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  • Writer's picturePaul

How to phonescope flight shots

Very soon after I started getting into phonescoping I began wondering how I could capture flight shots. Finding and tracking rapidly moving birds, and then finding them again once you've lost them, is really challenging with a phonescope. Especially if you have a scope with an angled lens. What I needed was some kind of sighting device on top of the barrel of the scope.

Lining up the target...

Searching the internet, I looked at the kind of reflector sights used by the shooting industry. This was clearly not a good approach for two reasons. Firstly, the shooting industry has a huge negative impact on the world of wildlife. And secondly, the mounting systems used for gun sights were not going to help me attach a gun sight to my scope.

Last year I read a social media post from a Japanese phonescoper who recommended the Olympus EE-1 red dot sight, sometimes called a "reflector sight". I'd not really considered the possibility that camera manufacturers would already produce exactly what I needed - but the solution had been right under my nose all along. I wish I could find the post where the recommendation was made, as I'd love to thank the digiscoper who made me aware of it. If you're reading this - thanks so much! I've written this post to pass on what I've learnt to other phonescopers.

So what is a red dot sight?

A red dot sight provides a way of framing your shot without even looking through the scope or at your phone. It provides a small sighting device that projects a floating red crosshairs indicating where the sight is pointing. If you align (or as snipers would say: zero in) the sight with what the scope is pointing at, you suddenly have a way of rapidly getting your subject in your phonescope. Here's a great review by an SLR photographer, with some photos that show what it's like to use - the broad principles are similar for phonescoping.

This sight can be useful for subjects hiding away in a background bereft of obvious landmarks. Passerines perched in a close up tree can sometimes be very difficult to locate when your phonescope not only has a narrow field of view, but also a narrow depth of field. In other words, you can be pointing straight at a small bird perched on a branch, but if your focus is out, you'll see right through it and not realise you had it lined up!

Where the dot sight really comes into its own however, is for moving targets. Particularly if those moving targets are rapid and agile.

Gear up

The Olympus EE-1 has a hot plate attachment, which means it will slot straight into a typical SLR. But that's not straightforward for me. What I do have on the top of my Manfrotto MVH500AH tripod head is screw thread for a single attachment. So I set about acquiring a few bits and pieces to complete the set up:

The Sinvitron arm is a fantastic bit of kit that allows you to place the EE-1 right above barrel of your scope on a fully adjustable two piece arm that locks securely in place. The other bits and pieces were needed to enable the arm to screw into my tripod head and provide the right hot plate adaptor for mounting the dot sight on top.

The dot sight in action

This is what it looks like when it's ready to go and mounted on my scope.

The EE-1 dot sight in use while filming my local Peregrines

When you're getting setup, all you have to do is open the dot sight, flick it on and you're ready to shoot. Although I usually find I have to re-align the sight with my scope each time I go out. It doesn't need much of a knock to go out of alignment.

With the dot sight in place a whole new world of flight shots comes into reach. Here's a few examples...

Filming a hovering Long Tailed Tit

Back in the Spring I found a perfectly located Long Tailed Tit nest in a large patch of gorse. The young hatched when the gorse was in full flower, so would make a great background for filming the bird. This species often hovers for a brief moment when it exits the nest after feeding the young. So I got set up and had a go a capturing what in real time is an all too brief glimpse of this beautiful bird in stationary flight. But in slow motion I knew it would be worth seeing.

I quickly realised this was not going to be easy. The Tits were entering the nest from different locations and usually low down. If I waited and watched for the birds to enter, I was usually too late trying to get them when they exited up and hovered. Fortunately my girlfriend was with me and acted as my spotter. I was able to line up and be ready looking through the dot sight in the rough area the birds would stop and hover. My girlfriend called out "in" when one of the Tits zipped low into the gorse bush with food for their young, and then shortly afterwards she said "out" as they flew up, and sometimes hovered in my target zone. Not exactly how she thought she'd spend the afternoon!

Each time the Long Tailed Tit hovered, it was so brief I had no time to even glance at the phone screen. So each time I had to review the previous shot I'd taken, have a guess at what the focus should be, and then sight the bird completely with the dot sight.

I had a decent attempt at around 40 shots at the hovering bird and of those a handful had a bit of hovering in frame. Eventually, I caught one with the bird in frame *and* in focus. The hover of course happened in a different location each time so it was not easy to get onto such a fast moving species before the second or so of hovering had ended.

My girlfriend also had a go, and got *really* close to getting the shot as well. She's rapdily becoming a great phonescoper so I need to keep a careful eye on my scope which she has been coveting...

Flight shots of a Shortie

Here's another flight shot that's much more doable with a dot sight. Hunting Short Eared Owls are rapid fliers and constantly change direction, height and flight speed as they look around and spot potential prey. Just in this shot, I can count 12 changes in flight direction and speed, which happens in 8 seconds in real time. When filming a Shortie, I use the dot sight to quickly get "on" the bird and then switch to the phone to film it as it flies. I'd managed to get shots of Shorties before I had the dot sight, but I'd often waste a lot of time panning around trying to get on the bird, so often miss out on the best shots. The dot sight helps you get more out of the often limited time that a bird is showing. This particular shot was in low light at dusk, and was filmed at 120fps.

Phonescoping Falcons in Flight

And finally here's a few shots of my local favourites - the Leeds Peregrine Falcons. I think this is the ultimate test for a phonescoping set up, they are after all the fastest birds in the world. Fortunately they don't usually do 200mph when circling their nest site, but when filming them you quickly realize that the casual, assured and simple looking flight is actually hiding a multitude of tiny adjustments in speed and direction. In the first flight clip you can see the tail feathers constantly changing in angle as the bird adjusts its flight, no doubt due to buffeting from the wind. Keeping them in shot when they're going at pace is tricky. The dot sight makes it possible, if still rather difficult.

Flight shot quick tips

  1. The dot sight is essential to get on a bird quickly and if necessary track it if its a rapidly moving target

  2. I usually lock focus and exposure on the phone and then adjust focus on the scope manually. I have one hand on the tripod arm/handle and one hand on the focus barrel on the scope

  3. Use minimum zoom, and ratchet up your slow motion capability

  4. Accept that a lot of the footage will be imperfect in terms of framing and focus. Review footage carefully and edit down to the best shots. In slowmo you only need a second or two in realtime for a nice slowmo sequence

  5. Practice, practice and more practice!

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