Phone Scoping Guide

Equipment for Phonescoping

Phonescoping combines some typically independent bits of technology into one internet enabled video camera with a massive zoom! With patience it can deliver amazing results. But it's a tricky art to master and if you're starting from scratch it can have a steep learning curve. This second installment of my guide to phonescoping describes what equipment you'll need to get started. Subsequent sections will describe how to put all this kit into practice, shoot videos and then edit and share them.

 
Serious optics: the spotting scope

If you're phone scoping, you're going to be using a tiny pinhole camera on your phone. So you need some serious optics to zoom in close to your subject and funnel as much light as possible onto that miniature camera sensor. That's where your spotting scope comes in. If you're a reasonably serious birder you've probably already got one - and that's one of the real advantages of phonescoping - it simply re-purposes most of the kit you already own. Almost any scope will be functional, but a modern spotting scope with a decent eyepiece will do the best job. Older scopes tend to have small eyepieces that don't match well with a phone camera. Light gathering is the name of the game, so having a good sized objective lens will also help considerably. I've had good results with a mid range Opticron scope, but I now use a Swarovski ATX95 which combines pretty stunning optics with a huge objective lens for some top-end phonescoping.


A solid foundation - the tripod

Shooting video with a large zoom requires stability, so a tripod is essential. It's worth investing in a carbon fibre tripod to minimise flex in the legs and vibration of the phonescope - although in high winds you'll always struggle to get a steady shot. Choice of tripod head is also worth some thought. A purpose designed video head that smoothes out panning movements with a fluid damping mechanism is essential for anything other than a fixed shot. I use the Manfrotto MVH500AH. If you're in danger of becoming a phonescope junkie - I certainly am - you might just end up carrying your phonescope kit with you whenever you're out birding. Weight matters, and so does transporting your scope and tripod around. Many birders have less than favourable views of scopac type carriers - although I'm not sure how carrying your scope on your shoulder makes a geeky birder "cool". But for me, with a middle aged body ravaged by years of village cricket injuries, a scopac is essential. I can spend a whole day out birding with my scope on my back while barely noticing its there.

Your phone is your camera

In a phonescoping setup, your phone is of course also your camera. Phone camera technology is still advancing at pace, so upgrading invariably delivers a substantial increase in performance and it's worth working with an up to date phone if possible. Study the specs carefully before buying - phones often deliver different quality and resolutions at different frame rates. As you get into your phone scoping you'll want better and better slow motion performance. Samsung and Apple seem to constantly vie for the best cameras on the market, and the latest are certainly comparable to decent compact cameras. I haven't seen much difference between them, but personally prefer Apple's phones. As of 2018 I've upgraded to the iPhoneX. The combination of phone and scope will deliver different results to your phone scoping efforts (I'll say more about this below), and some combinations work better than others.

The iPhoneX features a new development particularly useful to phonescoping - a basic telephoto (or at least not as wide) lens. Without going into too much detail, the extra zoom at the phone end, significantly improves the quality. With my previous phone - the iPhone 6s - I could only get a good image by fixing the scope's zoom at about 50x. Zooming in or out resulted in circular artifacts in the image as light failed to be distributed equally across the sensor. It was also necessary to use some digital zoom (where you pinch the screen to zoom in) to remove the vignetting - the appearance of a black circle around the image. This just saps your image quality - it's like cropping your image to make it smaller and throwing the rest away. With the telephoto lens on the iPhoneX, there's no vignetting and I can shoot film with the scope on almost any zoom setting. The iPhoneX is not a cheap device but there are other options available. I expect phone cameras with basic optical zooms will become common place on mobile phones before long.

If you're using a phone with two cameras, standard operation will combine images from both. You'll need a specialist camera app so that you can force to the phone to use only one of the camera lenses at a time (see below).

Bringing it all together - the phonescope adapter

Your adapter aligns the camera on your phone with the eyepiece of your spotting scope and holds everything in place. Consequently it's a make or break part of the phonescoping kit. It's easy to hold up your phone to your scope to take a quick snap, but for the best results, you have to use an adapter. There are a few different options to choose from. But remember that the particular combination of phone, adapter and scope will impact on the quality. Some combinations work significantly better than others.

 

Universal adapters feature adjusting jaws that can be setup to work with most phones and scopes. Their advantage is that when upgrading either your phone or scope, your adapter will probably still be usable with your new kit. I've not used a universal adapter for phonescoping but I've not heard good things about them. In fact they seem to have been so bad that they've put many birders off phonescoping altogether. They tend to be fiddly, and somewhat impractical out in the field.

 

The second option is to use an adapter produced by your scope manufacturer. These vary in quality and will often only be available for the most popular phones. Manufacturers are usually slow to support new phones and you may be left waiting to upgrade - or caught out with a phone that you can't phonescope with at all. As you would expect from a top end manufacturer like Swarovski, their adapters are well made and impressively solid, but they've expensive - their latest iPhone8 adapter is over 140 pounds! Opticron's adapters are laser printed, but as a consequence they're made from material that isn't water proof. They're pretty solid, but a bit clunky in the field.

 

The third and highly recommended option is to go with an independent adapter manufacturer called Phoneskope. They produce well made plastic adapters for virtually every scope and phone on the market. They're reasonably priced and come in two parts - one that fits the scope and one that locks into the first and acts as a case for your phone. When you upgrade either your phone or your scope, you only need to buy one new part. The UK and Europe distributor can be found here, and the US manufacturer's site is here.

If you're working with a Swarovski scope, the new Variable Phone Adapter looks very interesting. I've not had a proper chance to try it yet, but a very quick play suggested excellent quality. It combines the benefit of a universal adapter at the phone end, combined with typical high-end Swarovski build quality to address the otherwise clumsiness of your average universal adapter. More on this when I have chance to look at it in more detail.

There's an app for every PhoneScoping need

I use an iPhone and so this section primarily describes my experience with software that runs on Apple's iOS. Many apps are available on both iOS and Google Android, and there are always plenty of alternatives to try on your device if you can't find the exact software I've described here. I've added a few quick notes on Android options at the bottom.

You can certainly make good phonescoped videos with the native software on your phone. Apple's Camera app does a fair job, and you can perform basic edits with the standard Photos app. However, it's well worth investing in some more specialised software to fulfill a number of important roles. There are a variety of apps that give you more control of the camera settings, many are supported on different phones and a lot comes down to personal preference. A lot of these apps specialise in still photography, so some caution is advised - read up carefully before buying.

 

I like the ProCamera app as it puts a lot of the key settings within very easy reach. In particular it's quick to change between each of the standard speed and slow motion settings. With the standard Apple Camera app, these options can only be found hidden away in Settings menus, making it easy to miss your shot while you're thumbing through to change your slowmo speed. I've also begun to check out the Filmic Pro app which specializes in supporting video. Check out my first thoughts here.

Processing can add the finishing touches to your videos. It won't turn a poor video into a good one, but it can finesse some decent footage into the final article. Again, there are plenty of options. I like Chromic as it's very straightforward to use, it's effective and very cheap if for the basic adjustments pack of filters - and that's all you're likely to need.

Editing is one of the areas where phonescoping comes into it's own. Very simple and easy to use apps allow you to edit your footage on your phone and then share it on the internet almost instantly. As always there are plenty of options. My favourite on the iPhone is Splice. It's really easy to use but pretty powerful. You choose videos from your photostream and then edit the start and end points. Adding further clips, reordering them and finishing things off with transitions between each clip is really straightforward. Other options like FilmakerPro are also worth checking out.

If you want to edit on an Android phone, it's worth trying out Quik which seems to be a cut down version of Splice, and is produced by the same company linked with GoPro. Thanks to @boywonderbirder for the recommendation.

What else? The extras

Phonescoping for any length of time will hit your battery hard, so a portable battery charger pack is essential. I have a band of velcro round the neck of my scope so I can attach my battery pack and hold it in place while filming.

A bluetooth remote can be useful in some situations - particularly if you do want to try still photography - clicking the remote to take a picture avoids the inevitable camera wobble when you press the record button on the screen. But if you're just shooting video, you can edit out imperfections at the end.

Ethical shopping

Thinking about what we buy and when is one of the most effective ways to influence the wider world. Whilst things like recycling get a lot of attention, it's actually our consumption that we need to regulate. Where a purchase is necessary it's worth thinking about the impact of our choices - something I've not always been mindful of, but which I'm trying to make a conscious effort to improve on. Phonescoping re-purposes your phone and scope as a camera, so you could argue it's not a bad start. Certainly better than purchasing a new camera. However, the temptation is of course to upgrade your kit before it's really necessary. Thinking about the ethical choices makes a lot of sense, and this is a great guide to help you through the choices relating to optics.

Summary: top equipment tips for phonescoping
  1. A modern scope with a wide angle eyepiece is essential. But you don't need top end optics to get good results

  2. Don't scrimp on the tripod. Vibration from the wind is one of the phonescopers main enemies. A good tripod will help minimise this

  3. A phone with an optical zoom seems to work particularly well for phonescoping by minimising vignetting and the resulting loss of resolution

  4. Phonescoping is about the combination of normally incompatible bits of kit. A good adapter is essential to bring them together

  5. Specialist phone apps are well worth investing in, particularly camera/video apps and apps for editing. If you've got a dual camera phone, this is essential to force the use of the zoom camera

  6. If your phone battery is dying, it's probably because you've been doing a lot of filming. An external battery pack will keep you running

I'll be returning to the application of these different bits of kit in the next section, which will focus on basic filming techniques.