I remember the first time I took a photo of a bird with a cell phone and digiscope adapter. I was in North Dakota with Bill Thompson III more than a decade ago, and I was seeing my “lifer” Clark’s grebe through the lens of his scope. It was one of those epic moments in life I’ll never forget. One of the reasons I had come to North Dakota was in hopes of seeing a Clark’s grebe, my namesake bird. I’m a descendent of William Clark, and as a newer birder who had not birded much in the western U.S., I wanted to see the birds that Lewis and Clark had discovered so long ago during their great adventures out West.
Heeding the advice of friends, we had driven to a magical spot in the middle of nowhere where there was supposed to be a large colony of nesting grebes. After hours of searching, we finally found it. We climbed a hill that led to a marshy prairie. When I scanned the horizon with my binoculars, I saw more than 200 pairs of nesting grebes. The sound of those birds as we approached was magnificent and indescribable. I saw hundreds of western grebes, females on nests and males swimming around them. But could there be a Clark’s grebe among them? I was looking for a unique grebe in a grebe haystack. Western and Clark’s grebes are similar, but the red eye on the Clark’s sits on a white background rather than black, a very subtle difference. I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck or sheer determination, but my eager new birder eyes managed to find the only pair of nesting Clark’s grebes among hundreds of birds. We danced and hollered as veteran Bill helped celebrate this new birder’s great find. Then we both stood there and cried in silence, soaking in the beauty of the moment. This is what birding is all about and will forever be one of my favorite memories in this life.
Bill quickly set up his Leica scope and brand-new Phone Skope digiscope adapter. It was a contraption attached to his cell phone that looked like something James Bond might use on a spy mission. He quickly focused the scope on the Clark’s grebe, (he was so darn fast with that scope!), then attached his cell phone to the scope with the James Bond connector, tapped his phone screen repeatedly to get the focus just right, and said, “Here you go. You can take your first digiscoped photo of your lifer Clark’s grebe.” And, so I did. I pushed the little red button at the bottom of the phone screen that snapped the photo, and I took my very first digiscoped bird photo. It was proof that I had seen this beautiful bird with my own eyes and could now add it to my life list.
Ten years ago, when I took this photo, I was not yet comfortable using a spotting scope. I didn’t even own one. I was completely reliant on other folks who were more proficient and could show me birds through their scopes. I was newer to birding and was just trying to take it all in. I was learning to ID birds, identify bird songs and calls, and I was just getting comfortable with finding birds in my binoculars. A few years later I got my first spotting scope and began to overcome my intimidation and fear of spotting scope use. (You can read about that in Part 1 of this blog series.) But it would be years later before I felt confident enough to attempt digiscoping on my own.
The kind folks at Phone Skope provided me with my own James Bond digiscope adapter when I got my first scope in 2013. I played with it a bit and tried to give it a go, but I wasn’t ready. Honestly, I was still trying to get comfortable with the spotting scope itself. The added pressure of learning to taking digiscoped photos was not something I was ready for back then, so my digiscope adapter sat in my drawer for about five years, unused and unloved. However, I kept learning. I worked with veteran digiscopers in the field—people like Clay Taylor at Swarovski, Robert Wilson and Jeff Bouton at KOWA, and Bill Thompson. They showed me how to get a scope on a bird more quickly, how to focus with my cell phone, how to center the bird in the frame, how to adjust the lighting, and how to take great bird photos with a cell phone, digiscope adapter, and spotting scope. But watching the masters do it and having them show me is one thing; doing it myself was another. I like to watch pro tennis players, too, but my own tennis game looks nothing like the pros I love to watch.
My desire to take bird photos continued to grow over time, for several reasons. First, I was traveling around the world with my job and getting to see amazing birds and habitat, but with no photos of my own! I wanted a personal record of what I was seeing. Although I worked in the birding business, I had no aspirations of becoming a good (or even a bad) bird photographer. I had the pleasure of looking at stunning bird photos every day in my job, and I was surrounded by amazing photographers with years of experience. Instead, over time, I simply became ready to take my personal birding experience to the next level. I wanted personally photographed evidence of the birds I was seeing, and I longed to create my own photo memories of these experiences. So, in the brilliant words of the Nike brand, I knew I had to “Just Do It.”
In late 2019, I got a new Kowa TSN-883 Prominar spotting scope, and it was a dream come true for me. I’d been using a very entry-level Vanguard scope for about six years at that point, and I was ready to level-up. The Kowa scope was the best bang-for-my-buck, and its performance was rated higher than some spotting scopes that cost twice as much. I was thrilled to have it, I loved using it, and I took a few months that winter to become familiar with it like you would a new car. I took it out birding all the time and became comfortable enough that it felt like an extension of me when I was birding, like my binoculars are.
After reaching a comfort level with my new scope, I called my friend Kiara Neilsen at Phone Skope and ordered a new digiscope adapter. The old one that had been sitting in my drawer for eight years would not work because I had a different cell phone and a different brand and size of spotting scope than I’d had before. Phone Skope makes a phone case that fits your specific phone, and a round piece that attaches to that case that fits your specific scope and eye piece. There are a few other manufacturers of digiscoping equipment, but Phone Skope is my favorite. I personally prefer a “specifically-sized” adapter that has been designed for my phone and scope rather than a “universal adapter.” Most birders I know also prefer this, although some folks use universal adapters with success.
Kiara shipped me the new adapter, and I was ready to try digiscoping again. I was heading to the San Diego Birding Festival in February 2020, which was a birding paradise, and a great opportunity to take my adapter for a spin. I knew that my friend and digiscoping expert Jeff Bouton would be there, too. We were scheduled for a few birding tours together, and I was hoping he could perhaps help me with my digiscoping re-entry. I got a quick tutorial from Jeff and some wonderful photos of a western bluebird that day. I was back in the saddle.
Jeff was kind enough to refamiliarize me with the basics of digiscoping. I had to download the new app from Phone Skope, which was very important because I now needed to use this app to take photos. I could no longer just use the adapter with the camera on my phone. This is because I have an iPhone 12 Pro Max that has three cameras, and the Phone Skope app works with the three cameras to help you choose the right one for each photo. Sometimes I still forget to use the app, and when I do, my digicoped photos look like this!
Little did we know in February 2020 that the COVID-19 global pandemic was making its way across the globe to the US. That trip to San Diego in February 2020 was the last time I was on an airplane for a long while. Personal travel came to a screeching halt, our country was put on lockdown, and our lives would be forever changed.
With time on my hands, spring approaching, and the ability to get outside, I began digiscoping more and more throughout 2020 and into 2021. The best thing about taking digiscoped photos on your phone is that you can take lots of them and you can delete them if you want to! But I decided to keep all my photos, even the bad ones, so that I could track my progress. Persistence pays off with digiscoping, as does patience. Here are some photos that were horrible with the first try but got better as I learned to adjust the focus and lighting a bit.
The toughest things for me in learning to digiscope are (1) getting on the bird before it escapes and (2) setting up a clear shot. I just have to stay with it, keep taking photos, and eventually I end up with a few good ones in the bunch. Fortunately, in this digital age we can take as many photos as we like with no development costs! This is perfect for someone like me who is learning by doing, in my trial-by-error school of mistakes.
Are you new to digiscoping like me, or are you thinking about trying it? Are you ready to take your birding game to the next level? This is a great way to enhance your birding experience, to learn more about birds and gear, and to get an up-close look at the natural world around you. Believe me, if I can learn to do this, anybody can! I’m not a techie person. I don’t like equipment. I’m impatient and I’m not good with technical details. But I’m slowly learning to photograph birds through my scope with a digiscope adapter, and I’m having FUN! I really enjoy it! I was inspired by friends who’ve been doing this for years, and I really thought I’d never be able to do it myself. But I AM doing it, and I’m getting better all the time.
I’d humbly like to share a few things I’m learning as a beginner digiscoper. I’m not going to get super-technical about things like lighting, clarity, and focus because each scope, phone, app, and adapter is different. There are lots of instructional videos out there that can help you fine-tune your skills. But I’ll share some basic lessons I’m learning that might help you get started, and hopefully get over that hump of digiscoping fear and intimidation like I did.
10 Helpful Hints for Beginning Digiscopers
- Use the best digiscoping equipment you can afford. You’ll need a cell phone with a camera, a spotting scope mounted on a tripod, and a digiscope adapter. If you already have a spotting scope, you can contact Redstart Birding or Phone Skope and order a digiscope adapter that is made specifically for your phone and your spotting scope. You’ll need to be ready with the exact make and model of your scope, and the exact phone you have. You can usually find the scope info on the body of your scope, and your phone’s make and model information are found in the settings area on your phone. If you don’t have a spotting scope, there are many to choose from at all different price points. You can get a good entry-level scope for around $500, and they range from $500 to $5,000, but I recommend getting comfortable with your spotting scope before diving into digiscoping.
- Begin in your own backyard. Do you have bird feeders at home? Do you have nesting birds in your yard? This is a perfect place to begin. Set up your digiscoping rig within view of your bird feeders and begin by taking photos at your feeders. Birds at feeders are eating, they are more stationary, and they are easier to capture in a photo. I kept a spotting scope set up near my kitchen window for several years because we had nesting bald eagles behind our property. I never got great photos, but it was fun watching the parents and eaglets each spring, and it helped me learn. Even my non-birding college kids were interested! If you begin in your own backyard, you can take your time getting comfortable with the equipment rather than having to carry it around and set it up when you’re birding out in the field.
- Take lots of photos. Read your instructions, but don’t be afraid to just do it. Start taking photos and see what happens! You’ll start learning more about how your digiscoping app works, and about how to fine-tune your photos over time.
- Photograph larger birds first, then graduate to smaller, more active birds. When you’re ready to venture out of your backyard, find a birdy lake, pond, ocean, or river nearby. Waders like egrets and herons can stand still for long periods of time while they’re hunting for their next meal, and that’s a perfect place to begin. Ducks and waterfowl are easier to follow as they swim than are warblers, songbirds, and swallows. Shorebirds are often easy to digiscope because they spend a lot of time walking. Find a hotspot near you that has lots of waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders, and you’ll be able to hone your skills quickly without having to chase elusive, flighty birds with your scope.
- Go birding by yourself, or with a patient birding friend. When you’re birding with a group, it’s harder work on your digiscoping skills. I recommend getting out there on your own so that you have fewer distractions. You can take your time, learn at your own pace, and make mistakes without anyone watching over your shoulder. Schedule some personal digiscoping time and get out there and try it! When you’re feeling more confident you can begin digiscoping with friends and birding groups. They’ll be amazed at what you’ve learned!
- Educate yourself. There are lots of YouTube videos about digiscoping and how to improve your skills. There are many photo editing apps for your phone and computer that will make your good photos even better! As you become more confident, you can keep learning by researching, reading, and watching how-to videos. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll learn and improve.
- Ask for help. Is there someone in your circle of birders who is already digiscoping? I’m sure they would be happy to go out with you and show you some pointers like my friends did with me. I learn better when someone shows me something rather than reading instructions, and having people help me has been critical for me as I learn. Are you planning to attend a birding event or festival sometime soon? Ask about digiscoping workshops and sign up for them. Most birding festivals offer digiscoping workshops with experts who are happy to help you learn. Be sure and bring your rig with you so they can see what you’re doing, and you can share your challenges and areas where you’d like to improve.
- Stay with it. I was good at digiscoping when I had experts with me, but when I tried it on my own, I was terrible. But I’m sticking with it because I want to learn, I want to improve, and I want to grow. Don’t give up! My photos have gone from this… to this in just a short time!
- Start a digiscoping life list. This is a fun thing to do as you begin photographing birds in various habitats. Start a life list of birds you’ve digiscoped, even if the photos aren’t award-winning pictures. This will encourage you to broaden your horizons over time and start going after birds that may be a bit more challenging.
- Have fun! This is the only thing that keeps me going. I’m not trying to be the world’s best digiscoper or to produce award-winning photos. I just want to have fun with this, and I know you will, too. It can be frustrating at first, but when you capture that first halfway-decent photo you’ll be thrilled! Get out there and have fun with it!
Trust me, if I can overcome my fear, intimidation, and lack of skill, anyone can! I hope you’ll be encouraged by my failures and my slow growth, and it will inspire you to try this.
Maybe the next time I see you, we can pull out our cell phones and laugh together as we compare our bad photos and growing digiscoping life lists. Most of all, I hope we can encourage each other to keep on digiscoping!
About the Author
Wendy Clark is the president and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a career communications specialist, and an avid birder. She has three children and two grandchildren, and lives in Marietta, Ohio.