I’ve been embracing this whole lighter, faster, cheaper and more effective thing for photography lately, which if you are into SLR based photography can be a little demanding. A complete traditional SLR photography kit can get rather weighty if you are into gear, even a little bit and if you are interested in wildlife photography or bird photography, your kit can start to get very expensive and resemble crew served weapons with heavy duty tripods , 24in long, 10lb camera lenses and bandoliers full of batteries. I’ve been looking for a solution to this and the digiscoping world has had it for some time, but until now, you’ve had to make some serious image quality compromises. This however, is no longer. The last couple of years have seen dramatic improvements in non-SLR camera systems, but a champion system for digiscoping has recently emerged. The best cameras for digiscoping are now, clearly the Fuji X-Series cameras.
I’ll elaborate on that statement below, but first, some background: What is digiscoping? Essentially its using a digital camera connected to a spotting scope or more uncommonly, a telescope. This approach has been increasingly popular over the past decade as people discover the joys of photographing small or distant objects in the natural world. Why do this? Why not just go all SLR with big lenses? Everything is a compromise, but fundamentally, the optics in spotting scopes can be *very* good and yet are smaller and far less expensive than SLR lenses of equivalent focal length. And in the case of the astrophotography community, there are no SLRs with the resolving power possible with a telescope. The problem for the past decade has been 1) how to connect the camera and the scope and 2) the quality of the imaging sensors to collect the available light. In astrophotography, C-mounts and dedicated small, even cooled CCD cameras have been the way to go to reduce noise, but in digiscoping, typically the approach has been to use a point and shoot camera and hand hold it as the small lens/aperture size makes it possible to approximate the eyepiece and “see” what the eye sees through the scope. Essentially, what you are creating with this approach is an afocal system that has no intrinsic convergence or divergence of the image forming beam.
This approach is very difficult to handhold however and leads to uneven success in getting the photograph you want. Different adapters and brackets have emerged over the past few years to make it possible to mount cameras more securely to the scope and ensure a consistent sight picture. There are even mounts for SLRs. The problem with an SLR and digiscoping of course has been size or bulk, not to mention a moving mirror flapping around inducing vibrations and therefore blurring the image at longer focal lengths revealing the distinct historical advantage of point and shoot or mirrorless cameras with electronic shutters. This solution has compromises of course and that has been the image quality of the point and shoot sensors or mirrorless cameras until I’d argue, just this year which could not rival that seen in SLRs. The last year everything changed with image quality on smaller cameras as Sony, Olympus and Fuji released new mirrorless cameras with dramatically improved sensors that create amazing images, and shoot in raw.
Which brings us to the X-Trans Sensor and the X-Series of cameras from Fuji. If you are following along, you know how enamored of this little camera system I’ve become in the last couple of months. Because of its size and the flexibility and inherent qualities in the Fuji imaging sensor, a natural extension was seeing where I could take it with digiscoping.
Its been interesting to watch as whole industries have sprouted up to support various aspects of digiscoping for niche markets like the birding community by creating various mounts for different spotting scopes and camera combinations. I’ve experimented with a number of them and have now come to the conclusion that the absolute best combination is the Fuji X-Series cameras with a T2 adapter that matches the optical path for the APS-C sensor. While I’ve been using this setup for some time to image birds, and planetary bodies like the Sun and the Moon, that older approach did not completely isolate light coming into the camera system and I was still dealing with a point and shoot camera sensor, albeit a good one in the Canon S100. What I’ve done now is moved to a T2 mount from Novoflex to completely isolate the optical path of the Fuji X-Series and mount it directly to the spotting scope which is a far better solution. There are likely other T2 adapters out there for the Fuji X-mount, but the Novoflex is insanely well made and finished and their standards of quality ensure that the focal plane will be right on the sensor where you want it. I should also mention that while I’m digiscoping with the Fuji X-Pro1, the Fuji XE-1 is likely a much better digiscoping camera than the X-Pro1 as it is slightly smaller, lighter, has the same X-Trans sensor and there is no point in having an optical viewfinder on a digiscoping camera.
As soon as I had a Fuji camera in my hand, there were plans to test out the Fuji X-Trans sensor on a spotting scope. But when Fuji recently released the firmware update with focus peaking, that put it over the top in terms of usability for a digiscoping camera. In the animated gif immediately above, you can see how Fuji’s implementation of focus peaking works. Essentially, in this animation, I swept the focus from front to back and the areas of the image that are in sharpest focus are artificially enhanced to increase contrast, showing you precisely where the image is being focused. For digiscoping this is a huge advantage as you are typically out in either very low light or very bright environments and the subjects you are trying to photograph can be small and fast moving. Therefore, anything that helps to rapidly see where your focal plane is, particularly in the difficult light when birds are out and doing their thing is a huge advantage.
While focus peaking on mirrorless cameras has been around for a little while, starting with the Sony NEX cameras back in 2011, the combination of focus peaking with the Fuji X-Trans sensor’s sharpness, color rendition, pixel layout just made the X-Series cameras the ideal camera for digiscoping. Its important to note that part of the reason digiscoping is a more affordable solution to longer distance photography is because focusing with a digiscoping approach is a manual affair as the spotting scope does without the expensive autofocus electronics inherent in SLR telephoto lenses. When you realize this, you can see the inherent advantage to focus peaking.
Aside from focus peaking, there are other advantages to the Fuji X-Trans sensor. While Sony is currently making some of the best imaging sensors out there, amongst mirrorless cameras, the X-Trans sensor appears to have the best dynamic range performance. While I don’t have any quantitative measurements, to my eye and some informal histogram peeping between Fuji, Sony, Nikon (Sony sensors) and Canon sensors, suggests that the Fuji X-trans sensor has the best dynamic range. Images have more visible information in them and there is more room in the raw images to pull details out if desired. And because digiscoping occurs in the very early or late portions of the day, dynamic range is an important factor. As light falls off, you have to compensate by increasing the ISO. But at high ISO, dynamic range is reduced. Fortunately, high ISO performance on the X-Trans sensor is truly impressive. To my eye, the high ISO performance of the Fuji X-Pro1 exceeds that of the Canon 1DX that is spending increasingly more time on the shelf. The two images above for instance were made with the Fuji X-Pro1 at ISO 2000 and 4000 respectively with the second one in completely failing light. These images are essentially straight out of the camera with no additional noise reduction or sharpening to it, yet the image is sharp, has good contrast, detail and color saturation all while preserving information in both highlights and in the shadows. Additionally, the fundamental pixel layout of the X-Trans sensor prevents moiré which can be a problem with repeating, high frequency patterns (like bird feathers). Because of this, there is no aliasing filter on the Fuji X-Trans imaging sensor like on other cameras which degrades sharpness and is absolutely critical when photographing birds.
As I mentioned before, using a dedicated optical coupler like the Novoflex Fuji T2 solution rather that using an eyepiece helps preserve the optical path and reduces lost or stray light from entering or leaving the sensor. This approach gives the sharpest, flattest image formation on your sensor. The other component of this equation is the spotting scope and the adapter from the spotting scope to the T2 adapter that interfaces with the camera. So, for the spotting scope component of this setup, I’ve chosen the Zeiss Diascope with the photo adapter which makes for a 1000mm equivalent lens with the 85mm scope or a 770mm equivalent lens with the 65mm scope, both at f/12. The f/12 is the bad part, but exceptionally good spotting scopes can be had new or used for around $1000, with gorgeous optics that have minimal chromatic or other aberrations, that is not a bad deal compared to spending oh… $14,000-18,000 on an 800mm SLR lens that is considerably bigger, more complex and *heavy*. I’ll get to the weight issue below, but as we talked about above, the good news is that high ISO performance of the Fuji X-Trans is truly exceptional, particularly at higher ISOs. So, in failing light, crank up the ISO on the Fuji cameras without fear. The image of the house sparrow at the beginning of this post was made at ISO 2,500 and looks absolutely gorgeous with nice color fidelity and amazing detail and almost no noise.
Aside from the whole image quality, the biggest advantage to this approach gets back to the whole weight and bulk argument. One of the fundamental appeals of digiscoping as a concept is the ability to photograph wildlife and nature while carrying a minimal amount of gear compared to what you’d have to haul along for an SLR based system. For instance, were one shooting wildlife with an SLR say… 2-10 miles off the road somewhere, you might have an SLR, preferably a pro body, a big lens in the range of 600-800mm and a tripod to hold said camera/lens combination. With my 1DX we are at 3lbs just for the camera. An 800mm lens is an additional 10lbs. The tripod and associated head gear is another 8-12lbs on top of that making for ~23-26lbs just for the basic camera gear, not to mention a backup body or any other lenses or batteries. I’ve carried, literally a 40lb pack full of camera gear up a mountain with Marines half my age carrying the same weight in a combat carry. I earned respect that day, but would gladly have gone without it for half the weight. And when photographing wildlife, I don’t want to be working nearly as hard as I did on that day.
In contrast to that day and the ~40lb pack, for a 1000mm equivalent digiscoping setup, you are looking at a Fuji X-Pro1, adapter, spotting scope, head and tripod combination that weighs less than 8.23lbs or less than 1/3rd the weight of an SLR system. Granted, this is presuming you have a light weight tripod like a carbon fiber model, but its still a dramatically lighter system to have to pack around. It takes some practice and the approach is different than SLR based photography, but you can go lighter, faster and cheaper and if you have more energy to shoot rather than suck air, you are working more effectively. Not to mention you can spend the money you save on nicer tripods and airplane tickets to exotic locales.
Is this an ideal system? Well, no system is perfect and there are some imperfections with this approach and I do have a couple of suggestions for the next revisions of Fuji’s X-System cameras: 1) My main objection with Fuji’s implementation of focus peaking is that when you press the shutter release half way down, focus peaking reverts to non-focus peaking on the preview screen. I see why they did this for image preview purposes and perhaps with more use, it will make better sense. But what I’d like to see is simply, having focus peaking maintained, then show a brief preview of the recently captured image on the back screen after the image has been captured, or make focus peaking display behavior like this an option in the menu. Also, when shooting fast moving objects (like hummingbirds), you can rapidly fill up a buffer when shooting at the Fuji X-Pro1’s 6fps continuous shooting mode and can miss a few shots while waiting for the buffer to clear. Having a faster write cycle would help tremendously and I suspect that the next Fuji X-Series revisions will at least address the faster image write out issue.
While we are talking tripods, for digiscoping I am currently using a Manfrotto 190Cx carbon fiber model with a ball head that is acceptable, but I’m looking for more stability and a smoother, more controlled method of panning and positioning the scope. Gitzo (same parent company) has a solution specifically dedicated to birding with a truly unique head that I am quite intrigued with for all purpose digiscoping. You will find that like shooting with really long SLR lenses, that smoothness of panning and positioning of the scope will be a pretty big deal. Therefore, you don’t want: a “grabby” head or a ball solution that unexpectedly rotates along an undesired axis. You do want: predictable tension and smooth motion on any transitions which will help you to get the sight picture you want. You also want a solution that will let you make subtle adjustments with very little pressure or force which causes all sorts of vibrations and movements of your platform resulting in blurry images. There are a number of combinations, but the one I am eyeballing is a Gitzo Birdwatching head with a Gitzo Traveler tripod. Not a cheap solution though, and I hate to think of what I’ve spent on monopods and tripods over the years, but this will be rigid and lightweight solution while providing all the control needed. And it’ll be the *last* tripod you will ever purchase…<nudge, nudge, wink, wink>.