I'm an avid birder and you'll often see me out on my local patch, exploring other sites in Yorkshire or further afield and sometimes joining fabulous Yorkshire Coast Nature tours in the great Yorkshire forest or out on the coast. But I always have my scope with me, and more often than not, you'll see me shooting video on my phone using a technique called "PhoneScoping". With a small adapter, my iPhone attaches to my spotting scope and instantly becomes a video camera with 70x zoom!
It's a rapidly evolving approach to shooting wildlife film and I often get a lot of interest from other birders and photographers. First they're intrigued as to what I'm up to, then they're amazed when they see the quality of the image on the screen. Phonescoping is growing in popularity, but it's a bit of a quirky art. So after several years of experimentation, and some success in making it work, I've put together this site to share some of my knowledge on the subject. In this first section, I'm going to explore why I love phonescoping, and what you can get out of it. It is a slightly strange process, so I'm also going to dip into some of the pros and cons. In subsequent sections I'm going to look at a range of topics, including the equipment you'll need, how to shoot video, strategies for revealing the behaviour of birds and other wildlife and how to edit your raw footage ready for viewing and sharing with the wider world.
This is the very bird that got me hooked on PhoneScoping. I was experimenting with my first phone scoping adapter several years back and had a go at filming a Tree Pipit, hoping to catch it launching into the air for a display flight before coming back to the same perch. But by the time I was setup and recording, the bird clearly fancied a rest and I left my phone recording while the Pipit somewhat boringly sat around for the best part of ten minutes. Or did it? On reviewing the footage, I recalled a moment when for a split second the bird took off, before dropping back to its perch. Playing back the slow motion recording revealed so much more than I'd taken in when I saw it in real time with my own eyes. The Pipit spotted a fly, tracked it for a moment and then took off to snap up a tasty flying snack. I realized that phone scoping could open a window on a whole world of fascinating bird behaviour that I'd previously been missing.
So why would you take the tiny camera on a mobile phone and stick it on the end of your spotting scope? Why not just use a video camera? That's probably not a bad idea, and one you should definitely consider. There are some real issues with phonescoping. In some ways it's a somewhat crude approach. A phonescoping adapter simply lines up your phone camera with your scope. It's imperfect. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong - not least the focus, which is controlled by both your scope and your phone at the same time. Shooting video can produce excellent results, but still photos can be disappointing. And of course, someone might just go and phone you up as you're about to nail the perfect shot of that rarity you've just discovered. Phonescoping does present a real challenge, but it's a challenge I personally find quite addictive. When everything comes together, it's very satisfying.
This short video illustrates the incredible potential of phonescoping. In the distance, there's a recently fledged Peregrine Falcon sitting on a window sill. But its on the other side of several roads and a taxi rank! With the phone filming through the scope, the Peregrine fills the frame. It looks pretty good, until a bus goes past and momentarily blocks the view!
Scope or Camera? Take both
The tricky question faced by many modern birders when they hit the patch is: "Scope or camera?". This kit is not light, and deciding which one to carry with you can be tricky. Sods law dictates the answer is often the wrong one. If only I had a pound for the number of times birders have said to me - "if only I had my camera when x,y,z". As a phonescoper you can have both camera and scope with you whenever you're out birding. All eventualies are covered.
Another advantage is the immediacy of phonescoping. How often have you seen BOC (Back of Camera) shots on twitter - where the photographer has taken a snap of the back of their camera using their mobile phone. Bird photography is often linked to a particular moment of time of year - when migratory birds arrive or when a vagrant appears on your patch. So it's a shame when you get a good capture but have to go home, download to your computer, process it, and then finally share it on the internet. At best this might be the same day. At worst, several weeks later when you finally get round to working through all the snaps filling up your memory card. When your camera *is* your phone, you can view, process, edit and upload your masterpiece to social media within seconds of shooting the footage. Backlogs of film to edit become a thing of the past, or at least easy to get on top of, as everything is in easy reach on your phone. Boring train journey? I'll edit some of that film from my last birding holiday...
Phonescoping is great for observing (mostly stationary) birds for long periods, where constantly craning forward to look through your scope is bad for your back and long periods of scope use a recipe for eyestrain. With your phonescope on and recording, you've got a much more easily observed view onto the target bird's activities. This is great for sharing views with others - I use it a lot when I'm volunteering as a ranger at my local RSPB site. It also helps you keep track of what's happening: with instant replay, you literally can't miss a thing. The St Aidan's Kestrels, featured on this year's Springwatch, have a taste for birds as well as voles, and have been photographed with a variety of species such as Jack Snipe! I saw the male come in with a small bird - probably a chick - and wanted to ID the species. He quickly moved to a perch high up on the mechanical excavator on which they nest. He then sat there for over 5 minutes before finally passing the food to the female. I missed the crucial moment where the prey was on view, as I was chatting to a visitor (I was on duty at the time). Fortunately I'd lined up my phonescope and left it recording in slowmo. Then all I needed was some help to confirm the ID - in this case it was a Oystercatcher chick. Phonescoping is great for capturing the all too brief moments of interest in a long stakeout.
Phonescoping enables a new perspective on birds and the amazing ways they interact with their environment. I'm frequently stunned by what I missed completely in real time, and only discovered in slow motion action replay. Like this Black Necked Grebe (a species that usually dives underwater to feed) opportunistically gulping down a fly or seeing how a Waxwing uses it's sucker like tongue to help it gorge itself on berries.
At times phonescoping can be frustrating. You're forced to use a tripod and so setup isn't instant. Lining up a shot with phone as viewfinder can be difficult and your minimum zoom can still be considerable - sometimes you can just be too close to the subject! But with practice and some basic technique the results can be spectacular. Got a phone? Got a scope? Get yourself a phone scope adapter and get started!
In the next section I'll introduce the kit you need to start phonescoping.