P&S for Wildlife: Digiscoped Video

(This is a parallel post from the blog I write for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics at zeisssports.wordpress.com.)

It is getting so you can’t buy a digital camera (exaggeration :) ) that does not have at least 1280×720 HD video capture, or 720HD as they are calling it. And full HD, 1920×1080 (1080HD) is becoming available on an increasing number of Point and Shoot digital cameras (P&Ss) and Digital Single Lens Reflexes (DSLRs) or the growing new class of Interchangeable Lens Electronic Viewfinder cameras (ILEVs). The day when you carried a dedicated camcorder for video, and a dedicated digital still camera for stills, is rapidly passing.

Of course, dedicated camcorders used to the the exclusive home of super-long range zooms: 1-20, 1-30, 1-60x even, and though HD camcorders have tended to be more modest (due to the larger sensor chips required), if you wanted super-telephoto a camcorder was the way to go.

That is changing too. The latest super-zoom P&Ss from all the major makers feature zooms in the 20-30x range, and HD video: and those zooms are long enough for larger birds and closer distances…and certainly large enough for most larger wildlife. And, of course, if you are going to digiscope your video (that is…use a digital camera behind the eyepiece of a spotting scope), all you need is a 3x zoom, even for birds…in fact, all you want is a 3x zoom, if you intend to totally avoid vignetting issues with most spotting scope eyepieces.

There’s the rub, as Shakespeare would say. A recent survey of P&Ss with 720HD video showed none with 3x zooms, few with 4x, and most with 5x or higher. Both 4x and 5x zooms on at least some of today’s P&S cameras can be used behind the eyepiece, especially if they start at a wide-angle: anything below 35mm equivalent seems to work, and most below 28mm are sure to work. You do lose the bottom third (at least) of your zoom range…either on the camera zoom or on the scope zoom. 5x zooms can lose as much as half of the zoom range. Shop carefully and you can bring home a P&S that provides unvignetted fields for HD video from equivalent focal lengths of 1500 to 5000mm behind a suitable scope zoom eyepiece.

And, if you are into digiscoping with a DSLR or ILEV, with a fixed focal length lens behind the eyepiece, or mounted directly on the scope with a Photo Adapter (available for most high quality scopes, though technically this is not digiscoping), then there is no reason not to get a body that does HD video. I mean, why would you?

A digiscoper said recently, and I wish I could find the quotation so I could attribute it properly, that while still shots might have an esthetic edge, there is nothing like video to bring the bird (or any wildlife) to life. Especially an HD video, which can be as crisp and clear as the best cinematic film shots of a few years ago, takes you right into the world of whatever you are observing, just like the live view through a spotting scope does. Video closes the loop of image capture…giving you something very close to the real time experience of using your scope in the field.

I guarantee if you try it you will be hooked.

After experimenting with marginal solutions, I recently bought a little $250 Canon Digital Elph with 720HD video (more on that here). It requires a sturdy tripod, a windless day, a steady hand (and/or a cable release), but the results can be stunning.

Take this little clip of a Chipmunk posing nicely. I featured the still as this weeks Digiscoped Pic of the Week. Catching the video was as easy as flicking the switch on the camera from still to video, zooming back a bit (the HD video frame is narrower, top to bottom, than the still image frame) and pressing the shutter release.

This is two clips of a Song Sparrow tacked together using Nero Vision software. If your computer speakers are up to it, you can hear the CD quality sound that you can catch on a still day. Earphones will really impress, but then you will also hear me breathing (I have to come up with a solution for that!)  For the second clip, I stopped the video, zoomed the eyepiece of the scope up, reframed slightly, and restarted. This is about as intimate view of a Song Sparrow singing as you are likely to see, anywhere.

And remember, this was done with a 65mm spotting scope (relatively light weight) and a $250 P&S. Not bad. Not bad at all!

A quick search around the web will turn up an increasing number of digiscoped videos of birds. And you will only see more, and undoubtedly better, as time goes on, as more cameras become available, and as more digiscopers get hooked on video.

If you want to experiment, go for it. Be warned though. The same folks who willing submit to viewing your digiscoped images of birds, and even ooo and aaaa appropriately, may show a decided lack of patience with even your best video. They will look at a still for 30 seconds, but present them with 30 seconds of video and they shut down. Any longer than 30 seconds and you risk your friendship. ?? Or that is my experience. So far. Maybe it is a comment on my video skills, and maybe I just know the wrong people, but I suspect that video is a much harder medium to get people to engage with, at least in short clips. I have yet to string together a feature length film (maybe 3 to 5 minute) with clever transitions and maybe some narration…that might be what it takes :)

And that only leaves the thorny question of what to call taking videos with a digital still camera behind the eyepiece of a spotting scope? Videoscoping is already in use for taking video from behind the eyepiece with a camcorder, but perhaps it can be expanded. For now I am just calling it Digiscoping Video.

In the meantime, while I will take the stills first, I am trying to train myself to hit the video switch on any bird that sits still long enough. It is just such fun!

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