Phonescoping: How to film birds
This section describes how to set up and get started with some basic filming techniques.
Before you even get out into the field, have a practice with your phonescope setup and experiment with the best settings to use. Think about how you want your phone to be configured. It may be best to turn on Airplane mode to avoid interuption while filming and save the battery. You'll need to make sure you have plenty of memory free, as video and particularly slow motion video will fill up your storage very quickly. on iOS, Go to Settings -> General -> iPhoneStorage to see how much free space you have, and a break down of which apps are filling up your storage.
Filming and fieldcraft
Fieldcraft is essential in filming birds and other wildlife. That means the welfare of the subject has to be paramount. Photographers have a growing reputation for causing disturbance to birds. Don't be one of those people! If you're phonescoping you should have plenty of zoom so you should be able to watch from a safe distance. This is smart fieldcraft that's in the interest of the bird and of you. If you disturb your subject you're much less likely to get a good shot, and far worse, you may impact on the bird's welfare. If it's not aware of your presence you can observe it properly and capture the best of it's natural behaviour. Remember that there are restrictions around filming and disturbing schedule 1 birds, so don't break the law! Whether a species is schedule 1 or not, and particularly if it's the breeding season, you should ensure that your actions do not change the birds behaviour.
As a birder and filmmaker it's also your responsibility to be aware of what's going on around you and to do what you can to help our birdlife. In the UK, we have a major problem with the persecution of birds. Particularly, the illegal killing of raptors on our uplands by the grouse shooting industry. Familiarize yourself with the three Rs of wildlife crime: Recognize, Record, Report. If you see something suspicious, always think about your personal safety before taking action. And remember, if you feel the need to have a word with a fellow birder or photographer who you think is causing disturbance, be courteous. Blowing your top and bollocking someone, however much it makes you feel better, tends to be ineffective. Talk to them, win their confidence, explain what they're doing wrong, and encourage them to do it differently next time. It's a much more effective approach.
As with all photography, and birding in general, early morning and sometimes early evening can be the best time to capture some great shots. Wind is often low or non-existant, so you'll have less problems with camera shake. The light will hopefully be bright but soft, and most bird activity should be at it's peak.
Even a common bird such as a Wren will be almost impossible to film in the middle of the day. They'll be out looking for food, zipping around from perch to perch, and generally being impossible to line up in your phonescope. But early in the morning, you have a much greater chance of catching them sitting for a longer period on a perch and singing. And if the weather is decent, the light will be warm and bright, but not as dazzling and overpowering as the mid day sun. Direct sunlight in the middle of the day can cause problems for phone cameras.
Finding the right position to film from can make or break a sequence of video. Ideally you'll want the sun behind you, to maximise light on the subject and avoid silhouetting. In soft light however, back lighting can be very dramatic, and sometimes you just won't be able to change position and choose your angle. If the option is there, take up a position to optimise the light, and wait for the subject to come to you. If you're shooting from a fixed location like a hide, check out where the sun will be in relation to the outlook and choose the optimum time to go filming there. The colour and plumage of a bird may well be lost if it's silhouetted against a bright sky, so try to avoid this where possible, and find an angle to get some terrain or foliage behind the subject.
Setting up to film
When I'm ready to start phonescoping the first job is to set up my tripod, and I'm usually in a rush to get shooting as quickly as possible. If I know I'll be in the spot for a while it's worth however considering fine tuning the tripod legs to get a level base. If the legs aren't level, as you pan around in a different direction you'll find that what was a perfectly level shot is now askew with the horizon. My tripod head has a spirit level on it, and this is useful to get things right.
With the tripod and scope in place, pop the lens caps off and begin by sighting the bird in the scope. Zooming out obviously makes it easier to locate your target by increasing the field of view, but this can still be challenging if it's close and there are few landmarks to orientate yourself by. Sight along the line of your scope if possible, and then pan around to locate the bird you're looking for. Remember that your scope has a lot of zoom and a narrow depth of field, so if your focus is wrong you can easily have the bird in your field of view but be so out of focus that you can't recognise or see it. Once you're lined up, lock off your movement on your tripod controls and push the phone (already placed in its phonescope adapter) onto the eyepiece of your scope. Make sure your eyecup is in the right place before you do this - the position of the eye cup controls how far the phone is away from the scope so is critical in getting the best view. On my Swarovski, it works best with the eye cup extended as far out as it goes. You may need to experiment with your kit to discover the best setup. Phone/scope/adapter combinations will often work best with the eyecup in a specific position and your scope zoom turned to a particular setting. Have a good experiment with your kit to find what works best for you. Pointing your phonescope at a bright sky can help to identify any artifacts produced by your setup, where light is restricted from reaching parts of your phone camera's sensor. This often exhibits itself as dark rings around the centre of the shot, or maybe a dark corner or side of the screen.
On my Swarovski, the eye cup rotates anti clockwise to extend (for users without glasses) and clockwise to move back in (for those using the scope who wear glasses). I get the best quality shots with the eye piece extended to maximum. I therefore position my phone hanging out to the left so that it's weight holds the eyecup in a fully extended position. Otherwise, it would rotate when I let it go and end up swiveling downwards.
When you push the phonescope adapter and phone onto the eyepiece you should try to get it as level as possible. I find that starting off slightly at an angle, and adding a tiny rotation as I push it in place, gets it in perfect position (and level), 9 times out of 10. Sometimes however I'll have to pull it off and push on again to get it level. The phoneskope adapter itself comes in two pieces and has a bit of play allowing you to fine turn the level easily. Watch you don't unscrew it completely however, else you might end up dropping your phone. Of course you'll be shooting video, so always work in landscape mode.
It's possible to push on the phone and adapter and not have it set right into place and square with the end of the scope. Pointing your phonescope to the bright sky will help show up any issues if things aren't quite right. If the phone camera isn't perfectly aligned with the scope, you'll see a dark area somewhere on the phone screen. Or possibly darker rings. Taking it off and pushing on again should resolve this.
Lining up and composing your shot
With phone now in place, you should be able to see your target bird on the screen, but after perhaps fighting to get the phonescope adapter in place you may have knocked the alignment and probably also need to make fine adjustments to compose the shot.
There are a few things to bear in mind when lining things up on the screen. Your target bird should be looking into the picture, so for example if it's facing left, position it on the right hand side of the screen meeting the classic photography principle - the rule of thirds. Most good photography apps can be configured to show a thirds grid on the screen which acts as a great reminder on framing your shots. Try and sort out that basic composition as early as possible. Adjust the zoom as appropriate. Your phonescope setup may constrain what zoom settings you can use, and remember that you'll get the maximum light by working at a low zoom. On dark days don't be too ambitious and try to fill the frame by zooming right in. Also think about movement - where is the bird likely to move, how can you best keep it in frame?
This Stork-billed Kingfisher shot doesn't quite nail the perfect composition, but it's close. The bird is facing left and is positioned just to the right of centre, so it's looking into the shot. But it could ideally be located a touch more to right hand side. It's almost spot on. Of course it's easy to critique a sequence after the fact. I'd been trying to get a good movie of these amazing birds for over a week before I got this shot. Sometimes, it's best to compromise, let go of the phonescope so that it stops wobbling around, and just get a shot, albeit an imperfect one, while you can!
Don't get too obsessed with filling the frame. It's nice to have a close up now and again, but this probably puts you close to the bird. As I mentioned above, it's important not to harm your subject. To edit together an engaging sequence you'll ideally have a range of shots anyway. A striking longer shot, that is sharp and bathed in good light is worth way more than an imperfect frame filler. The further you crank the zoom up on your scope, the less light hits your phone camera sensor.
Focus and exposure
Even if you've lined up the shot by looking through your scope and adjusted the focus on the scope to get the subject sharp, things might still need adjusting once you add your phone camera to the mix. Most camera apps will have an autofocus - and you usually touch the screen at the point you want the camera to focus on. Sometimes this works well, other times you may need to adjust the focus on the scope to get it right. To avoid the phone focus bouncing around while you do this, you need to first lock the focus on the phone camera. In my favoured app - ProCamera, I have it configured to always lock the focus (and the exposure) when I trigger the autofocus by touching the subject on the screen with a single tap. But the copious configuration options allow you to choose how you want this to work. On the standard iOS Camera app, you have to touch and hold to lock the focus - and the icon then changes to indicate a lock.
With the subject in focus, you'll probably also need to adjust the exposure. Your phone app will try and do this for you, but invariably will fail. Particularly if your subject is at all silouhetted against the sky. Most apps will allow manual adjustment of the exposure. ProCamera has a slider at the side of the screen which allows easy adjustment. On the default iOS Camera app, first tap and hold to lock focus and exposure, then slide your finger up or down the screen to adjust the brightness. This can be a bit fiddly so get some practice in first. Aim to get enough brightness to see the colour and detail of your subject without over exposing lighter areas. Phone cameras aren't always great at dealing with direct sunlight and can have a limited dynamic range so you may need to fine tune the exposure and then fix things up in post processing. Remember that your phone screen may change brightness depending on the conditions. Checking it before shooting can be useful. Birds with white plumage can be particularly challenging. It's very easy to focus on other plumage colours and then over-expose the white feathers, so be on your guard, particularly when the subject is in full sunshine.
The phonescoping challenge: juggle the settings to nail the shot
The big challenge is to do all of the things I've described above as quickly as possible, and get the shot before your subject disappears into the undergrowth! While you're adjusting all these settings, your phone will be bouncing around and adding vibration to the shot. So you can only really use the footage filmed once you're ready and hands off. Film longish sequences where possible. If you're too eager to correct and adjust, chances are you'll ruin a vital bit of footage. Many times I've tinkered with the focus just when a bird does something really interesting, with the result being a wobble in shot just at the vital moment. Having said that, there's a balance to strike. When you get that perfect shot lined up, can you trust that you really have actually got the settings perfect? No! It can be difficult to see if you've got the focus pin sharp while you're filming. Particularly if you're stood in direct sunshine and the screen is hard to make out. Shoot what feels like a good sequence - maybe 10 or 20 seconds, and then re-set the focus and exposure, and shoot some more. Think of it like a movie shoot, when you get several takes in the bag for insurance.
If you're filming a moving target then everything I've described above is going to be several times harder. There are two main framing approaches - either track the target to keep it in frame, or position the shot pre-emptively so that the subject moves into and possibly out of the frame. Allowing the subject to move out of the frame can be a nice way to round off a shot, so don't stop recording too early.
If I'm trying to track a fast moving target, I tend to let the phone keep recording, lock the focus and exposure and do my best to track the target and adjust the focus manually as I go. One hand on the tripod head handle, and one hand on the focus barrel on the scope. You'll get some sequences that work and are sharp, and some less so, but don't worry: you can edit out the imperfect bits later. Switching to slow motion can really help here. Getting a good sequence in real time when a subject is moving rapidly is tough. With 120fps slow motion, you only need a couple of seconds in real time to deliver 8 seconds of gloriously smooth footage. Slow motion will also help to reduce the jerkiness of any imperfect panning of your phonescope, while simultaneously capturing more detail of fast moving subjects. Using slow motion in this way works well for subjects like swimming water birds or soaring raptors. I've had some success in filming while relying on the automatic focus of the camera (i.e. without the focus locked), and this might be worth a try. You'll still need to lock the exposure, as seeing the whole image brighten or darken - particularly when your subject flies above the skyline into a bright sky (or vice versa) - can really spoil the results.
I shot this sequence of White-Tailed Eagles as a pretty serious rain storm approached, pushing the birds across a sea loch towards me. The wind was blowing the scope around, and the birds were almost right above me, making it hard to line up the shot. But from a couple of minutes of shooting, there were a few tolerable sequences that I could edit together, and it was easy to find a few seconds to add to my holiday highlights reel.
Summary: Top tips for filming using a phonescope
Prepare carefully and get to know your equipment and apps. Make sure your phone has plenty of free space, is charged and is already in your phonescoping adapter
Think about your fieldcraft. The birds should always come first. Avoid disturbing the wildlife and you'll maximise your chance of getting the best shot. Don't break the law
Light is all important. Think about the subject and the location of the sun. The light is always best at dawn and dusk
Study your subject, understand it's behaviour, anticipate it's movement
Shoot plenty of footage, don't be afraid of the slow motion settings. You'll turn hours of boring film into punchy highlights when you edit!
Think about composition, shoot your subject at different levels of zoom (don't always strive to fill the frame)
Practice makes perfect. Working the zoom on your scope and your phone takes patience and dedication to get good results. Make use of focus and exposure lock
Check out this blog post that explains how to film flight shots
Read more about shooting techniques in the How to film incredible bird behaviour section.