Learning to Digiscope: Turning Your Binoculars Into a Zoom Lens

A Canada Goose floats on a calm pond facing the camera with the edges of the photograph framed in a black circle.

Canada Goose, taken through a pair of Nikon 10X42 binoculars with a Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone.

When I go birding, I log my sightings on eBird and scribble them down in a very worn birding journal. I do my best to identify what I can in the field. If all I can hear is the bird, I often use the voice memo function on my phone to record it and then compare with my bird song CD or Sibley’s app later on so I can avoid stressing out birds in person.  However, a picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and it’s not always possible to identify birds by sight in field conditions. The bird identification guides I have at home and work are great, though I’d prefer not to haul them around on hikes. (The Merlin and Sibley apps can be super handy in that respect, provided my phone doesn’t die while I’m out and about.) However, memory can play tricks on you and having a decent photograph of the bird can really help identify a bird visually later on.

That being said, I am still mentally in the “poor starving student” mode and at this point in my life I can’t really afford a super nice camera with a zoom lens. (You know the ones – they look like huge canons and make me super jealous.) I imagine that they must be tricky to cart around at times as well as you’re traipsing over uneven terrain! That’s why one of the single most useful skills I’ve been practicing while birdwatching has been digiscoping: pairing my cell phone camera with my binoculars or a spotting scope to capture images of birds as an aide-memoire. I mean, I’m going to have my phone and binoculars on my person anyway – why have a separate, expensive piece of technology? 

It’s a relatively simple technique that can get quite good results for my purposes, but you need a steady hand and it does take practice. (You can, apparently, buy clamps for phones but again, see “poor starving student” mindset above.) Even after taking hundreds of digiscopes, I still get loads of photos with a shadow from the binoculars in them from not having my phone in the exact perfect position. Here is a short video demonstrating what I mean by shadows:

The beauty of digital photography, however, is that you can take as many photographs as you like and not be wasting film! For every really solid photograph of a bird I take this way, I get about half a dozen that are flawed in some way.

Here is a small collection of some of my favourite more recent images I’ve taken with this technique. As you can see, particularly by the image of the oriole, it can be difficult to get the birds into focus at times, especially if they are a relatively small part of the image. Regardless, I’ve found digiscoping a valuable tool to keep track of what birds I’ve spotted:

I tend to keep my binoculars in my purse or backpack as I go about my work day or whenever I walk outside, and as a millennial I of course always have my smartphone handy. That makes it super easy to snap a few shots of even distant birds to examine more in depth later on – and to tweet as proof of my sightings. I don’t always set out intending to go birdwatching – and that’s when you stumble across an interesting bird. I always like to be prepared, and having this technique down pat means you can still get amazing photographs relatively quickly without having to kick yourself for not hauling around a giant and expensive camera at all times.