Photographing the Moon and Bears with Digiscoping

Yes, that’s a picture of the moon, taken by my wife earlier in the year … I’m going strictly off-topic with this week’s blog post. And if you’ve got a cellphone you could take shots like this too. All you need is a pair of binoculars (monocular and spotting scopes also work) and a handy little gadget and hey presto, you’re digiscoping!

What is Digiscoping?

Digiscoping is the activity of using a digital camera and an optical telescope to record distant subjects, photo or video. This is most commonly achieved by attaching a DSLR camera (without the lens) to a telescope or spotting scope. The scope replaces the camera’s lens.

We tried this with a Canon camera body and a spotting scope. It did work, however the results were not great as the intelligence of the camera’s focusing is in the lens, which was not in place. We achieved better results with an iPhone, combining its inbuilt focusing capability with that of the spotting scope. Furthermore, the phone’s screen was large enough so that we could easily determine picture quality. There are a few devices available to mount a cellphone onto a scope. The picture and video below are of a bear cub taken using just such a setup, the trick was mounting the phone onto the scope.

Black bear cub up a tree sticking it's tongue out, taken with iPhone 8 Plus

Solomark Universal Cell Phone Adapter Mount

The first adapter I tried was a Solomark Universal Cell Phone Adapter Mount, a low-cost option. I worked fairly well, but I had to get the camera into exactly the right place in the unit, then match up with the scope’s eye piece. By the time I’d done this, the photograph subject would invariably have moved. The main issue was the number of moving parts that needed to be aligned each time.

Solomark adapter (picture from Amazon)

Several companies made phone-specific adapters for their scope units, e.g the Swarovski one in the picture below, that simply bolt directly onto the scope. However this seems to have stopped after the iPhone 6, with the advent of generic adapters such as the Solomark one.

IPhone 6 attached to a Swarovski spotting scope (picture from Swarovski Optik)

Opticron Universal Smart Phone Mounts

After a bit of research, also known as hitting Google hard, I found Opticron. They have released the Opticron USM-2 Universal Smartphone Mount, a simple device allowing pretty much any cellphone to work with almost all scopes. Here’s a YouTube clip demonstrating how to use one:

We have a very good camera shop near us, Clifton Cameras in Dursley. I visited, taking our spotting scope and iPhone. It took two minutes to get set up, and I was taking photos.

Completing The Setup

The picture below shows the complete setup, including the Opticron smartphone mount. I used the following items (all affiliate links):

The choice of optic depends on budget, I’ve also used the Celestron 100mm Ultima spotting scope. This gives good results at close optical zoom but loses both quality and lighting at higher zooms compared to the Regal M2.

Full setup with Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod and geared head

The 3-way geared head is great when photographing distant subjects that are either stationary, or move very rarely and/or slowly (e.g. the moon). The gears can be used to make fine adjustments without losing the subject.

For photographing subjects that move quickly or unpredictably (e.g. bears, wolves) I use a Manfrotto heavy-duty ball grip head (affiliate link). This allows quick tracking and release when the subject stops moving. Again, having a stable tripod is essential when doing this, as you want to have the picture remain on what you’re looking at when you release the grip.

Manfrotto heavy duty ball grip head

To prevent camera wobble when taking a shot, a camera shutter remote control is absolutely essential. I paired this with the iPhone, and was then able to take pictures without needing to touch the phone.

Results and Learning Points

The pictures below show how we got set up and some sample pictures taken of trees and a roof in the distance, along with a few learning points. The same applies to photographing the moon.

The first setup is with the spotting scope on minimum 22x optical zoom.

Looking at a tree in the distance
View from the iPhone (22x optical, 1x digital)

The iPhone shows the circle of the eyepiece at 1x digital zoom, which will show up in a photograph taken with the phone. This can be cropped afterwards using the phone’s software (or other tools). To remove the circle before taking the picture, zoom in a bit further and press the phone’s screen to focus. I found at 1.8x magnification and over, the circle was gone. At 6.3x it was really gone.

Zoomed in on a twig (22x optical, 6.3x digital)

Sometimes I found was that, depending on the subject and light, sometimes the iPhone would give up at 2x optical zoom and give a black screen. This happened mostly when there was a lot of colour contrast, e.g. green trees with blue sky in the background. The picture below shows a 3x digital zoom. If I panned the scope to the left slightly to have sky in the picture and went to 3x digital zoom, the screen went black.

Foliage at a distance (22x optical, 3x digital)


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