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?
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.
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.