Monday, July 6, 2009

Digiscoping basics 3 - selecting an adapter

crazed digiscoper lines up on a distant subject! ;p

No spotting scope has ever been developed with use of a digital point & shoot camera in mind. Conversely, no small p&s camera has ever been designed to couple with a spotting scope; these smaller p&s are generally designed for the masses with close range portraiture and scenic shots in mind (perhaps even a bit of macro for fun). However, through trial & error we've discovered that these two items can indeed be used together to achieve amazing images!

Since neither piece was designed with the other in mind, it has been left to inventive individuals to craft devices to couple cameras & scopes effectively. In the early days of digiscoping experimentation this was done with soda bottles, PVC plumbing fittings, balsa wood, & lots of duct tape. Some designs worked quite well, while others.... well...

Today, digiscoping is a bit more user friendly as major optics manufacturers have recognized digiscoping potential and popularity and most have added at least one branded adapter for use with their products (often more). You can also find a wide array of aftermarket products designed for universal application on many camera and scope models.

generic platform style adapter
The piece above is representative of a fairly standard example of aftermarket, universal digiscoping adapter. It utilizes a vice clamp that tightens onto the spotting scope eyepiece, so it can be used on nearly any scope. The plastic platform accommodates nearly any digiscoping cameras via the 1/4"x20 threaded tripod mount (found on the bottom of the camera). The mounting platform is slotted on two sides so cameras with center, left, or right side tripod mounts can be used. It has separate controls to adjust the height of the platform, and another that moves from side to side allowing you to get the camera properly centered behind the scope. The slots also allow you to adjust for the proper distance between the eyepiece and the camera lens as well.

These adapters are a great alternative for older scope models, or scopes without a manufacturer's branded solution. They are also great for digiscoping experimentation due to their comparatively inexpensive price points. However, as with any design there are drawbacks as well. Generally speaking, a more universal (versatile) adapter that accommodates many scopes and cameras, requires a greater range of adjustment making the piece more complex, and larger in size & weight.
These "platform-style" universal adapters generally suffer from repeatability issues as well, because they have so many moving parts, they often aren't mounted in the same spot on the eyepiece, and because (as with all platform style adapters) the camera is prone to turning on its axis. Their larger comparative size make these more difficult to carry. While I would rate these as the least user friendly option available, sometimes with off-brand or old model scopes they may be the only option.
generic "screw-thread" universal adapter
Most early cameras had filter thread rings (or threaded accessory adapters) on the end of the camera lens. As such, one of the most common early adapter styles (and still one of the most popular) is the threaded tubular mount adapter. The model above is an example of the earliest style, which was designed for all scopes. To accommodate many eyepiece widths the tube was over sized to fit over even the widest of eyepieces. Here again, the universal application led to difficulties in use. You were required to use three different set screws to fill the gap left between the eyepiece and the inner wall of the over sized adapter. While a great idea in theory, in practice this was time consuming and it was difficult to get the camera centered as tightening one screw often moved the camera back out of center. For stationary subjects where time was no issue this is not a huge disadvantage, but many wildlife images were missed while still fighting to get the camera centered.

Driven by consumer demand, the next generation of tubular adapters were machined to fit specific eyepiece widths. Unlike their universal predecessors, these improved tubular designs (similar to the NEW Leica digital adapter 4 at bottom) fit a specific eyepiece perfectly, slipped on quickly, and the camera was always centered. These adapters have been the choice of many digiscoper in the years since due to their simplicity, compact size, and mounting speed.

Unfortunately, in recent years most digital p&s camera models have discontinued offering accessories, and now there are almost no p&s cameras offer filter threads (maybe 2 or 3 in a field of hundreds). As such, individuals wanting to digiscope with these adapters were forced to seek out a single specific camera model or two. They are now very restrictive as a result. This design can also offer problems as you stack adapters and threaded bushings to connect the camera to the threaded adapter, because the camera lens can be too far from the eyepiece to work to its full potential (see effects of this in post "digiscoping basics 2 - lining up the camera").

Leica digital adapter 2 adapter

In 2006 Leica introduced its unique digital adapter 2. This design took advantage of the mounting speed of the popular tubular design, but featured a revolutionary clamp design allowing use of nearly any digiscoping p&s camera! Two rubber-padded clamp jaws could be adjusted to hold a smaller digital p&s, camera phone and even some smaller video cams in place without dependence on threads. This opened the field to hundreds of camera models.

As with other designs though this increased versatility and compatibility does make the piece a bit larger. The Leica digital adapter 2 (DA2) was machined exclusively to the diameter of the Leica 20-60x zoom, 20x wide-angle, and 32x wide-angle eyepieces, but not other brands. Some of the "tinkerers" in the market were able to adapt this to some other eyepieces with smaller diameters, but again this took a bit of creativity to shim the excess space evenly.
revolutionary Leica digital adapter 2 with unique clamp design
In January 2009, Leica brought the new 82 mm Televid spotting scope to the marketplace featuring the first wide-angle zoom eyepiece ever developed. The wide-angle 25-50x zoom eyepiece was both taller and wider than Leica's previous eyepiece models so the digital adapter 2 would not fit over this.

Leica digital adapter3, APO Televid 82 mm spotting scope, & C-Lux camera

Leica introduced the new digital adapter 3 in January of this year. This piece is similar in design to the DA2, but utilizes a unique twist-lock connector at it's base and increased adjustment to accommodate all of the Leica eyepieces from the shorter, thinner former 20x to the largest of the line the new 25-50x wide angle. As such it also will mount to other brand spotting scopes to include many Kowa, Swarovski, Zeiss, & other models with an eyepiece diameter between 53 - 68mm.

Leica digital adapter 3
The digital adapter 3's unique twist-lock, tightens evenly from all sides insuring the camera is instantly centered on many eyepieces, and it incorporates a mechanical cable release arm (see second image up). Since this versatile adapter can be adjusted to accommodate so many eyepieces and cameras, it also appears somewhat complex and is larger (and more expensive) than its predecessor.

Leica digital adapter 4 prototype

However, never fear, for those who prefer simplicity there are options as well. In late summer 2009, Leica will introduce a VERY simplistic option when they introduce the new digital adapter 4. The new DA4 will be machined precisely to the diameter of the 25-50x wide angle eyepiece and will mount directly to only one camera model - the Leica D-Lux 4. By making this piece an exclusive mount for only one camera on a single eyepiece model, you have no need for additional adjustments resulting in a very compact and simplistic adapter.

So if you are wanting to mount a variety of cameras on varying eyepieces or if you simply want to slide the camera on and push the button, the new Leica line-up will offer solutions for all.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fun with the ABA in Corpus!

In late April 2009, the American Birding Association (ABA - link at right) held their annual convention in Corpus Christi, Texas. Corpus Christi proudly promotes itself as America's Birdiest City and they proudly defend the title against all takers annually in an annual challenge. In reality, few places could begin to compare with the bird diversity found here as Corpus sits on a crossroads where Eastern migrants mix with Western breeding birds, it offers all of the expected variety of Gulf Coast waterbirds, and many of the South Texas specialty birds can also be found at the northern most points here as well.

American Oystercatcher adult w/ chick digiscoped in Corpus Christi, TX 4/09
Along the gulf, water birds were reliably seen to include huge numbers of wading birds, egrets, herons, & spoonbills, plus many shorebirds to include a personal highlight: an American Oystercatcher with a chick digiscoped from the deck of a pontoon boat! On this same day we had White-winged Scoters lounging below singing Painted Buntings and other odd mixes. Magnificent Frigatebirds streaming overhead was a highlight and life bird for many present (e.g. a bird never seen by that individual before).

adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak digiscoped Corpus Christi, TX

Being the peak of migration, many eastern wood warblers, flycatchers, buntings, and others were seen daily sometimes in small numbers and on some trips and days en masse. The lovely adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at top and other images here were all digiscoped using the new APO Leica Televid 82 mm spotting scope, Leica D-Lux 4 camera, and the prototype of the impending digital adapter 4.

male Vermilion Flycatcher, digiscpoped in Corpus Christi, TX 4/09
Even on an overcast day a male Vermilion Flycatcher is a stunning highlight appreciated by many of the visiting birders who descended upon Corpus for this marvelous event. This is specialty bird of the southwestern United States that positively glows!
Brown-crested Flycather, digiscoped Corpus Christi, TX 4/2009
Having birded this area many times now I would not see any NEW birds, so my personal highlights often differ from others. Sure a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher is always worth a view, but I more appreciated the opportunity to compare three very similar Flycatcher species: the Brown-crested (above) was actually side by side for a while with a Great Crested Flycatcher for fabulous comparisons. We'd enjoyed excellent views of an Ash-throated Flycatcher earlier in the same morning at in desert scrub habitat that also offered singing Cassin's and Black-throated Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxias, and Greater Roadrunners!
immature Crested Caracara settling after a meal

Along with more widespread raptor (hawks, eagles, falcons, etc.) species we also had wonderful views of more localized specialty species to include many Crested Caracaras, Swainson's & Harris' Hawks, plus views of some soaring White-tailed Hawks and White-tailed Kites!

Least Grebe digiscoped in Corpus Christi, 4/09

South Texas specialty species were well represented and we recorded Least Grebes, Great Kiskadees, Green Jays, Audubon's Orioles, and Black-crested Titmouse here among others.

Cliff Swallow digiscoped @ Corpus Christi 4/09

Again while many folks may have enjoyed individual views of the very accommodating Audubon's Oriole or Bell's Vireo we were treated to just before lunch. My highlight fell to the activity occurring just over our heads as we ate under the picnic pavilion. Both Cliff and similar Cave Swallows were building nests here, providing wondrous opportunities to compare not only markings and shape differences but also varying vocalizations. This was another personal highlight for me as I find this an opportunity I don't often have. I'm sure the local Texans are bored with this by now though!

adult Cave Swallow digiscoped Corpus Christi, TX, ABA convention 4/09

Note the Cliff Swallow's dark chestnut throat and buffy forehead patch. The similar Cave Swallow has a lighter orange throat with a slightly darker chestnut forehead!

A big surprise for many was the lingering Whooping Cranes. These birds are regular here in the winter months but in most years would leave before this date, so no one had these on their expected lists! The image above is not my proudest digiscoped image, but it was taken at great distance from a moving boat at maximum zoom in horrible overcast light. It's what we call a documentation shot allowing us to document the sighting of this rare endangered species.

adult Whooping Crane, digiscoped from boat @ ABA Convention April 2009

America's birdiest city didn't disappoint and on a single morning's field trip our group tallied over 160 species of birds (cumulative total for the entire group)! Not exceptional perhaps for the birdiest city, but all of the experienced guides on this trip couldn't remember an organized field trip of this size in the US that we'd ever been on with a higher total! It is certainly birdy, there can be no doubt....