Author Archives: Steve Blain

Why I chose a GX7 for digiscoping

By Steve Blain

Although I was generally happy with my Nikon V1 for digiscoping, I was looking for a step up in image quality.  The new wave of micro four-thirds cameras and high end compacts are giving excellent results, but which one to go for?  A bit of a crunch point came when my Nikon V1 lens started to malfunction, so I took the oportunity to get a new camera.

My Nikon V1 on my Swarovski ATS 80 HD and some Pine Warblers. Florida, January 2015

I was looking at a range of options.  My short-list included the Panasonic GH4, GH3, GX7, Sony NEX 6, A6000, RX100 mk2 and RX100 mk3, and Nikon V3.  For a handy side-by-side comparison of them all on DPreview.com click here.

They all seemed to have fantastic image quality but the ergonomics varied.  The questions I asked myself were these

  • Electronic View Finder – How much do I want or need an electronic view finder (EVF)? Some models had one as standard, others they were optional, and the quality of the EVF’s also varied.
  • Video quality and function – as I turn to this medium regularly to capture behaviour, good video capability was necessary.
  • Cost – Always a factor, with the highest value being the Panasonic GH4 (over £1200) down to the ‘cheapest’ being the Sony RX100 mk2 (at around £350).
  • Connectivity to my scope – will I have to purchase a new digiscoping adapter to make any new camera fit to my scopes eyepieces? A new adapter would add to the total cost.
  • Track record – how many other digiscopers use each camera?
  • How old are the cameras – were the manufacturers just about to bring out a new model with better specs?

 

Which camera?

Almost all the digiscoping ‘names’ online are now using a Panasonic GH4 for their digiscoping.  There are still a few who favour the Sony RX100 compact line but these are very much in the minority.  However, that option was certainly the least expensive out of those I’ve listed, and when I tested an RX100 in Cyprus the other year it produced lovely results, but I found the focus hard to acheive while only using the back screen to focus (no EVF).  The Mk2 version has an optional EVF, but this bumps up the price considerably and the Mk3 version has a built-in EVF but the resolution of it isn’t terribly high (in fact it is the same as my V1).  These are the only true compact cameras I considered looking at.  However, if I chose any of them I would need a new digiscoping adapter too.

The Nikon V3 looked an interesting option but the two digiscopers I knew had used one were not terribly impressed with the image quality (still a bit noisey), so that was out.  The two Sony’s were interesting too, but again the couple of digiscopers I know who had used them weren’t terribly impressed with their images either and had soon swapped cameras.

This brought be right back round to the tried and tested Panasonic micro 4/3’s line up – the GH4, GH3, and the GX7.  Out of the three the GH3 was the oldest – and the one Justin Carr uses.  Obviously this is a brilliant camera and produces great results but it has slightly older technology than in the GH4 and GX7.  So was the decision down to the GH4 and GX7?  There are three main differences between them – video quality, EVF quiality and price.  The video on the GH4 is 4K and on the GX7 it is standard HD – the price of the GX7 is around half that of the GH4 – and the EVF of the GH4 is bigger and brighter (although the resolution is similar).  Was the 4K video and nicer EVF really worth an extra £500?

I’d done some reading up around 4K video and what it really meant.  There is no doubt the quality of the video is far higher than anything else out there – each video frame is the equivilent of an 8 megapixel stills image!  However, it really eats your memory (they are huge files!) and you need a very powerful computer to work with the files too.  That said, the ability to take 30 frames a second of 8 megapixel images for almost half an hour means you could capture some fantastic images!  Very appealing indeed, however, we’re really at the birth of this type of technology in consumer cameras and the GH4 was the first to bring it to a mass market.  Working with such huge file sizes frame by frame also takes a totally different working approach and my computer would probably stuggle with them too.  I was leaning away from a GH4 on this factor alone.  However, given a couple more years, I suspect 4K video will become the norm, and certainly for birding and digiscoping it will open up a whole new world for capturing birds in incredible detail.

So where did that leave me?  It appeared we had a winner – the Panasonic GX7.  The other advantage this camera had over both the GH4 and the GH3 was size.  This is a much smaller range-finder type of camera and fits far better in a small shoulder bag than either of its bigger brothers would.

 

Lenses

The Panasonic 20mm f1.7 is widely regarded as one of the best lenses available for digiscoping on micro four-thirds cameras.  Unfortunately you are limited to manual focusing with it but with ‘focus peaking’ (dancing coloured pixels that show up around anything that is in focus) and a good EVF this process is fairly straight forward.  It is a also a short ‘pancake’ lens and in-keeping with my desire for a compact digiscoping set-up.

However, I was keen for more reach and the ability to use auto-focus.  After much research one lens stood out – the Olympus 14-42mm.  This compact zoom lenses construction made it vignette much less than the Panasonic equivalent and as it has all internal focusing, auto-focus works well too.  However, on using this lens for a while it is clear the coatings aren’t as good as the 20mm f1.7 – the colours aren’t as vivid and the contrast is lower with the zoom.  I am now wondering whether a fixed 30mm or 45mm lens will give me the boost I’m after for distant birds?  Another option is to use a conversion adapter with my Canon 50mm f1.8 lens – I am currently testing this out.

 

Which eyepiece to use?

Of course more reach could be achieved with the zoom on the scopes eyepiece – as I use a Swarovski ATS 80 HD the 25-50x would be the best to use.  However, thank’s to a chat to Justin Carr, the fixed 30x eyepiece seemed to be the one to use for quality – and so it has proven.

Spotted Flycatcher taken with the Panasonic GX7, 20mm f.1.7 lens, Swarovski ATS 80 HD and 30x eyepiece – quality.

Connectivity to my scope

Once I’d decided which camera to go for this became much simpler.  The GX7 being a rangefinder style camera is much lighter than the GH series, and which most digiscopers use with a platform type of adapter, connecting to the tripod bush below the camera.  I wanted to use my current gear which includes one of the very first adapters Swarovski made – the DCA.  It is still a very effective ‘bucket’ design which screws on to the lens of your camera and simply slots over the top of your eyepiece.  I like it a lot – it is quick, simple and has never let me down.

Don’t get me wrong, a platform adapter is probably the best all round design – it doesn’t put a strain on the filter thread of your lenses like the DCA does and it makes for a very secure fit to your scope.  However it also makes your whole set up more bulky and heavier too.  I’m still very much a birder first and digiscoper second so these last two points are important to consider when looking at the overall picture.

Now, all I need to do is make sure I could connect my lenses to one of my various DCA front plates.  The Olympus has a 37mm filter thread so that was easy – it went straight on the 37mm front plate.  The Panasonic 20mm was a bit more difficult as it has a 46mm filter thread.  This needed a stepping ring to match it to my 52mm front plate (very simply ordered off the internet).

Panasonic GX7, 46mm-52mm stepping ring, and Swarovski DCA adapter

 

So the next big question was – is there going to be any vignetting when using the lenses with my eyepieces?  Well, yes and no.  The Olympus does vignette, as expected, at the low end of its zoom range.  But this disappears at around 18mm – so very usable indeed.  The 20mm was just as good on the 30x eyepiece with no vignetting, and the same on the 25-50x.  However there was significant vignetting with the 20x eyepiece.  This was a bit disappointing as I really love using this eyepiece for close stuff.  I managed to work around this issue with a different digiscoping adapter I have though, so all was not lost.

The last thing to do was to test each eyepiece and lens combination to see which produced the best results.  I am still running through these, but I did have a tip-off from Justin Carr about what his favorite was – the fixed 30x eyepiece and 20mm f1.7 lens.  And he was absolutely right, in the few brief tests I’ve done this combo has been excellent and is currently my ‘go to’ set up for quality shots.

So, there you have it – my process for deciding on which camera to get for digiscoping, and how I resolved attaching it to my scope.

My new digiscoping set-up. Just what I’m after – compact, light, quick to attach and takes fantastic images and video.

Time for a change

By Steve Blain

It was time for a new digiscoping camera earlier in the year, but which one to go for? I couldn’t decide whether to go for another compact camera, or to move up to a micro four-thirds.  A lot of research later and talking to a few friends for advice I made the leap and purchased a Panasonic GX7 and 20mm f1.7 lens.

I will follow this post up soon with one about my current set up and how it connects to my scope – it’s very straight forward.  Needless to say I am very pleased with it and how it performs.  Below are some of the shots I’ve taken during the last couple of months – all of them link through to larger images so please click on them and take a closer look.

All shot using a Swarovski ATS 80 HD with either the 30x fixed eyepiece or the 25-50x zoom.

Yellowhammer, Broom GP

Robin, Biggleswade

Corn Bunting, Biggleswade Common (shot at ISO 2000)

Dartford Warbler

Little Gull, Broom GP

Grasshopper Warbler, Willington GP

Meadow Pipit, Biggleswade

Meadow Pipit, Biggleswade

Meadow Pipit, Biggleswade

iPhonescoping

By Steve Blain

It just so happened that while Justin was in Florida for the World Digiscopers meeting I was also in Florida for a holiday.  A family holiday.  Definitely not a birding holiday.
But maybe a holiday with a little birding.  And by complete coincidence some of the places we ended up going for a walk were great birding spots too!  Although you can’t really fail to see great birds all around Florida – from flocks of White Ibis in your yard, Eastern Phoebes on your mailbox, and Palm Warblers hopping around your drive, to Sandhill Cranes along the central reservations of the freeways and Ring-billed Gulls trying to steal your sandwiches on the beach! The confiding nature of some of these birds gave me an opportunity to try out my new telephone…

Green Heron, Viera Wetlands

Painted Bunting, Merrit Island (shot using the HDR setting to retain some details in the over-exposed area of the feeder in the sunshine)

Great White Egret, Gatorland

Snowy Egret, Gatorland

Reddish Egret, Merrit Island

Aligator, Gatorland

White Ibis, Gatorland

All images in this post were taken with an iPhone 6, hand-held to a Swarovski ATS 80 HD, and 25-50x eyepiece.

A confiding Barred Warbler

By Steve Blain

Sometimes skulking warblers re-write the books and allow you to digiscope them!

I was up in Norfolk back in September and this Barred Warbler was at Salthouse with a Yellow-browed Warbler.  It was a bit breezy which made trying to even see the Yellow-browed a little tricky!  However the Barred Warbler less than a hundred meters away had other ideas.  It had found some nice thick brambles to hide in out of the wind.  It was outrageously showy (for a Barred Warbler)!


All digiscoped with a Nikon V1, 10-30mm lens, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 25-50x eyepiece and DCA adapter.

 

Digiscoped Hoopoe

Steve Blain

Hoopoes are always wonderful birds to see, even better when you can get stunningly close views and get some images too

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It seems like an age since I’ve had some decent digiscoping opportunities.  In the last couple of weeks I’ve had two brilliant encounters.  The first was a couple of weeks ago with a Barred Warbler (but more of that later) and today’s was a local Hoopoe.

This bird was originally seen five days ago over a mile away by a girl walking her dog.  She told her mum about it and described the bird.  They looked it up on the internet and took a picture round to the local ‘bird man’.  He put out the news on the local email group the next day but there was no sign in the original area.  Several birders then started checking the local paddocks, just in case.  One local birder had basically given up looking and decided to take his camera out to photograph his new puppy along a local lane.  He gazed over to a paddock at the end of the lane and bingo!  The bird has shown fantastically well ever since.

This evening it was showing exceptionally well in the paddock, seemingly feeding along the shadow lines of the wooden fence.  It was certainly finding plenty to eat!

Hoopoe, Willington, Bedfordshire, 7th October 2014. Digiscoped using a Nikon V1, 10-30mm lens, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, and 25-50x eyepiece.

Just add light

Steve Blain
 

A family holiday with a bit of digiscoping on the side!

I’m just back from a family holiday in Cyprus.  Fortunately for me I have a very understanding partner and was allowed out for a couple of hours each day to go birding on this superb island.

 I stayed at the west end near Paphos, very near some wonderful migration hotspots which gave some excellent digiscoping opportunities.  The main locations I visited included Paphos headland, Mandria, Agia Vavara, and Aspro Dam.  Early mornings and evenings were best for the light – but what a difference the light makes!  Compared to the dreary insipid UK winter, the difference in quality of the images is vast. 

Below are some of the shots I managed.  I have to add these were all taken with a Sony RX100 on loan to me from Paul Hackett – many thanks, Paul.  This camera produced some fantastic results with the quality of the 20 megapixel sensor being excellent.  The only fault I found with it is the autofocus, which can be slow to lock on to your subject, or sometimes misses it completely.  Compared to my Nikon V1 the autofocus is still a world away.  However the quality of the images when you get it right, is a huge improvement.

Black-headed Wagtail

Isabelline Wheatear

 

Red-throated Pipit

 

Chuckar

Cretzschmar’s Bunting

 

Black-eared Wheatear

Crested Lark

Tawny Pipit

 

Black-headed Wagtail

 

Wryneck

 

Sardinian Warbler

 

Green Sandpiper

 

Collared Flycatcher

All taken with a Sony RX100, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, 20x or 25-50x eyepieces, and a DCA adapter.

Norfolk Parrots

Steve Blain
A rare opportunity to go birding in some sunshine this winter meant looking for Parrot Crossbills, but such fantastic views got in the way of doing some digiscoping!

Check out that bird top-left – a bill like a macaw!

It was my first chance to get out in some sunshine for weeks so I headed up to Norfolk.  The flock of Parrot Crossbills at Holt Country Park were the main object of my desires so we headed there first.  We heard them as soon as we got out the car – but they headed off over our heads and away.  That was the last we saw of them!  After a couple of hours we decided to move on.

The divers off Stiffkey were distant, but were in good company with a handful of Long-tailed Ducks, a Slav Grebe, a Black Brant type, and a spanking Med Gull.  Unfortunately none of this stuff was very digiscopable!  As it was now lunchtime we headed back to Holt to try and find the Parrots again.

As we pulled up in the car park we glanced over to the clearfell and could see a group of birders stood in the middle.  A quick look at the bare pine above them and there were crossbills!  Hastily getting the scopes out and zooming in a little revealed their gloriously humongous bills!  We hurried over to the group of birders.

The group of 15 Parrot Crossbills were all teed up on the dead pine and would occasionally drop down to a small puddle to take a sip of water.  Of course I missed them coming down to drink every time as I was too busy actually looking at how huge the bills were.  Some of these birds were approaching ‘Macaw Crossbills’, not merely Parrots!  Sometimes you have to forsake getting images for the pure pleasure watching a bird up-close brings.

Part of the flock of 15 Parrot Crossbills, Holt Country Park, Norfolk, 22nd February 2014. All taken with a Nikon V1, Swarovski ATS 80 HD, and 25-50x zoom eyepiece.