Phone Scoping Guide

How to film incredible bird behaviour

A typical approach to phonescoping is to see a bird, setup your tripod and start filming in quick bursts. The goal is to capture the species in that moment, whilst it remains on view. The main challenges here are the time it takes to setup - put your tripod up, take off lens caps, get the phone on the scope, choose the phone settings you want and so on - and the time it takes to locate the bird and actually start filming. However, there are some situations where you have the opportunity to capture more than a quick burst of film. I call this long shooting and that's what I'm going to focus on in this section.

Phonescoping and observing

Phonescoping is particularly useful for capturing snippets of interesting bird behaviour from an otherwise lengthy period of unexciting observation. The classic example of this is with a perched bird that might stay in shot for minutes or perhaps even hours! I use this technique when watching my local Peregrine Falcons who will often sit around for long periods before bursting into action..

Using a scope to observe a bird over a considerable period of time is pretty tiring on the eyes. However, watching via a phonescope is much more comfortable and also allows other observers to see as well - I use this approach while I'm volunteering at my local nature reserve. For inexperienced scope users, phonescoping can quickly deliver a good view without having to get used to looking through an eyepiece. Shooting video while you observe also allows the capture of those more interesting but sometimes all too brief moments of interest. And if you happen to glance away at the wrong moment, you can still go back afterwards and watch the action replay.

Slow motion is perfect for shooting long sequences, as it allows you to see so much more of those exciting bursts of activity. After waiting a couple of hours for this Spoonbill to return to the nest, it was difficult to take in all the action live when it finally made a dramatic entrance. The slow motion footage shows the incredible welcome from it's mate, with the crest not only up but sprayed out in 360 degrees!

Shoot long if the opportunity arises

Lining up the subject, I'll usually start by shooting a few seconds in standard time. The light gathering is best at a standard 30fps, so this approach gets you some decent footage under the belt. If the bird is being helpful, and hasn't disappeared into the undergrowth, I'll then switch to slow motion. This then gives me the chance of catching something interesting in more detail, or in the worst case an attractive slow motion take off.

Perch shooting

A slow motion take off can look stunning on playback, although it usually requires some perseverance to capture a great shot. Sometimes a bird will just drop from the perch without a lot of interest - I once patiently waited for around 40 minutes for a Stork Billed Kingfisher to take off, only to see it barely open its wings and almost fall off the branch before plunging (out of frame) into a river to catch a fish. But every so often persistence will get you a good sequence. It can be difficult to plan ahead, but try and pre-emnt what the bird is likely to do. Observation of the bird and it's environment will help.

In a strong wind the bird may well take off into it and might go straight up as it catches the breeze. If the conditions are calm, the bird may quickly lose height to gain speed, and drop down off the perch. Birds - particularly larger ones like raptors - will typically face into the wind to take off, so this could give you an idea of the direction it will first fly in. If you manage to capture a take off with the bird flying towards the camera, the shot will be longer, it will usually be more dramatic, and the movement will be minimized - this will reduce the blurring caused by rapid movement across the field of view. Compare the front on and side on take offs of these Puffins on the Farne Islands.

A take off can look great, but capturing a bird flying into the frame and landing can be really satisfying. A cuban birder friend once said to me with a wry smile (as I failed miserably to line up a stunning but highly active Cuban Tody) that anticipation is the key to nature photography. Carefully observing where birds perch, move and possibly return to can provide some great results. Filming a bee eater catching insects from a perch on a fence probably won't work well - there are so many perch points for the bird to select, and it will usually choose a new perch after each bee catching foray into the air. But find the same species perched on a lone bush in an area of grassland, and you may be lucky enough to shoot the bird returning to its favoured perch. The technique is obviously quite simple here. Setup the shot, lock the focus on the perched bird (or if necessary the perch) and then shoot a long sequence while the bird takes off and flies back to it's perch. This is a great approach for fly catchers, and it comes alive when you edit the highlights into a short sequence of action.

With persistence, and certainly some luck, you might capture a great a shot of a bird that typically doesn't return to the same perch every time. I filmed many shots on my local patch before I lucked out with a Stonechat that returned just once to a perch I'd lined up on and kept filming. When you are shooting a bird that flies off, it can be tempting to stop recording or instantly chase the next shot and line up your next target. But showing some patience and continuing to record a little longer can pay dividends when a bird decides to return and fly back into shot.

Targetting a food source can also work well. On my last trip to Cuba, I really wanted to try out some slow motion shooting of the locally common hummingbird - the Cuban Emerald. Of course, these guys are really active and getting them in frame proved to be nigh on impossible. Sitting on my hotel room balcony I noticed that one particular bird would do a circuit of the flowerbeds around our building about once every hour. Setting up a shot on a favoured honey suckle flower, I did a series of long shoots to eventually capture that brief moment of feeding.

Over the course of an afternoon I caught the bird 5 or 6 times, and one of these captures nailed the focus, the light and the positioning of the bird in frame. I admit to cheating a little by bending one of the flowers over from the right, so the bird always approached into frame from the left (so it wouldn't be obscured behind the flower)! This kind of stakeout of course requires some dedication - although it certainly helps if you're on a hotel balcony in the sun with a beer in your hand. Not sure it's quite that easy when they're shooting Planet Earth...

For long shooting I tend to film in ten minute chunks, and discard unwanted footage fairly frequently to avoid filling up the phone's storage. When I do capture the bird, a quick edit and a mark of the successful video with a "favourite" flag helps to avoid accidental deletion. For a long shoot, you record everything in a long sequence, so in theory you don't have to watch every second while you film. But it's easy to miss a moment of interest when replaying a long slowmo sequence of a bird sitting mostly still, so make sure you review footage carefully! The alternative of course is to press record when you see something happening, but trust me, it's often too late!

How slow?

As a general rule of thumb, the larger the bird, the less slow motion you need. If you shoot a large raptor taking off in 240fps (what I call super slowmo) it might lose the dramatic effect and be a bit boring to watch, as it just takes so long for the action to play out! Smaller birds move, and certainly accelerate, more quickly. Super slowmo can be really useful to show the movement of, say, a Kingfisher whose wings beat very rapidly. The slower you shoot, the quicker each frame is saved and the less light is captured. So in murky conditions you may have to settle for normal speed recording, or at least avoid super slowmo. At 120fps, or four times slower than normal speed, standard slowmo is often a safe choice and the best compromise.

At the time of writing, I phonescope with the IphoneX. This phone offers 240fps super slowmo at 1080p resolution. It works well as long as you have good lighting. However this mode really makes the phone work hard and it can be prone to overheating - especially in warm climates. The first sign of this is when the phone screen automatically dims (even when you have the brightness set to max). This can be frustating when you're trying to capture footage in bright sunlight, and you can barely see if your subject is in focus. So be aware that depending on conditions, and what you're shooting, you may be best to make do with 120fps - and try and shoot from the shade.

Phonescoping long

Of course, this entire approach to nature filming works with a traditional video camera as well. But I think it particularly suits the phonescoping approach. You've got oodles of zoom on your scope, so you can find a comfortable spot to sit, observe and enjoy without disturbing your subject. When you spot an interesting bit of activity, phone apps make finding that brief moment in long sequences of slowmo footage really easy. They also make instant reviewing, editing and sharing a very realistic proposition.

 

It's even possible to use a tripod mounted phonescope setup as a remote camera. Its obviously essential not to disturb birds while you're setting up, but by aiming at a target location and then backing off to a safe distance, you can get incredible shots without impacting on the birds' welfare. 

I shot this pair of Common Redstarts after some careful observation to first locate where they were nesting, and then to observe what their habits were. They always perched on a particular rock before flying up to a hole in the wall where the nest was concealed. Approaching when the birds were away from the nest, I set up the scope on the rock and left it filming to capture several visits with food. I then focused on the nesting hole and again captured several visits that I could match up with the other footage in the edit. I've experimented with a bluetooth remote to trigger filming, but long shooting works just as well - as long as you have plenty of storage on your phone.

 

It's worth reiterating the importance of fieldcraft and respect for the birds' welfare. Take your time to understand the movements of your target and think about how you can capture its natural behaviour without disturbance.

Sharing your masterpiece

With the results of your filming on your internet enabled smart phone, sharing with the wider world can be almost instantaneous. Uploading to a video sharing site also provides a useful backup of your recording, should something untoward happen to your phone when out in the field.

Always remember to share responsibly. Ensure you don't give away the location of rare breeding birds. I keep my GPS location service disabled for my camera apps. This ensures that the location of a photo or video is not stored in the video metadata.

In the next section, I'll describe how to edit together your raw footage into a video masterpiece.