Digiscoping with Chris Packham

Since September I have been fortunate enough to make three short overseas excursions. All have been ‘working’ trips, but I have enjoyed some good wildlife watching and it has given me an opportunity to get to grips with Digi-scoping. For years I, like many others, have gazed through telescopes marvelling at birds or other creatures and wishing it was a camera that I was peering through and that the glorious moment could be immortalised.

Way back in 1980 my kind and working girlfriend bought me, a grateful and impoverished student, a Bushnel Discoverer telescope, 15 – 60X magnification as I recall. I still have it, it’s a treasure of great sentimental value but has long been surpassed optically. At the time I was obsessed with Shrikes, Red-backed and Great-grey, and soon had super views of both through my new ‘scope. I immediately bought an adaptor to attach my Zenith E and then Canon-1 cameras. Boy did I persevere! My father made me a base plate so I could clamp scope and camera rigidly together. I borrowed a bigger, heavier tripod and bought a whole stash of ISO 400 film. I soon realised that this would need upgrading to 800 and then 1600 ISO. I trained myself to find my subjects in the gloom and then to repress suicidal tendencies when I got the offensive transparencies back. I got virtually nothing other than despondent, one picture of a Red-backed Shrike which I keep for the same sentimental reasons the scope and several ‘shots’ of drake Smew at Arundel W.W.T. Reserve which I used for sketching only. Like a few other pioneers I had to wait for the technology to catch up with my ambition. And it has!

In mid-September I set off for Uganda for two weeks tour-leading with a Nikon ED Field Scope 82mm., a Coolpix 4500, a 30X mm. ‘scope lens, the adaptor, a cable release and a tripod. To force myself to use it I left all of my 35 mm. kit at home and actually travelled with no film at all. That felt weird. I kept thinking I had forgotten something...everything!

I hadn’t had time to do any practising, so in a hotel room on night one I assembled the kit through trial and error (not having packed instructions – typical!) and read a little booklet Nikon had produced in conjunction with Birdwatching Magazine. With the camera set up as advised by a panel of practiced practitioners I set off into Africa.

I dread new equipment. I hate upgrading my mobile ‘phone because it takes a week to read the manual and two weeks to make it work, so I’m not a great one for embracing new technology until it’s been well tested and well recommended. Well, I have now done some testing and I cannot recommend this kit highly enough. It does just what it needs to do - it gets you images of subjects far outside the distance range of conventional lenses and under certain conditions these images are great pictures.

Chris Packham / Monkey Chris Packham / Chimp

On the side of the road travelling through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Western Uganda we paused to watch a single lonely and lost looking black and white Colobus monkey. It was a pied speck through my client’s lenses, but I got this image.

Okay it’s not a good picture, there is a problem with foliage in the foreground and no highlights in the eyes but it took two minutes on a roadside, it was a snap and no more but when I reviewed the image in the bumping land cruiser and magnified it to find I could see it’s nasal hairs I was a little dumbfounded.

Astonished is how I would describe my, and about thirty others’, reaction to the Chimpanzee portrait. This wonderful animal was high up and far, far away, indistinguishable with the naked eye, a black smudge through binoculars, in a damp and sticky gorge at Chambura. We spotted them lower down, but they took to the trees and vanished behind leaves that swayed in a breeze to obscure them.

This youngster reclined and from an uncomfortable position on a muddy slope I managed to find a ‘view’ through the tangle of jungle and locate him in the scope. Coolpix attached I zoomed in. It was too dark giving me ¼ or ½ a second. I ‘up-rated’ to the ISO equivalent of 800 and got this image on 1/15th of a second. Okay, again it’s not a brilliant photograph. It’s ‘grainey’ or ‘noisy’, not pin sharp, but under the conditions it was nothing short of a remarkable result.

Chris Packham / Palm-Nut Vulture

Right, the Nikon set up was certainly delivering in terms of snatching images out of hopeless situations but could it actually produce a good quality photograph under more favourable conditions? A Palm-nut Vulture landed about 80 – 100 m. from our camp and I got this image. It’s a standard portrait taken, taken in muted sunshine on about 1/30th - 1/60th of a second. This is not ideal because even when holding the electronic release slackly and gently it transmits your heartbeat to the scope/camera and impinges upon sharpness.

Scope-shake as I was to learn is the scourge of this new business. Any tiny little breeze, any feet moving on anything but a concrete substrate, passing cars, you name it...vibration is the picture killer. More of that later.

Next up I thought I’d try smaller subjects closer to. The Scarlet-chested Sunbird was my first attempt. It’s not very good. It’s ‘hazy’, sharp but somehow it seems to have a softness all over it. I couldn’t work this out, it was only about 5 metres away from the balcony of Mweya Lodge on the channel which joins Lakes Albert and Edward. Later that night I figured it out. When I removed the camera from the scope there was a thin layer of red dust on the scope eye lens acting as all too efficient diffusion filter.

The shots of the grass hopper and the tree frog which I took in Cyprus a little later show that a clean lens delivers the goods. Both of these subjects, of a similar 4 cm size were about 5 metres away in good light – both are fully sharp and taken on about 1/125th of a second. However, my Cypriot excursion was to give me what I was beginning to realise was available through mastery of this equipment – a cracking picture which would otherwise be unobtainable.

Chris Packham / Scarlet-chested Sunbird Chris Packham / Tree Frog Chris Packham / Grass Hopper

In early October I had the great pleasure of visiting the R.A.F. base at Akrotiri in southern Cyprus. I had accepted a duty as patron of the Western Sovereign Bases Conservation Group, and enjoyed unbridled hospitality and courtesy of Group Captain Nick Randle and all of his staff for a four day familiarization exercise.

What a place! Unspoiled, protected and loaded with a great diversity of flora and fauna. My guide was Jason Wilson the Society’s excellent conservation officer and accomplished bird photographer. His flight shots are superb, particularly those of raptors. He has a brilliant photo of a Montagu’s Harrier. Check out the Society’s Web site to see more of his work
[email protected].

For sometime I had one of his photo’s as a screen saver on my PC, a dark phased Eleanora’s Falcon on a lovely orange sandstone cliff face, in sunshine . . . smiling! I had seen these charismatic super birds before on Majorca, but not well and not for long, so I was hoping that they had not all migrated by the time I had arrived. Jason had the measure of me immediately and within a couple of hours of my arrival we were both on the cliff tops enjoying one of the best flying displays on earth . . . not directly courtesy of the R.A.F!

For a couple of hours these sickle-winged assassins put on a show of breathtaking aerial agility, mainly youngsters they soared and stooped about the cliffs as the sun set over a deep blue Mediterranean. It was a fabulous moment, and Eleanora’s Falcon rocketed into my avian top ten. Better than Peregrine, better than Hobby . . . oh yes . . . oh yes! Of course I already had dreams of my own photo . . .

On a bright clear Sunday morning we arrived at the cliff top about an hour after sunrise. With my Digi-scoping kit primed I soon had it pointed at a beautifully backlit young falcon. Just look at it . . . that golden edge around its head and chest, the glow on the rocks! But it’s not sharp! A slight breeze continually trembled the lens and I could get nothing between ‘gusts’. I had one 1/15th of a second even on ISO 800, maybe a 1/30th of a second, it was so beautiful but the scope was sucking all the light out of my life. There was no shelter on the precarious cliff top and I was close to tears. The wind fell as the light coarsened so that it was still by about nine when ‘magic hour’ was only a memory.

Chris Packham / Backlit Young Falcon Chris Packham / Falcon Portrait Chris Packham / Falcon Flight Chris Packham / Falcon Cleaning

Still we continued to stalk the falcons which had slowed down a bit now, after their first light sorties over the sea and eventually we came across a bird perched on a single point of rock about 50 to 60 metres away. I sat down, Jason crept forward. I got a few ‘nice portraits’, standard fayre, now that I had 1/250th – 1/500th of a second, but in truth I was still sulking. But then my chance came. Having kept falcons as a teenager I knew the patterns of their behaviour and when this little chap began to stretch one wing, I knew he’d do the other and then likely raise the two above his head. I rode my patience and pushed the button just as he began to raise his wings. Oh yes...it’s sculptural, a great pose, a little one sided, but correctable, and Jason...well he was sick! Not for long I fear though as he as he is well armed and able. I e-mailed it to him as soon as I returned, and expect a redoubtable retort by return!

So look, I was a complete novice and I got this within a month. Okay it’s a glamour babe of a bird in a great location, but I’d be just as pleased if it was a local Kestrel. This Digi-scoping thing is great. Let’s consider the benefits;

(1) Distant subjects are captureable under the most horrid conditions, ideal for identification or verification when conventional photography hasn’t a chance in hell.

(2) The set up is a far cheaper alternative than a 35 mm big lens kit. Total price of my digi-scoping kit is around £1500 and we all know how much fast big telephotos cost – they are beyond most of us.

(3) It’s lightweight and portable, one lens, one camera, and one tripod and some gadgets so it’s ideal for weekends away or excursions overseas which are not full blown photographic safaris.

(4) If you are a birder you’ll need and have a ‘scope anyway so it’s only a question of adding the appropriate camera and getting into the swing of capturing images.

(5) All the benefits of digital cost, quick review/check, ‘photoshop-ability’ and e-mail to your friends.
But there are down sides too;

(1) Substrate stability (hides are hell with people tramping in and out) or wind of even the butterfly breath variety which will render all of your images soft.

(2) The nicest early or late light allows only very slow shutter speeds which equals more blurring and heat haze is a late morning killer with the higher magnifications

(3) Upgrading ISO yields record shots only.

(4) You’ll need a new tripod head to avoid criminal levels of frustration trying to get your subject positioned in your frame. The standard or even superior scope head is still hell. I am going to invest in one of those man Manfrotto 701 RC-2 which balanced fluid heads are said to adjust smoothly and lock onto the subject directly without needing to give it any ‘drop’. This could save me a few swearing fits! And if this fails I’m going to try the Manfretto 410 Junior Geared head for precise adjustment control.

(5) Worst of all – shutter delay and file writing time, two variables which with birds mean that they have moved or gone. This only applies to smaller cameras not 35 mm bodies which can be attached to the scope.

Chris Packham / Pied Kingfisher Chris Packham / Hooded Vutures Chris Packham / Black-winged Stilts Chris Packham / Dikkops

A few tips; set the Coolpix on ISO 100, Programmable mode, centre weighted or spot metering (situation dependant), disable the flash on macro-focusing mode, use the five focusing points to place your subject in the frame nicely and write to a card with a maximum 128 megabites (not all the eggs in one basket theory). The set up I have seems to work best with subjects closer too, i.e. 10 – 60 or 70 metres, not at the very end of the lens, so a bit of stalking is still sensible.

Don’t get too close though as you won’t fit the whole creature in, a problem I’ve had this week in the Gambia where Pied Kingfishers, Hooded Vultures, Whimbrels, Dikkops and Black-winged Stilts have all been too close. I’ve been walking away from birds to take their photographs – something I’d never have dreamed of 25 years ago!

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