Homemade Phonescoping Adapter

Many of my previous posts dealt with digiscoping adapters for compact digital cameras and spotting scopes, but what if you don't have one of those three ingredients with you? You're more likely to have your smartphone and binoculars with you when birding, so here's how to make your own smartphone digiscoping adapter. Is it still called digiscoping? I guess it's called phonescoping.

What you need:

A case that fits the back of your phone.

Self-adhesive hook and loop fastener ("Velcro"). I found some 5 cm (2 in.) wide at Amazon. Try to get the widest and strongest you can find.

A 35mm film container or similar item that will fit snugly inside the eyecup or outside the ocular of your binoculars, here my trusty old Swarovski Habicht 7x42s. I saved a bunch of film containers when digital cameras arrived on the scene, but you can still find them online, e.g. at eBay.

Use a jar lid or similar item as a template to mark the back of the soft side ("loop" part) of the hook and loop tape. You want it to be 6 or 7 cm (2.5 to 3 in.) wide in order to accommodate several sizes of adapters. Cut along your marking.

Now use your smartphone case as a template to mark the hole in the middle. Then cut it out.

Take the backing off the tape, and press it firmly onto the phone case, centering the holes. Cut off the excess.

You will want to weigh the tape down with a stack of books overnight in order to create a stronger bond.

Now do the same thing with the hook part of the hook and loop tape, this time using the film container as a template. Cut a hole in the middle that's as big as the hole in your phone case. I used a 14mm (6/16 in.) drill bit. Then cut off as much of the rest of the film container to get your phone as close as possible to the binoculars (to avoid vignetting). I used my trusty table saw. Here's the result:

The surface area looks pretty small, but it works surprisingly well. Now insert your phone into the case, and stick your new adapter onto it.

Now insert this into the eyepiece of your binoculars.

And fire up your favorite camera app (or just the one that came with the phone).

Now point the whole thing at a bird (this one's hiding in the foliage).

As you can see, depending on how snugly the adapter fits into the eyepiece, one hand is free to zoom in (getting rid of the vignetting) and snap the photo.

This contraption also fits into the eyepiece of this newer model Swarovski SLC.

Here are a few photos taken with this setup:

If your new adapter doesn't fit into your eyepiece (here on a Swarovski CL) you can screw in the eyepiece where the adapter is and rest your phone on the other eyepiece.

With this setup you need both hands to hold the phone and adapter to the binoculars, making it hard to operate your camera app.

However, there are camera apps that react to your voice. You can take a picture, for example, by saying "take the picture"!

This can all be very tricky, however, so here's how I made an adapter to fit this model:

A friend had an old plastic vacuum cleaner nozzle that tapered slightly from one end to the other:

I cut off slices about 2 cm (1 in.) thick till I had a ring that fit snugly over the ocular:

Then I got a hole saw that would cut a circular piece of an old CD-ROM to fit exactly inside the plastic ring. First I pre-drilled a hole in a scrap of wood and clamped the CD-ROM centered on the drill hole:

This is the result of drilling the disc:

I had to cut off some extraneous plastic and flash with a Stanley knife to make the disc fit inside the ring. Then I cut off a piece of the hook and loop tape and stuck the ring on it:

Then I put the disc inside this:

Then I cut off the corners of the tape:

Then I made a few more snips to create some tabs:

Then I folded the tabs up and stuck them to the ring:

Then I taped some duct tape around the ring:

Then I cut a hole in the bottom of the hook and loop tape as large as the hole in the disc:


A couple photos from this new contraption:

None of these pictures will win prizes in a print publication of course, but if that's what you wanted, you wouldn't be using a smartphone. However, they're perfectly good for documentation purposes and for posting on your favorite social media site.


Testing the Swarovski ATX Spotting Scope

Swarovski's modular spotting scope system ATX/STX allows you to interchange 3 sizes of objective lenses with one ocular.

The oculars are also available in angled (ATX) or straight (STX) versions.

The objective sizes are 65 mm (25 to 60 power zoom), 85 mm (also 25 to 60 power) and 95 mm (with a whopping 30 to 70 power zoom).

The objectives have the further advantage of having the zoom ring right next to the focus ring of the ocular... no more fumbling between the two when focussing and zooming on a distant subject.

65 mm objective and ATX ocular separate
65 mm objective and ATX ocular separate
65 mm objective and ATX ocular connected
65 mm objective and ATX ocular connected

I have been testing the ATX for several months with the 65 and 85 mm objectives.

65 mm and 85 mm objective comparison
65 mm and 85 mm objective comparison

My main focuses are identification, observation and digiscoping with a compact digital camera (both photos and videos). For this I've been using the DCB II digiscoping adapter.

65 mm objective with ATX ocular, DCB II and camera separate
65 mm objective with ATX ocular, DCB II and camera separate

65 mm objective with ATX ocular, DCB II and camera connected together and ready
65 mm objective with ATX ocular, DCB II and camera connected together and ready

The great advantage of this adapter is that you can easily fold it up out of the way to view through the scope.

65 mm objective with ATX ocular, DCB II and camera folded up
65 mm objective with ATX ocular, DCB II and camera folded up

Once you've attached the adapter, there's really no reason to ever take it off again even if you switch objectives. I walk around all day with this setup (plus tripod) on my shoulders. The only reason to take the camera off the adapter is when the battery runs down and you change to a freshly charged one.

The advantage of a larger 85 mm (and 95 mm) objective lens, of course, is to allow more light to reach the eye under suboptimal lighting conditions. The 65 mm lens is so good, however, that for me the advantages of lighter weight and less volume mean that I usually leave the 85 mm lens at home before leaving on my hours-long treks, often in mountainous terrain. The 85 mm objective lens alone (without the ocular) weighs 1.15 kg (2.53 lb.) compared to 0.84 kg (1.85 lb.) for the 65 mm lens, a difference of 0.31 kg (0.68 lb.).

With practice changing the objectives is easy, but since this is the part that attaches to the tripod, you have to change two attachments every time (the attachment to the tripod and the attachment to the ocular). Therefore, unless the lighting conditions are really bad and I won't be walking around too much, I would stick with the 65 mm lens. Your mileage may vary.

Another piece of optional equipment is the balance rail, the reasoning behind which is that the added weight of the camera will make the ocular end of the scope heavier, causing that end to tip down.

85 mm objective with ATX ocular and balance rail separate
85 mm objective with ATX ocular and balance rail separate

85 mm objective with ATX ocular and balance rail connected
85 mm objective with ATX ocular and balance rail connected

In the photos the foot on the balance rail is closer to your body (and the camera) than the foot on the scope. With a push of the green button on the balance rail you can easily slide the center of balance to any desired position.

The balance rail fits both the 65 mm and 85 mm (and presumably 95 mm) lens, but not without considerable fiddling. This is not meant to be done in the field.

The balance rail is much more sophisticated than in the ATM system. Swarovski obviously put a lot of thought into it, but it adds 0.34 kg (0.75 lb.) to the system. At first I thought the problem of the camera tipping down when you least expect it would be larger. Admittedly I've gotten into the unconscious habit of tightening the corresponding knob on the tripod before taking my hands off the positioning handle. And with compact digital cameras becoming more and more compact and lightweight, this is becoming less and less a problem.

The tripod head I tested with this system was a DH 101 and the tripod was a CT 101, the same as in this blog post, so I won't go into further detail.

As you can see the Swarovski ATX/STX spotting scope system is truly modular to fit any need.

In summary the system I usually use consists of:
  • Swarovski 25-60x 65mm spotting scope objective
  • ATX ocular
  • DCB II digital camera base
  • CT 101 carbon tripod
  • DH 101 tripod head
  • Nikon Coolpix P310 compact digital camera

The total weight of this system is about 4.5 kg or 10 lb. as measured by my luggage scale, about the same as my previous system.

For photos made with this system see my previous post and my Flickr Photostream. For videos, see my YouTube wildlife playlist.

German-language version of this post


First Impressions of the Swarovski ATX Spotting Scope

I have the opportunity of testing both the 65 mm and 85 mm Swarovski ATX spotting scope. As soon as they arrived I went outside and digiscoped a few birds at my feeder. It was late afternoon/evening, and the sun was coming from slightly behind and to the left. Considering this I think these shots aren't too bad.

Eurasian Blue Tit
Eurasian Blue Tit

Female Eurasian Bullfinch
Female Eurasian Bullfinch

Female Eurasian Blackbird
Female Eurasian Blackbird

Male Eurasian Blackbird
Male Eurasian Blackbird

A few days later I went to the local lakeshore and got these shots under rather windy conditions.

Song Thrush
Song Thrush

White Wagtail
White Wagtail

Still a few days later I was lucky enough to discover Austria's rarest woodpecker, the White-backed Woodpecker. Both the male and female were feeding their young. In this shot the male's head is a little fuzzy, but they stopped coming after a few minutes, so I couldn't get a better shot.
Male and juvenile White-backed Woodpecker

Here's a video of the young at the nest, also digiscoped.

German-language version of this blog post


Digiscoping with the Swarovski ATM 80 and DCB Camera Adapter

After testing a tube-type digital camera adapter and a rail-type universal adapter, I decided to test the digital camera base from Swarovski. This is also a rail-type universal adapter, but it has the added advantage that it can easily flip out of place on a hinge for viewing purposes. This saves loads of time since there's no screwing or readjusting needed. You just flip a lever to release the adapter and clamp it in place.

As mentioned in my last post, this adapter didn't fit my current (13-year-old) scope, so I asked Swarovski Austria if they would lend me a digiscoping setup for testing and blogging purposes, and they graciously obliged. Here's the equipment I tested:
  • Swarovski ATM 80 HD spotting scope body
  • 25-50x W eyepiece
  • DCB-A digital camera base
  • CT 101 carbon tripod
  • DH 101 tripod head
  • Canon PowerShot A590 compact digital camera
The careful reader will notice that I switched cameras from a Nikon CoolPix AW100. I had bought the Nikon expressly for digiscoping purposes, but it turned out to be a less than perfect choice, at least for me, because I find it relatively difficult to focus the thing.

Both cameras have a 4x zoom, however, so for the purposes of comparing digiscoping camera adapters, this should not make much difference.

Unpacking the Boxes:

ATM 80 HD spotting scope body
25-50x W eyepiece
DCB-A digital camera base
CT 101 carbon tripod
DH 101 tripod head

The first thing I noticed was that one of the two clips on the lens cap got stuck and is difficult to slide into place when replacing the lens cap. The clips on my old lens cap are cast in one piece with the lens cap, meaning there is less technology for something to go wrong with.

Similarly the soft rubber cap on the eyepiece is very loose and easily falls off the eyepiece. The hard plastic cap on the old eyepiece screws on and therefore is almost impossible to fall off. In addition the cord holding the new eyepiece cap to the eyepiece must be detached when using the DCB and is easy to lose.

The new scope has a nifty new sighting aid, but alas, this also must be removed when using the DCB.

The DCB included a balance rail, but as delivered it couldn't be mounted to the tripod head. The little instruction slip was very minimalist with only pictographs and no text so as to cater to the international crowd, but I couldn't figure out how to make it fit the tripod head. Googling the problem didn't help either. In fact, the few websites I found mentioned flat out that the this balance rail (666-0253RM) doesn't fit this tripod head (DH 101). So I wrote Dale Forbes, Swarovski product manager, on Facebook. He said, "you just need to use an imbuss/ hex key to loosen the foot of the rail, and then re-fit it on the other side of the balance bar. It will then slot straight in to the DH101." That did the trick!

I have found that the balance rail is necessary. Otherwise the scope is too heavy on the end where the camera is and tends to tip down.

The tripod has a spirit level in it, but I don't see much use for that in the field. The maneuvering arm of the tripod head apparently isn't meant to be adjusted as often as I was used to with my old setup. Now you need to unscrew a screw with a coin to loosen it instead of turning a screw with your fingers. In addition the rod is no longer round (like a dowel) but rather hexagonal, so that you have to remove the whole thing after loosening it, then insert it again before tightening it. This hasn't turned out to be as much of a problem as I anticipated. Now, when traveling by foot, car, bus, etc., I just don't loosen it any more. If I'm putting it in a suitcase I remove the whole tripod head from the tripod.

Everything else about the tripod head is better than before. There are no longer hand screws to turn when adjusting the tripod head in the two axes, but rather all-or-nothing levers that work just fine (as long as you use the balance rail when a camera is attached).

Inserting the scope's foot into the tripod's shoe and removing it again are much easier than with the old system. There's no additional adapter shoe to add instability. The scope's foot itself (or the balance rail's foot when using one) fits directly into tripod head's shoe. I had problems with this setup loosening all the time on the old system, not so on the new system. The scope's shoe also fits very snugly into the balance rail and is adjusted with a screw that is loosened with a coin. Usually you do this only once.

The tripod itself has pretty much all the same features as my previous tripod and more. The only thing missing are the metal points at the end. These were built into the previous tripod and were hidden out of place by turning the rubber feet. Now you need to order the metal points separately and replace the standard plastic tips, I think. However, I didn't find a need for them in several habitats from fine sandy beaches to rocky mountaintops and everything in between.

The new tripod includes a hook on the bottom of the center rod to hang a weight on (e.g. your backpack) for additional stabilization in windy conditions. I haven't had a need for it yet, but it's good to know it's there.

I chose the CT 101 tripod rather than the CT Travel, even though I fly fairly often, since I thought it might be more stable because the legs have only three sections each instead of four, at the same total height. As you can see below, the tripod and tripod head fit in my suitcase just fine. If it still doesn't fit you can remove the tripod head.

When extending the tripod legs on my old system, I would routinely pull out both sections of all three legs. Then the scope was at perfect viewing height for me, but a little too high for photographing, since the camera setup adds length to the scope and I use the angled version of the scope rather than the straight version. When extending the new tripod to its full length, it's much too high for me, even in viewing mode, unless I'm looking high up in trees or mountains. So I usually just extend only the bottom sections of the legs and bend myself over. This works well with the angled scope, especially with the camera setup attached. Added advantages are increased stability and the ability to share your scope with shorter people and children without readjusting everything and searching for the subject again.

In the photo above you can also see the green bag containing the DCB and the hex key (Allen wrench) for adjusting its height. As with any camera adapter system you will want to do all adjusting and fiddling before you leave for your (first) birding tour. The advantage with this system is that the camera is attached with its tripod screw hole to a bracket that can easily be removed from the DCB with a simple lever if you want to use the camera for other purposes than digiscoping. It is then quickly re-attached. I usually have a second compact camera (and my smartphone) along so not even this is necessary. You can even attach the sliding bracket to the camera in such a way that the battery compartment isn't blocked.

Once the setup is complete, you usually hike along with the scope on your shoulder and the camera setup folded up, so that you are quickly in the viewing mode. Then when you want to digiscope, you just release the catch, fold the camera back down, fix it with the lever, turn the camera on, zoom the camera if desired, refocus the scope if necessary, and shoot. I have found that the field of view after flipping the camera down is slightly higher than before, so I automatically move it down a few millimeters.

Theoretically you can even zoom the scope's eyepiece while the camera is in shooting mode, but you usually do this before flipping the camera down, if at all. I have found that with the eyepiece's lowest magnification (25x) together with the camera's zero to four times magnification I often have a subject too large for the field of view. I rarely use the scope's zoom any more. This setup has some vignetting if I don't zoom the camera, so I usually do. I hope my next setup doesn't have any vignetting.

The entire weight of the new system is 10 lb. (4.5 kg). The old system weighs 15 lb. (6.8 kg); that's 50% more. This is of course very noticeable if you carry your scope around with you everywhere you go birding, even while hiking for hours in the mountains.

As to photos taken with this system, judge for yourself (click on the images for more and larger images):
2012-07-08 Ft Desota State Park, Florida (Nikon Coolpix AW100)
2012-07-10 Sun City Center, Florida (Nikon Coolpix AW100)
2012-07-17 Padre Island, Corpus Christi, Texas (Nikon Coolpix AW100)
2012-07-18 Padre Island, Corpus Christi, Texas (Nikon Coolpix AW100)
2012-07-31 Earlysville, Virginia (Canon PowerShot A590)
2012-08-18 Feuerkogel, Ebensee, Austria (Canon PowerShot A590)
2012-10-25 Heligoland, Germany (Canon PowerShot A590)
2012-10-26 Heligoland, Germany (Canon PowerShot A590)
2012-10-27 Heligoland, Germany (Canon PowerShot A590)

[Disclaimer: I am in no way connected to the Swarovski company (besides being their customer), nor are any relatives or close friends of mine employed by them. Only a few of my social media friends work for them. Nor have I received any payment from Swarovski, either monetarily or in products. The system described above was lent to me by Swarovski with the understanding that I would blog my experience with it.]