Dueling Video Techniques

More and more I find myself looking for opportunities to shoot video of birds along with stills.  With HD video recording capability now widely featured in DSLRs and high-quality cell phones it has become easier than ever for birders to grab really neat movies of their avian subjects doing cool things.  On my annual sojourn to northwest Wisconsin this past June I had a cooperative Yellow-bellied Sapsucker whose favorite drumming post was right outside my cabin.  I took advantage of the opportunity to film the bird both with my DSLR rig and through my Leica APO-Televid 65mm spotting scope.  Below I’ll summarize a few considerations for both rigs and present short movies taken with each setup for your perusal and comparison.

Both digiscoping and DSLR rigs can be used to obtain high-quality video of birds.  Below we'll compare results from a Nikon DSLR rig (right) and a Leica APO-Televid + iPhone rig (left.)

Both digiscoping and DSLR rigs can be used to obtain high-quality video of birds. Below we’ll compare results from a Nikon DSLR rig (right) and a Leica APO-Televid + iPhone rig (left.)

First let’s see what the bird looked like through my Nikon DSLR rig.  Specs:  Nikon D7100 + 200-400mm AF-S VR + Rode Videomic Pro

Considerations:

  • Rigs like this are really fun, and very flexible (with their ability to change lenses, a wide array of user settings, incredibly fast performance, etc.)
  • Convenience of having swappable batteries and memory cards is helpful for long sessions in the field and travel.
  • Rigs like this are heavy.  For best results not only is there the weight of the big lens but a relatively heavy tripod (in this case Gitzo 3541L) and head (here a Wimberley gimbal head.)
  • Rigs like this are expensive.  We’re talking $10,000 and northward for big-glass DSLR rigs.
  • Even with big glass, for best results on medium and small birds you need to get close.  This video was from about 40 feet away.

OK, now let’s check out some digiscoped video of the same bird in the same place.  I had to back up farther away to fit the bird in the frame, maybe 90 feet out from the drumming post at ~40x eyepiece zoom (less than that introduces some corner vignetting.) Specs: Leica APO-Televid 65mm + iPhone 5s + PhoneSkope adapter + Edutige EIM-001 i-Microphone.

Considerations:

  • Each successive generation of iPhone (and other smart phones) has made significant leaps in the quality of their cameras.  The video from new iPhones is danged amazing considering how small the whole thing is.  Perhaps more impressive is their performance in low light (see example of some night digiscoping here.)
  • For best results you’ll need a premium scope in front of the phone and a solid adapter to connect it (hand-holding works way better for stills than for video.)  In my opinion Leica APO-Televid scopes have the glass part covered better than anyone, and while many adapter solutions work I have been very impressed with how well PhoneSkope mates my iPhone to my scope.
  • A good digiscoping rig is at least half or maybe even a third of the weight as a big-lens DSLR rig.  If you are a birder who already carries a scope the extra weight to take video this way is minimal- simply your phone and a few grams of plastic in the adapter.
  • A good digiscoping rig is at least half or maybe even a third of the cost of a big-lens DSLR rig.  If you already have a premium scope the extra cost is minimal.  Even if you are starting by purchasing a new Televid your out-of pocket is likely going to be less than just the lens portion of a big DSLR rig.
  • Digiscoping rigs have superior reach compared to DSLR rigs.  Ironically this can be a problem for close birds and for getting good sound.
  • The sound recording of just the iPhone is OK but falls short of using a good external mic on a DSLR.  I tried to give the sound a bit of a boost with the little unobtrusive Edutige EIM-001 i-Microphone I have.  Diana Doyle addressed some newer & better mic options (Edutige EIM-003 and the RØDE iXY) for the iPhone in the July/Aug 2013 issue of Birding Magazine, and it is an area I’d like to experiment with more.
  • Battery life of an iPhone in heavy video use is short, and if using other features such as navigation, entering sightings on eBird, etc. it is even shorter.  An essential part of a phone scoping kit is an external battery.  I found that hanging my battery in a little pouch from my tripod head lets me connect it to my iPhone without too much hassle while filming.
  • File storage and transfer with an iPhone isn’t as convenient as using memory cards.
  • BONUS:  the iPhone 5s built-in slow motion capture is AWESOME!!

Conclusions:  I’m not going to declare either of the methods used above to be superior to the other.  They each fill a nice niche and I really enjoy using both techniques.  I’m most amazed at how far digiscoping has come since I was hand-holding a Nikon Coolpix 995 over ten years ago, though DLSRs have also made amazing advances in the last decade.  The bottom line is to find out what suits your needs and birding style the best and work with it.  Get the best support (tripod & head) you can afford and put time into perfecting your technique.   If you have ideas or or other considerations I didn’t think to address please leave them in the comments!!