Priceless digiscoping adaptor for Iphone thanks to 3D printing!

A priceless digiscoping adaptor for an Iphone 4S and a Kowa spotting ‘scope  has just been made possible courtesy of an idea, an inspired mind (thank you Madryn!), some open source CAD software and Netday technologies in the form of an open source 3D printer.

Redbilled Spurfowl photo

Redbilled Spurfowl, 2225 x 1458 pixels, focal length 4.28, F/2.4, 1/690s, 30x wide Kowa eye-piece, TSN 883 spotting ‘scope, digiscoped ± 20 metres from feeding table

Having ‘weighed’ several options to support my ongoing birding interests, fading eye-sight and hearing against the escalating dilemma of lugging tons of optical, photographic and sound-recording gear (and sometimes even a shotgun!) all over the place in pursuit of new birds, I’ve chosen to stick to my trusted 30-year-old Zeiss 10x40B bins, an analog-digital microphone adaptor for Iphone by Apogee, a sturdy tripod and a Kowa TSN 883 spotting ‘scope with a 30x wide angle eye-piece (thank you Peter Ryan for insisting on this choice of eye-piece!).   And, finally, I’ve also found a neat and stress-free way of leaving the shotgun at the museum.

I can still get away (just!) with this collection as carry-on luggage. But how to capture the once-in-a-lifetime image of some cosmic mind-f*cker (CMF) of a twitch, e.g., an American Black Skimmer over the Rundu sewage works, or Royal Terns in Namibia’s skeleton coast park 2, or even better, this Angola cave chat on the hillside above our house in Windhoek?

mountain chat

(just joking 🙂 it’s actually a Mountain Chat © Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-4.0)

There is some ambivalence on the usefulness of digiscoping in bird photography;  using a digital camera with an eye-piece adaptor which allows a spotting ‘scope to be used as a telephoto lens, instead of buying a very, very expensive telephoto lens for a very expensive digital camera.

(EEK! Clumsy adaptor ©

The main arguments against digiscoping have been the clumsiness of these ‘scope eye-piece adaptors and the mediocre image quality compared to using a digital camera with a good telescopic lens.  Apparently, if the camera isn’t perfectly centred on the field of view,  you will not get satisfactory photographs. Several proprietary adaptors have been designed to hold proprietary digital cameras in place on the eye-pieces of proprietary spotting ‘scopes (try using a Nikon adaptor-ring with a Canon camera:-)) at considerable cost to the user.

The simplest of these is an adaptor-ring that allows you to screw your camera onto the eyepiece of the ’scope. But this removes the ability to quickly grab an image of a bird you’re seeing through the ’scope. By the time you’ve finished fiddling to get the camera attached, the bird has buggered off. However, without some kind of adaptor to hold the camera in place against the eye-piece, camera lens / image sensor alignment can result in poor images. This problem of aligning the camera is complicated by having to use the digital camera’s usually very small display window to examine the image – these are often too dim to see easily in outdoor sunlight. Then there’s the problem of camera shake, which increases with the magnification of the image. To get reasonable results, you need to use a sturdy tripod and a remote shutter release.

So given these negatives, what’s the point you may ask?  Well, the fact is that you can get satisfactory photographs using a digiscoping adaptor for the increasingly high quality digital cameras built into smart phones these days.  There’s a camera phone with 38 megapixel resolution on the market today which comes close to matching the quality of compact digital cameras.  (and I trust that) The size of its image sensor has also grown along with smarter image processing and improved backside illumination sensors. Obviously, the main arguments for digiscoping are a significant reduction in weight and cost of optical equipment and the ability to capture opportunistic images while birding.


In my case, too, it’s very useful for convincing the sceptics about the validity of any rarities I may report  – the vagrant skimmer and tern of yore spring to mind!  And like any digital camera, there’s also the immediate feedback on the quality of the image, where bad images can be erased immediately, and with the advent of wireless technologies like the AirStash, images can be transferred directly to another device (a laptop or tablet) for cropping or other adjustments.  And by using my Iphone for its original purpose (and providing there’s telecom network 😦 ), I may even be able to post an image of my latest ‘rarity’to the web in real time, without first having to blow it away with a shotgun, pickle it for the museum collection, and write an article for peer-review by another regional rare-bird committee:-)

So here’s the thing. With the help of a free and open source design app and a 3D printer in our workshop, we’ve been able to make a very affordable and easy-to-replicate Iphone digiscoping adaptor for the Kowa 30x wide-angle eye-piece. It is also a robust protective cover for the phone (made from ‘ABS’, a thermoplastic filament),  while still providing access to all the camera’s regular functions, such as the external earplugs and volume control.  For this first adaptor we’ve used an Iphone 4S.  Mainly because this phone came ‘free’ recently :-), but also because it has a physically large image sensor (1/3.2 inch), an 8 megapixel camera, and a large, bright display screen.

iphone digiscope adaptor

Iphone digiscope adaptor for a Kowa spotting scope

Our digiscoping adaptor is designed to snugly fit on the 30x wide angle eye-piece of the Kowa TSN 883 spotting ‘scope, without the need to screw it on.  The texture of the adaptor binds nicely with the rubberised extension ring of the eye-piece. Note, too, the lanyard loop for hanging the phone around your neck or the ‘scope.  You can achieve super-steady photos by using your headphones as a remote shutter release. Tap the volume buttons to capture a photo (now ain’t that nifty?).

iphone digiscope adaptor in action

Iphone digiscope adaptor in action!

And no, this simple contraption is *not* water-proof, but will likely tolerate shitty Alaskan weather with the help of a plastic bag, long after I’ve gone indoors 🙂 ! The Iphone adaptor can be printed at home.  The adaptor was designed using OpenSCAD, a free open source software for creating 3D CAD objects, and printed on an open source RepRapPro Ormerod 2 printer.  The design required to print a digiscoping adaptor can be altered slightly to accommodate the Iphone 5 and even the new Iphone 6.   It can even be adjusted for different scope (and binocular) eye-pieces and phones (with back cameras) by anyone with this design software, measurements of phone and ‘scope eye-piece and a 3D printer (we’re happy to share the OpenSCAD design file with anyone interested).  The technical design has been posted to Thingiverse (Thanks Madryn!).

RepRapPro Ormerod 2 printer printing the digiscoping adaptor

RepRapPro Ormerod 2 printer printing the digiscoping adaptor

Right!  All set to go.   Alaska here we come!  Dammit, now where did I put my passport and air ticket ?  🙂


As always I’m indebted to my colleague Madryn Cosburn, technical director at NetDay Namibia, for ‘materialising’ so many of the truly cool ideas we concoct during our lively and creative discussions;  in this regard I’m also particularly grateful to our creative friends at Bruichladdich for giving us some of the finest single malt whiskies in the Hebrides!   Sláinte!

(Some) References

1.  Komen, J. 2013. Editorial comment. Lanioturdus, 46 (3), pp 2-3.

2. Komen, J. & Paterson, J. 2002.  First specimens of Royal Tern Sterna maxima in southern Africa. SA Birding, R. Brooke Memorial Volume 70 (3&4):242.

3.  Ryan, P.  2006.  User’s guide to digiscoping. Africa Birds & Birding. August-September Edition, pp 67-69.


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Posted in #namibia, #seevultures, albatross, Angola Cave Chat, assistive technologies, birding, birds, camera trap, creative commons, digiscoping, distribution lists, FOSS, geek, Ian sinclair, ict development, ICT4D, Indiegogo, Kickstarter, namibian, namringers, pentad, re-sightings, resightings, SABirdnet, smartphones, twitching, vulturesresightings, wildlife

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