Digiscoping – don’t forget video!

The video facility on digital cameras is an oft-forgotten function. When digiscoping most birders tend to concentrate on getting a nice still image of their target, and forget about the excellent video possibilities. Video especially comes in to its own if conditions are difficult, or if a rarity pops up unexpectedly. These are situations when composition, exposure, and sharpness aren’t your first consideration and just getting any representation of what you’re seeing is paramount.

Unlike the stills side of digiscoping, not many digital cameras have too much in the way of settings for video. There is usually quality (whether it’s HD quality, or lower) and you often have exposure compensation, but not often much more. This is good. It’s less for you to worry about messing around with and getting right (or horribly wrong if played with too much!)

Corn Bunting video taken with a Nikon V1, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, and 20x eyepiece. Loaded straight from the camera in to Vimeo.

If I see rarity and I realise a visual record is needed, I very often turn to video first – just to get something if the views are only fleeting (as is often the case). Turning straight to video means I only have to concentrate on pointing my scope at the bird and getting the focus right. Video also means you can often follow a bird easier – there is no ‘shutter’ blacking out your view like when taking stills. Try digiscoping a flicking warbler at close quarters, or a skimming Black Tern – almost impossible to get stills of. Video however means you can follow both these targets with relative ease.

There are several things that will make your video better though. The first is a decent tripod head. For good video a nice smooth panning action is a must, especially if you want to follow that dipping Black Tern over your local lake. A nicely balanced fluid video head with geared pan and tilt is the optimum, but there are many cheaper alternatives which will work too, especially if you have a smaller scope and ligher setup. The second thing which will help your videoing is an electric viewfinder (or EVF). This means instead of following your subject by looking at the back of your camera screen, you can use just one eye like you would looking through a DSLR. It makes following things much easier and without interferring light and reflections or distractions.

Another advantage with video is that it is more forgiving when it comes to bad light and long distances. I can often find that I can bump my scopes zoom right up to 60x, and my camera zoom up to its maximum, and still get pretty decent video. If I tried those zoom settings with stills the resulting loss in light would often leave me with just blurred images. With video, the fact that you are shooting moving images means that critical sharpness is less of an issue, and any speckling resulting from high ISO’s is less noticable. Video is often the only way I can capture something useful from a distant bird in an evening gull roost for instance. Trying to get usable stills would be almost impossible.

Give it a go. You might surprise yourself at the quality.

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