The joys of photographing nature with a digital camera

Posted: Thursday, November 01, 2001

After 40 years photographing nature with a 35 mm camera, I decided to see what all the hubbub was about digital equipment.

So about a year ago I put aside my macro lenses with special flash attachments and heavy telephotos that required almost a derrick to hold them steady and purchased a tiny digital camera. It was near the size of a pack of playing cards and weighed only 10 ounces. I also purchased a small macro attachment for the camera and a lightweight (1.7 pound) spotting scope.

To complete my commitment, I bought "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Digital Photography" and signed up for two semesters of an online course in PhotoShop from the University of Alaska Southeast via my computer.

I have spent almost a year now experimenting and evaluating the use of a digital camera for nature photography. Here is some of what I have learned.

Organizing photos: One of the greatest advantages of going digital is in the ease and speed of filing photographs.

When I return from a day of photographing insects, flowers, birds and other animals, I just plug my camera into the computer and instantly "tiny" thumbnail sketches of the photos appear on the screen. One double click on an image and it appears full screen. I evaluate it, and if it's a keeper, I name it and send it to the computer file folder of my choice. It usually takes me less than 10 minutes to file and catalogue 36 photos.

Storage of digital photos is also a dream. I can file about 1,200 uncompressed images on CDs in a case that is less than 2 inches wide. That's a real contrast to the six tall filing cabinets that crowd my office and the piles of 35 mm slide boxes full of images that I have waiting to be labeled and filed, someday.

Just the camera: The greatest advantage of the digital camera by itself is its small size and light weight. I can always have it with me. I am less likely to miss that once-in-a-lifetime nature photo that sometimes happens when I am off doing something other than photography. In addition I have found that at the same f-stop and lens equivalent of my 35 mm equipment, the digital camera has a greater depth of field.

Macro photography: In the macro mode the digital camera not only covers smaller objects than the macro lens for my 35 mm camera, it also has a much greater depth of field. When I use the accessory macro lens for the digital camera the differences are even more pronounced.

I can take full-frame photos of subjects the size of a mosquito while hand-holding the camera. I could never have hand-held my 35 mm camera on such extreme close-ups. Also the 35 mm camera would have required extension tubes and a tripod or specialized flash equipment to photograph such a small object.

Another advantage of my digital camera is the use of the LCD screen. By using the screen I can hold the camera at arm's length and still focus on a subject. This is a great advantage when photographing skittish insects and small animals that would not tolerate a human face next to theirs.

Digiscoping: With a small digital camera you can take photos through a spotting scope. The combination I used gives me the equivalent of a 1,500 mm lens - about three times more powerful and much cheaper than a "big" 35 mm telephoto lens.

I can photograph waterfowl and eagles nearly full frame at distances greater than 200 feet, a sparrow at 40 feet and a hummingbird at 30 feet. For the most part I can photograph animals from such a long ways off that they are unaware of my presence.

The quality of the photographs taken through a spotting scope is amazing. Search the Internet using the term "digiscoping" and marvel at the photographs being produced by this technique.

Digiscoping can also be used to verify rare birds. Most serious birders use a spotting scope. With a simple bracket to hold the camera you can quickly mount your small digital camera to the scope and take a photo of that rare bird.

Other advantages: For documentation in natural history studies I found the digital camera to be invaluable. Each time you take a photograph, all of the camera's settings and the date and time are recorded automatically. In addition you can set it up to record GPS information. Upon filing the photograph you have an opportunity to type in a few lines of comments. All of this information stays with the photograph and can be retrieved whenever you need it.

For most of us who enjoy photographing nature I think that the digital camera has many advantages over traditional 35 mm equipment.

There are also some disadvantages, one of which is quality. Although images produced by digital cameras are being used more and more in publications, most publishers still prefer and often require the higher-quality transparencies that a 35 mm camera can produce. This should change as the quality of digital images improves. Even now I would have a difficult time returning to using my 35 mm equipment. It seems like such a dinosaur by comparison.


Juneau photographer and writer Bob Armstrong will present an illustrated program on digital photography at the monthly meeting of Juneau Audubon Society on Thursday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School library.

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