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Digiscoping, the hunter's second season – a field-test review at Cabela's

Digiscoping, the hunter's second season – a field-test review

Author: James Powell

With the right spotting scope, camera and adaptor, you can take great wildlife photos on your next hunting trip.

Author, James Powell field tests a Nikon spotting scope, mounted with a Nikon D70.
I'm not the first person to write about how functional and versatile a spotting scope can be. They have been popular with big-game hunters for decades, particularly in the open canyon and plains country of the West. A quality spotting scope mounted on a tripod allows a hunter to locate game that wouldn't be visible with unaided eyesight and barely so with most high-powered binoculars. On a rifle range, the power of a spotting scope is even easier to notice. Where a pair of 10X binoculars won't clearly show a rifle pattern at 200 or even 100 yards for most shooters, a spotting scope, even at a modest 20X setting, will clearly show the smallest bullet holes in a paper target. And, around the house, many hunters who own a spotting scope will keep one handy near a window to view birds at backyard feeders or the occasional deer crossing the driveway.

Add A New Dimension To Hunting
What most hunters don't realize is that a quality spotting scope can add a completely new dimension to their outdoor pursuits, or even a new "game season" to their year. How? The word is digiscoping. Digiscoping is the practice of mounting either a point-and-shoot or Single-Lens Reflex (SLR) digital camera to a high-quality spotting scope and using the combination to take extreme close-up photos of wildlife or features in a landscape. A multipurpose, high-quality spotting scope ($600 to $1,500) becomes, in effect, a super-telephoto lens mounted to your camera. This allows you to take full-frame, close-up, high-resolution photos of wildlife for a fraction of the cost of a true super-telephoto lens, which can easily run into the $5,000-8,000 range for digital SLRs, and they aren't available for digital point-and-shoot cameras.

Because many big-game hunters are already carrying digital cameras and spotting scopes in their packs, combining the them capture photos of wildlife during a hunt just makes sense, and is increasing in popularity every year among hunters in the know.

"Digiscoping is one of those topics you used to hear the occasional birder talk about six or seven years ago when decent, affordable digital cameras first became available," says C.J. Davis of Nikon Sport Optics. "At first, they'd make these crude homemade mounts for their cameras and experiment with taking photos of birds at long distances. When they and the optics companies making the spotting scopes realized it really worked and was very affordable compared to regular camera lenses, companies like Nikon and a few other high-quality scope companies began making specialty camera mounts and adaptors for their scopes. Today, it's one of the fastest growing segments in optics and getting bigger all the time. Digiscoping is the next frontier in optics for hunters."

Matt Highby, Cabela's product manager for optics, agrees. "Digiscoping equipment is increasingly on our customers' shopping lists, and that's why we're offering more and better products aimed at making digiscoping easier and more enjoyable for our customers," Highby added. "It's a great way for hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts to get more out of their time in the field."

A skittish prairie dog becomes a portrait subject with the right spotting scope.
How It Works: Camera + Mount + Scope = Picture
Like many things that sound complicated, digiscoping is really pretty simple to understand and to do. Determined to try it myself after seeing some incredible wildlife photos taken with digiscoping gear, I set out to test a few digiscope rigs and see if the technique really works as advertised in the field.

First, I assembled two top-notch digiscoping rigs from Nikon and Swarovski, one utilizing a digital SLR camera and another using a digital point-and-shoot. Because I already had a Nikon D70 digital SLR, I mated it to a Nikon Fieldscope ED 82 with Nikon's FSA-L1 camera adaptor, which is specially designed for use with digital SLRs like the D70. To test a point-and-shoot rig, I turned to Swarovski. They make the DCB-S a versatile digital camera adapter, that swings into and out of position with Swarovski's STS 80 scope and 20-60X S eyepiece. This allows a user to first view wildlife through the eyepiece, then swing the camera down and into position easily to take photos. After trying a lightweight tripod that proved inadequate to the task, a Cabela's professional-grade, heavy-duty tripod with a strong, smooth ball head provided a stable base to test both outfits.

First, I tested both units for ease of operation in field conditions on my hunting lease. Setting up in a blind in the middle of a prairie dog town, I took turns working with both outfits, making a point to assemble and disassemble the equipment several times before actually shooting photos. I quickly realized that both have their pros and cons when it comes to use in the field.

The Nikon camera adapter screwed easily into the scope and mated to the D70 camera body as smoothly and solidly as any standard camera lens. When mounting the outfit onto the tripod, however, the weight of the camera body, which extended was rearward by the long adapter tube, tended to throw the entire unit slightly off balance to the rear. This caused the scope to tilt up and off point of aim. Luckily, I had a quick-release mount extender, or balance bar, which allowed me to mount the scope farther forward of the tripod mount. That balanced the weight of the scope against the camera, brought the entire rig into line and made for a much more stable unit.

The Swarovski point-and-shoot outfit, utilizing a much lighter Fuji FinePix camera, didn't have the balance problems associated with the heavier D70 SLR. The adapter mounted easily and solidly over the scope's eyepiece, and the camera mounted deceptively easily onto the adapter as well. I say deceptively because I quickly discovered that the challenge with the point-and-shoot setup lies in spacing the camera lens properly in relation to the eyepiece. Unlike the direct mount adapter/SLR setup where lens/eyepiece spacing isn't an issue, spacing is critical when butting a point-and-shoot's lens close to, but not quite touching, the scope's standard eyepiece. After fooling around with spacing to no avail, I read the directions and got it right.

The inset photo of a distant antelope buck, shows the striking images made possible through digiscoping.
The Results
In shooting situations, both types of outfits have their strengths. I could spot wildlife easier with the better balanced point-and-shoot outfit while utilizing a swing-away adapter, but I could focus properly and shoot more easily with the direct-mount, SLR outfit. Both units proved effective at spotting subjects and taking quality photos after I had spent some time practicing and familiarizing myself with each setup's operation. And both outfits amazed me with their ability to capture astonishing close-up photos of animals. Many times, I was able to take clear, full-frame photos of animals I couldn't even see before with the naked eye. This proved to be the case when hunting prairie dogs on grassy hillsides. I was able to spot partially hidden prairie dogs in the grass, take a photo, and then put my rifle into action.

While fly-fishing in moose country, I was able to set up my rig and take close-up photos of moose from a distance as I happened upon them, something I would never have been able to do with my conventional camera lenses.

Which Digiscope Outfit Do You Need?
I use the word "need" because you really do need one of these setups if you're a serious hunter or outdoor enthusiast. Based on my personal experiences with both types of digiscope outfits, I'd choose a system based on priorities. For a camera nut who prioritizes the features available in a full-size digital SLR and isn't so worried about being able to swing the camera away for viewing in most field settings, I'd suggest a direct-mount SLR system. For a big-game hunter who needs to quickly switch between eye-viewing and photo-taking modes, the swing-away, point-and-shoot system will be easier to work with. Fortunately, Nikon, Swarovski, Leica and other high-quality scope manufacturers offer adapters and mounting options that will accommodate both types of setups and camera configurations.

Stability is the key to taking great photos with digiscoping gear. The following recommendations will help you get the most from your equipment and will help ensure you're taking the sharpest, clearest photos you can.

Don't skimp and buy a cheap or ultralight tripod. Heavy-duty models with solid, smooth pro-style heads are a must for stabilizing digiscoping equipment. Buy the best you can afford.

A moose mother tending to her calf made good digiscoping subjects.
Balancing equipment
Use a quick-mount extender (called a balance rail by Swarovski) to balance the weight of the spotting scope and camera on the tripod head. Proper balancing will keep the scope aligned along the sight plane and add stability to the extended digiscoping gear.

Shutter release
Any movement in a digiscope rig at the time the shutter releases to take a photo is magnified by the high power of the spotting scope, resulting in a blurred image. A remote shutter release, either the cable or infrared style, is necessary to prevent the blurring common with manually pushing a camera's shutter button.

Wind will cause movement, and as a result, blurring, when using digiscoping equipment. Use a hunting blind to cut the wind and hide your setup and movements from animals.

Digiscoping does require a basic knowledge of photography, and of some of the idiosyncrasies inherent in taking photos through a spotting scope. Visit one of the dozens of digiscoping Web sites on the Internet before heading afield with your new gear. Also check out Swarovski's and Nikon's excellent resources for digiscopers at each company's Web site.

Digiscoping adds a whole new dimension to being outdoors, and can add excitement to your next hunt. All things considered, most hunters are gear nuts at heart, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that digiscoping appeals to our gear-hungry nature. What could be cooler than mounting that handy little digital camera in your pack on to that compact, but powerful spotting scope you carry and taking crystal-clear photos of the muley buck or bull elk you've been pursuing all season but haven't been able to close the gap on? Even if you never get a shot at your trophy, you'll have great photos to help you remember the hunt and to show your friends when you tell stories about "the one that got away."

Published from the pages of Cabela's Outfitter Journal. Click here to purchase your digiscope outfit.