With the release of Swarovski's new ATX/STX spotting scope and digiscoping adapters I simply had to get my hands on one to try out!
This exciting new range now boasts 3 objective lenses, a new all in one ocular unit and 2 new digiscoping adapters, the TLS APO (for DSLR's & 4/3 cameras) & the DCB II (for digital compacts).
I have kindly been loaned the 95mm objective and the TLS APO to use and review.
Swarovski are boasting that this is now the ultimate digiscope. Up until now, scopes and cameras have not been designed to work together. This equipment (they claim) is now designed to work as a scope/digiscope for the first time, bringing better all round performance once a camera is connected.
I have long been excited about putting their claims to the test. How would it work in the field? What would the equipment really be like? or would it all be a complete failure?
See what you think of what I think!
In the picture above we can see the two parts of the new Swarovski ATX spotting scopes.
Part 1 is the 95mm objective module. There are also two smaller objective modules, the 65mm & 85mm. The focussing wheel is built in to the end of the objective module and has a lovely smooth action. The objective modules start at £650 for the 65mm up to £1,380 for the 95mm version so they can be quite costly so its important you choose the size that suits you best.
Part 2 is the new Ocular module (the eyepiece module) There is now one eyepiece that fits all the objective modules as apposed to lots of different eyepieces. The zoom control is built onto the ocular module and operates very smoothly as you would expect.
The Ocular module costs around £1,570, which seems expensive, but its now the only eyepiece that you'll ever require. I like this idea, but I'm not sure about the price!
In the picture on the left we can see the TLS APO DSLR digiscoping adapter and Canon EOS 500D.
The adapter and camera are joined together using a T2 mount.
The type of T2 mount you will need is dependant on your make of camera.
For example I use a Canon DSLR so I need a Canon T2 mount to connect camera to adapter.
The TLS APO is fitted with a 30mm pancake lens.
The TLS APO costs £362 which is around £50 cheaper than the Swarovski TLS 800. So in some ways it is possible to save some money with the newer equipment!
The camera is my Canon EOS 500D. It is an entry level DSLR, but more than capable of taking good pictures. Any DSLR camera can be used with the TLS APO
All of the equipment is exceptionally well made as you would expect with Swarovski equipment. It has a feel of real quality to it and I really think that helps in justifying the price tag!
The objective lens & ocular unit fit together snuggly and are in no danger of coming apart. The same can be said for the TLS APO & camera. Once all parts are fitted together they form one complete, sold unit.
Below we can see the complete set up, all connected and ready to digiscope with.
But how do we put it all together?
Normally I would present the set up guide in step by step pictures. However, on this occasion I have made a small video to guide you. Should you have any questions about connection then you can always email me :)
What is a Pancake lens?
A "pancake lens" is the name given to a very thin, fixed length lens. They are generally only a very small sized prime lens, up to 50mm and they generally have an aperture of between f1.7-2.7 making them quite a fast lens.
So why have Swarovski used this idea with the TLS APO? I think its quite simple.
Pancake lenses are compact, and have quite a wide angle to them. These points coupled with the speed (aperture) of the lens makes them ideal for digiscoping. As I have said many times, light is so important to digiscopers, so having a fast, wide angled lens inserted into your digiscoping adapter is going to make digiscoping much easier, especially when the light isn't so good. Here is an example....
The Herring Gull on the left was taken in pretty awful conditions.
There was no sunlight at all, the conditions were windy and raining.
Everything about this picture was difficult. The wind kept blowing my equipment, so it was hard to focus properly.
The spitting rain was cold, and the lack of light meant I had to keep the ISO high.
The key point for me was comparing this pancake lens adapter to my other Swarovski adapters, and other set ups I had used.
I feel that with the TLS APO I had a wider angle, more light and it was easy to focus sharply.
I've often been critical of putting too much glass in the set up. I've always thought that to much glass makes focussing harder. However, with the quality of this pancake lens focussing was easier than I have known with a DSLR rig.
Really, the Herring Gull picture should not have been possible given the conditions, but I still managed it. The real question now is, "What can be achieved in really GOOD light!?"
The Field Test
As always (it seems) I have been loaned this equipment just as the
summer has ended meaning that the weather is generally poor and the days quite short!
Now this wouldn't normally bother me, but its fair to say that any kind of photography is best done in good sunlight, and I didn't really have that for this test so please bear with me if the pictures aren't as good as you were hoping!
The first thing I always check is the weight of the set up. This is important as most digiscoping trips involve considerable walking. I found the set up to be quite heavy, certainley heavier than my own Swarovski set up. I was comforted by the fact that the 65 & 85mm modules would weigh less than the 95mm set up that I was using. However, I feel that the weight would be a little to much for some. One of the advantages of digiscoping set ups is that they are meant to weigh much less than large conventional set ups. I don't think that the 95mm ATX is quite that heavy though!
Other concerns arising from this would be the weight of the set up on a tripod. Many tripods, especially Manfrotto tripods are weight rated, meaning that they recommend that you only use a certain amount of weight on their tripods, depending on the model of tripod. It is something that needs to be considered if buying the 95mm model ATX.
Also, with the camera attached the whole set up is very "back heavy", meaning that a balance rail must be used. Swarovski, I think, have recognised this as there is a new balance rail available to buy for these scopes. I did find that the scope kept loosening on the tripod quick release shoe, which was a small concern, but I just kept checking the tightness periodically to make sure things weren't coming apart!
One other concern with heavier set ups is the ability to fix on a subject quickly. Sometimes the user will have to allow for a bit of extra movement when fixing the tripod head in place. This can be a little frustrating, but the use of a balance rail should reduce this extra compensation to a minimum.
Upon arrival at my first destination I was greeted with wind and sunny spells, so the conditions for the test were not great, but still ok for digiscoping.
Whenever I do a review test I always hope for a subject that is good looking and up close too. This rarely happens though, but this day was different.
Upon finding this confiding Snow Bunting the first thing I wanted to do was take its picture.
I took the lens cap off the scope and got ready to pull the trigger.
The focus of the scope was smooth, and the near focus of the scope was incredibly short making this picture possible.
One of the drawbacks of digiscoping with other scopes is their near focus capability, or lack of it! The ATX could focus down to less than 5 meters whereas my friend couldn't make this shot as his scope can only focus down to 8 metres.
We all long to get close to our subjects, but thats not possible if your scope is not able to focus.
There was no vignetting with this set up at the smallest zoom setting (30x), but what was more incredible was that when I zoomed in (up to 70x!!) there was still no vignetting! This to me was simply amazing. Sure, there was a loss of light, but it was still possible to digiscope. Also, it was possible to zoom and focus on short range subjects. This scope was starting to really show what it could do.
The focus wheel and zoom control were quickly to hand and I had no problem in locating the subject (another advantage of the 95mm objective), focussing on the subject and zooming in and out to get the picture that I wanted.
Like I said earlier, getting close is key. It helps us to see more detail which helps with sharper focussing and this scope lets you do that without getting close at times! Good sunlight would've really helped to make the higher zoom shots, but it was still possible, even in poorer light.
The glass in the scope and adapter is Swarovski's "Swarovision" glass. I believe it to be the same as in the ATS/STS-ATM/STM scopes. There is no doubt that the glass is brilliant and really helps produce nice, brighter images.
Moving on from my first location I took the set up somewhere new.
By this time the sun was on the way down, and I was left with a lot of dark areas.
This wasn't a bad thing though as many an English digiscoper will tell you that there are lots of dull days here & that a good set up will produce some kind of result even when the sun isn't shining!
The Blackbird in the opposite picture gave me a good opportunity to test the ATX in dull conditions.
I had seen the partially eaten apples and hoped for Fieldfares or Waxwings! However, the results I got pleased me no end!
Even with a dark back drop the ATX performed really well. I used 30x zoom, plenty of ISO, and a range of about 6 metres. I took the shot and managed to get a nice, detailed image. This scope was passing with flying colours and was becoming more usable by the second.
Again, there was no vignetting. I could see good focus and colour all around the picture subject. This set up was taking great pictures, and that was without any real light!
After such successful close range work I had to put the zoom to the test.
I was wary of using too much and losing much light through loss of aperture.
I believe the aperture to be around f10 whilst at 30x zoom with the 95mm objective so to zoom more would reduce that even further.
But these paramaters must be tried to see how they work out.
The Bramblings in the picture opposite were around 30 metres away so I increased the zoom to about 60x!
To my amazement the results were not so bad. I could see my shutter speed had dropped, so I used the shutter release cable to reduce camera shake, kept the ISO up and also used the exposure compensation to help the aperture. I took the picture and with a little help from photoshop I was able to produce a reasonable end result.
For me I was starting to understand just what could be achieved on those days where the light was good and the subjects were close. With this new ability to be able to zoom a DSLR on digiscope I knew that there were far more digiscoping possibilities than ever before!
Testing this equipment has been a really exciting test for not just the set up but for myself as well.
When I travelled to Birdfair this year (2012) I remember thinking to myself that I was worried about the popularity of digiscoping. Had many a potential digiscoper been put off by fiddly contraptions that were capable of producing great pictures, but at a cost of pulling all their hair out?!
Had optic companies began to lose interest as well? It had to be said that I was very pleased with what I saw.
The team at Swarovski had obviously been thinking about digiscoping, and its importance in the optic market. This is clear to see when you look at the new ATX scope and digiscoping range.
The equipment that I have been loaned does not fall short of my expectations in any way.
It is well built, well thought out, and key to successful digiscoping, it is easier than ever to connect camera to scope.
I for one like the older Swarovski digiscoping adapters. I've got them to work very well for me and I still continue to use them each time I go digiscoping. But this new range has left me thinking of what can now be achieved.
I love the skill involved with digiscoping, and all of the basic rules still apply, only now there is even more to learn and more parameters to play around with. Creating that perfect picture is now even more possible!
So, what have learned from this experience & how do I feel about it?
The 95mm ATX digiscoping set up works very well. It may be heavier than I am used to, but its only a minor drawback. The set up is quick and easy to use. Missing photo opportunities is frustrating, so ease of use is a must, especially to those that want results more quickly.
All the pieces come together in complete harmony making this one of the easiest digiscopes to assemble ever. I was worried when I first read about the adapter sleeve for the TLS APO as sleeves are sometimes fiddly and not stable, but this one is held in place nicely and is not a problem.
The pancake lens in the TLS APO is a masterstroke, and probably the biggest step forward in digiscoping for some time. Using this lens as well as the scopes eyepiece still keeps with tradition of using the camera through the scopes eyepiece. I really liked this.
The aperture through the scope is no worse than using the TLS 800 with the ATS/STS spotting scopes. There would be a little less with the smaller objective modules, and I wonder how well they would perform. Digiscoping with a 65mm scope would be a little harder but the 85mm is plenty big enough so I think the whole range should work well at most levels.
The biggest plus on the DSLR set up now though is the zoom. It really is a great feature at your disposal. Once you have learned how to control exposure it will be a valuable asset, especially in really good light.
Apart from weight (check you tripod manufacturers weight limits) & balance (don't forget you'll need a balance rail) I can't find a way to fault this new equipment. It may cost a lot of money, but there is no trade for top quality, and now the customer has more choice over what they are buying. For sure you couldn't buy a top end conventional telephoto camera set up and a scope for £2,500-£3,000?, so really its not that pricey. The ATX & digiscoping range is a camera set up & spotting scope all in one!! :)
(I can't wait to try it with the DCB II digital compact adapter now!!)
Many thanks go to Swarovski UK for the loan of this stunning equipment, and to the people who created it!
Thanks for reading
Below is a compatibility chart & downloadable fitting guides for the new Swarovski digiscoping adapters.