Only when I started writing these posts about our bird-watching gear, I realized that our smartphones are definitely part of it. Because we never leave the house without the smartphone, it is the natural last resort to take a picture of a bird. Obviously, they lack the zoom capabilities of cameras but any picture sometimes may be better than no picture. The big pixel density of the smartphone cameras is pretty big nowadays, so the lack of zoom capability is less and less of a problem. On top of that, the latest smartphone models do have some zoom capability. I am just waiting for them to become affordable.
Smartphones also come in very handy as sound recorders. To spot birds, their sounds can be the only thing to go on. You may never see it, but then you can make a sound recording for later identification. Also, I occasionally like to record the sounds of nature in general, not just birds. Like for example the 45 minutes of twilight just before sunrise.
Manually making smartphone pictures through a telescope
Thirdly, smartphones are the go-to device if you want to take a picture through a telescope or binoculars. Well … go-to device if you do not want to spend a lot of money to connect your camera to a telescope. That is called digiscoping. It can be rather expensive and we are just beginners who do not want to gear up too much.
So, you can try to hold your smartphone against the eyepiece of a telescope or binoculars and make a picture. I have tried that with my binos, and it is not easy. One problem is that you need to position the phone carefully to catch the pupil in the eyepiece. Then you need to point the two to the bird that you want to take a picture of … and, here comes the difficulty … without moving the phone relative to the binos. I.e. while you are trying to point at the bird, you likely move the smartphone so that it no longer sees the image through the binos. It is an acquired skill not to let this happen, especially when the bird is moving. But it is doable.
There is another problem with this technique. If your smartphone – such as my iphone – has its camera located in the corner or close to the edge of the box, then the phone may not entirely cover the eyepiece. This allows light from behind the phone to fall into the eyepiece, which causes weird reflections in the image that your phone sees. You would need to put a piece of black cardboard or plastic between the phone and the binos. I never tried it because I expect that the level of fumbling is beyond my patience.
Using a clip-on
The first problem can be solved by buying a clip-on. The second by looking at the design of the clip-on and making sure that it completely covers the eyepiece if you use it with your phone.
A clip-on is a small device that connects your smartphone to your scope or binos. Some are dedicated to particular models, some are more versatile. I am not sure that the word clip-on is the right one because if I search for the phrase I get small telescopes that are clipped onto a phone. The device I mean, connects a phone to a much bigger scope. Another phrase may be ‘smartphone mount’ or ‘smartphone mount adapter’. Try searching for ‘smartphone mount adapter telescope‘ and you’ll get the pictures (the link brings you to ecosia.org search engine).
Here are a few pictures of the Opticron clip-on that we bought – again in the ‘cheap’ range of up to 100€ – and how it looks attached to the telescope with my old iPhone 4S.
One trick to learn with it is the distance between the device and the eyepiece. If you attach it as close as possible the image is relatively small, i.e. it does not fill the screen of the phone. To get a bigger image (without digital zooming) you need to increase the distance ‘just a little bit’ while at the same time positioning it straight. It’s doable and for sure easier than holding the phone to the eyepiece manually.
I did find a Celestron model that allows changing the distance with a third nob, which is in the same price range, but that one did not seem to cover the eyepiece exactly. Wheres, this one has a big plate that surely covers the eyepiece exactly.
Notice the earpods attached to the phone. They have volume buttons, one of which serves as a remote shutter button. Because of the magnification of the scope and the steady-but-not-rock-steady tripod, the slightest touch to the scope causes a big movement of the image. So, you can not use the button on the phone, not even the one on the touch screen, to make a picture. With the remote, this problem is solved.