotting scope as a super-telephoto lens. It is hardly a new practice, but there are tools available that make the process easier than ever. Digiscoping is of special interest to me since I shoot a lot of wildlife and there are limited long-lens options for the LUMIX system.
There are digiscopers using several different brands of spotting scopes. The popular camera adapters have mounts available for virtually every brand of scope. The setup I’m using is the same one used by top digiscoper Tara Tanaka. Tara is a LUMIX shooter (GH4) and was kind enough to give me a digiscoping lesson at Bosque del Apache NWR last November.
My Digiscoping setup.
The scope I’m using is a Swarovski STX85. It is a 25-60 power scope with a straight eyepiece. I have found the STX85 to be very sharp and easy to focus. I have tried two different methods for attaching a camera to the scope, and here are my findings so far:
- Swarovski TLS APO camera adapter. This adapter attaches to your camera via the lens mount. It is basically a special designed 30mm lens that interfaces with the eyepiece of the scope. It is very easy to use since you simply attach it to your camera and clip it onto the scope. With a LUMIX camera attached the APO gives you a range of 1500-3600mm effective focal length, and an equivalent aperture range around f8.8- f21.
- LUMIX 20mm f1.7 pancake lens with the Digidapter digiscoping adapter. This is the setup that many of the top digiscopers, including Tara Tanaka, use. The Digidapter works with many different scopes, but the Swarovski version I have attaches to the scope using the same collar that the APO uses. The 20mm f1.7 lens doesn’t give you the same magnification that the APO does. It’s in the neighborhood of 1000-2000mm according to my rudimentary calculations. The benefit of using the adapter and 20mm lens is apparent when you measure your exposure. I found that using the Digidapter and 20mm lens gave me 2-stops more light at the widest zoom setting. That is the difference in shooting at 1/250sec and 1/1000sec, or shooting at ISO800 instead of ISO3200. That is a significant difference!
If you match the field of view of the Digidapter/20mm combo to the Swarovski APO, you zoom the scope to it’s 40x setting. As you zoom the scope you effectively close down the aperture and let in less light. If you match the field of view you get the exact same exposure with the Digidapter/20mm as you do with the APO. In fact, the APO is a tiny bit sharper and has better contrast. The difference is in the 2-stops of light and wider field of view you can achieve with the Digidapter and 20mm f1.7.
Another tool to consider when digiscoping is a decent fluid tripod head and a sturdy tripod. At the extreme magnification you’re shooting through the scope it is important to hold that sucker still! I use my Induro CT-314 tripod and a Manfrotto 701-HDV head. I also strongly recommend using a remote shutter release to further minimize camera shake.
My Camera Settings.
There are a couple of things I would recommend before you worry about exposure. First of all switch the camera to manual focus mode and make sure focus peaking is ON (it should be on by default). You can adjust the color and intensity of the peaking in the Custom Wrench menu on your GH4. Next I recommend turning your auto review OFF in the Custom Wrench menu. I find that this works better for using the motor drive. Speaking of the motor drive, set your Burst Rate to M (medium) in the Rec menu. Tara Tanaka showed me that it is easier to see the focus peaking and track moving subjects if you take the burst rate down a notch from the maximum 12fps.
I approach the scope in the same way I would any long telephoto lens. When it comes to camera settings, my main objective is to keep the shutter speed as high as possible to avoid camera shake. I use Aperture priority mode and set the aperture to its widest setting. That’s f1.7 on the 20mm LUMIX lens. You can use Aperture priority with the APO as well, and the lens will be wide-open by default. I like to use aperture priority because I don’t want to adjust too many settings if I need to quickly transition from bright to dark areas or vice versa.
I set the ISO manually and I choose an ISO setting that will afford me the best balance between high shutter speed and image quality. If you use auto ISO the camera will generally opt for a lower ISO and a moderately low shutter speed as well. Generally I have been using ISO800 even in bright daylight. The image quality on the GH4 is great at this setting, and it allows me to shoot with shutter speeds between 1/2000sec and 1/8000sec depending on the light. I have no reservations with shooting the GH4 up to ISO 3200-6400 depending on the conditions. I would rather have a sharp shot with a bit of grain than a blurry shot without grain.
Digiscoping is also great for shooting video. Of course the GH4 shoots fantastic 4k video, and the clips you can capture at 1000mm+ can be truly amazing. I have found 4k photo mode to be great for digiscoping moving targets. I like to shoot 4k photo mode in the 4:3 aspect ratio so my 4k stills match my regular stills. You also get the benefit of a little bit extra reach in 4k mode without costing you any light.
I have just begun to scratch the surface of what is possible through the long lens of my spotting scope. I’ll be leading a few excursions with the scope during events I have coming up this spring, and I can’t wait to get this thing to Costa Rica in April! If you’re interested in some incredible digiscoping work, be sure to check out the Digiscoping group on Facebook. The quality of work there never ceases to amaze me, and the community is very helpful with questions and advice. I have to give a special “shout-out” to Tara Tanaka as well. Her work is truly inspirational, not to mention it’s done with LUMIX cameras 🙂 Look for more digiscoping images from me in the future… I’m afraid I’m hooked!