If you really would like to get better digiscoping photos, then here are a few points and some base-line knowledge that will hopefully help you understand what you need to do and why.
Brown-headed Parrot (Poicephalus cryptoxanthus) digiscoped with Swarovski STM80HD, UCA adapter, and Canon 1000D

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a 10,000 Birds blog post about how to make digiscoping really easy – forget about photos and just take video. I still stand by that advice; if you want to do digiscoping the really easy idiot proof way, use video. But if you have a decent sense for photography and some time to practice, then digiscoping photos can be wonderful fun to take.

1. Choose an appropriate camera for your needs

There are plenty of cameras out there that will work for digiscoping and new cameras are being released every month, the variety is staggering. Small compact cameras like the Canon S95 and Canon IXUS300 (aka SD4000) take some nice photos, focus well, have great HD video functions and – critically – allow the digiscoper a lot of freedom in adjusting controls. When choosing a compact camera, you want something that will work with limited vignetting (this generally limits the cameras to about x4 optical zooms although many 5x work well), has a good sensor and allows you to adjust things like aperture and ISO manually.

System cameras, like the Panasonic Lumix G2, for example, tend to have significantly larger sensors than typical compact cameras, but because they lack a flipping mirror, they can be a great deal smaller than the average DSLR. They also use contrast detect autofocus, which means that if you use a suitable objective lens (in this case a 20mm pancake), you can use autofocus to help you (finger-press autofocus on the touch-screen of the G2 and GH2 in this example).

The success of entry-level DSLRs over the passed few years has meant that many more people are trying to use DSLRs for digiscoping. The larger sensors can potentially produce better image quality, and the optical viewfinders can be great for finding, following and focusing on moving targets. BUT, the larger sensors need more light (ie more sensitive to camera shake), you are forced to always completely manually focus, and they suffer from mirror flap (introducing shake in to the system). I almost always use a DSLR in my digiscoping, but I do it aware of the compromises.

2. Reduce camera shake and get everything stable

Camera shake is the source of all evil. Anything that shakes your camera or setup will massively increase the risk that your photos are blurry. This includes things like wind, wobbly tripods, people moving in the hide, your finger on the shutter release, flapping DSLR mirrors, unstable adapters…

Make sure you are using a stable tripod (best carbon fibre: light weight and vibration-dampening), or better yet, a bean bag on a solid surface (although this will limit your mobility). A stable adapter will also do wonders.

3. Switch to Aperture priority mode

Once your camera is physically set up on an adapter behind your telescope, I would suggest switching to aperture priority mode (usually A or Av on the mode dial). Then adjust the aperture to the smallest f number; this will give you the biggest opening and let the most light in. The more light let in, the faster the photo can be. The faster the photo, the less likely you are to get blurry photos from camera shake. Your camera does not know you have artificially increased the focal length to 1000+mm, it still thinks you are taking a photo of your dog and kids, so help it out by telling it what to do (the same goes for ISO).

4. Choose your ISO

A small ISO number will allow your camera to take the best quality photos it can, but it will need a slower shutter speed in order to achieve this. If you choose a higher ISO, the images will be more grainy (noise), but you will be able to take faster photos. If your camera is giving you a shutter speed of 1/100s at ISO100 and you change to ISO200, you should now have a shutter speed of about 1/200s, but with somewhat more noise.

What ISO is appropriate, will depend on what you think is acceptable in your images (a personal thing), and how well your camera performs at higher ISO. Digiscopers will typically use a compact camera at ISO 200 or less, a system camera (or entry level DSLR) at about ISO 800, and top full-frame DSLRs at ISO1600 or more.

By leaving the ISO on automatic, you are once again allowing your camera to think the dog is about to be photographed. Resist the temptation and get to know your camera and what settings your camera needs to work well for digiscoping.

5. Get the focus right

If you are using a compact camera or system camera, find your photographic subject on the screen (or through the electronic viewfinder) and focus the scope as sharp as possible. Setting your compact camera to macro mode will help make the camera’s job easier. Now, half-press the shutter release button to allow the camera to find focus. When it has found focus, it should show a little box where it has focussed. If this is where your bird/subject is, you can now SLOWLY press through all the way. If you lift your finger off between half-pressing and pressing all the way through, the camera will loose focus.

If your camera has incorrectly focussed on the great big goose sitting behind your Purple Sandpiper, keep your finger half pressed (to lock focus), manually focus the scope on the sandpiper, and press all the way through. Many of the Canon compact cameras, for example, have a handy little digital zoom “magnifying glass” that will show of the point the camera has chosen to focus on – this is a great help to double-check your focus is correct.

With a DSLR, you can either focus manually using the optical viewfinder (with a little practice, this becomes rather easy), or if the subject is relatively stationary, using LiveView by zooming in digitally and checking that the bird is super-sharp exactly where you want it to be sharp. If you are in LiveView in a better Canon DSLR, you can now press through slowly to take a whole series of photos WITHOUT the mirror flapping (for some bizarre reason, Nikon have not thought to integrate mirror-lock in to their LiveView function). No mirror flap = less vibration = better chance to get a sharp photo.

6. Burst mode, electronic releases, cable releases…

Set your camera to burst mode and take lots of photos in a row. One is likely to come out. When you get home you can throw away all but the very best photos. It costs nothing more to take 4 photos instead of 1 and even the best digiscopers throw away the majority of their photos. There is no shame in it, and practice makes perfect.

If you can, try using an electronic or cable shutter release – they take your hand off of the camera and reduce yet another source of camera shake.

If you are going to use a direct finger press on the shutter release, push through slowly and evenly. Try to do it as gently as possible. I see tons of people doing all the other things right, they have great equipment, a wonderful bird in front of them and then they press they attack the shutter release button like a pimple or that bubbly blister packaging DHL uses. Pop pop pop.

Leopard digiscoped with Swarovski STM80HD, TLS800 adapter, and Canon 1000D

I hope this all helps. If you have specific questions, feel free to write them in the comments and maybe I can address them in a future blog post.

Happy digiscoping,

Dale Forbes

Written by Dale Forbes
Dale grew up in the forests and savannas of South Africa, developing a love for nature from a young age. After studying Zoology and Wildlife Science, he moved to Central America to continue his work in conservation biology. He is a member of BirdLife International’s Advisory Board and is Swarovski Optik’s Head of Strategic Business Development.