After months of emails etc I have finally managed to get my hands on a Carl Zeiss "Victory" Photoscope 85 T* FL.
As soon as I found out about this piece of equipment I knew that I had to try it out.
My first thoughts were "wow, what a concept!" I had often thought of what could make the ultimate "digi-scope" and perhaps this was it?
Digiscoping in its truest form is using a camera through the eyepiece of a spotting scope, but in this case the camera is built in!
I have used camera modules before, and always found them to be frustratingly rubbish, but maybe Zeiss had thought this through properly, and had perhaps manufactured something really good?!
Read on to find out what I thought of this bizarre contraption!!
Usually I have lots to write here about adapters, stepping rings and cameras, but in this case there seems to be less!
This Photoscope is exactly that! A camera is built into the body of the scope. The camera is 7.1MP so its not got a massive sensor, but it should be ok for digiscoping with.
The scope itself is has an 85mm objective, so it rivals the Nikon EDG 85 in terms of objective size. A larger objective is always welcome for digiscoping purposes as it will help to let in more light.
The scope felt extremelly well built, as you'd expect from a name such as Zeiss.
Above we can see the profile of the Zeiss Photoscope.
There is an extendable sun shade, the zoom & focus wheels, the LCD display (folded in) and the fixed eyepiece (all zooming done with the zoom wheel)
The unit is quite heavy at just under 3kg, making it around a kilo heavier than my Swarovski set up, but still no way near as heavy as a conventional telephoto set up.
In the picture opposite we can see the zoom and focus controls.
Both feel well made, and are not overly difficult to turn.
There are non-slip rubber grips on the wheels.
It felt a little strange focussing so far down the scope, as usually the focus wheel is near to the middle of the scopes body, but I assume in this case its where it is because the workings for the camera are in the middle of the scope?
My main problem with them was turning the wrong one!
On more than one occasion I found myself zooming when I wanted to focus and vice versa!!
With practise though the problem became less frequent.
On the right hand side of the scope there is a compartment that stores the battery, a charging point and the SD card slot.
I thought this was going to be where the camera controls were when I first opened the box!
The camera is controlled by a remote controller.
The camera itself is turned on by a small, waterproof on/off button located just behind this piece of housing.
There is a green LED to show that the camera is on.
The built in camera
As I've already said, this scope has the camera built in!
The camera seems to be pretty good. It has 7.1MP, full manual control, and a variety of settings to help get the best out of the conditions and the camera. Being able to control the camera is so important to sucessful digsicoping, so Zeiss have done a good job here.
The camera is in many ways as adjustable and more than my stand alone compact & DSLR cameras, which really surpised me.
The camera also appears to be completely waterproof. I bemoan wet conditions with my regular set up as it isn't waterproof, so this one being waterproof was a real bonus!
The major problem that faces most digiscopers using a compact is glare on the LCD display. Usually, with the sun behind, sunlight reflects off the LCD screen thus making it hard to see what is on it. Zeiss have made the screen adjustable so that it can be turned to not reflect the light. A big thumbs up from me for that. Anything that means I don't need some kind of shade is very welcome.
The camera has many features that a stand alone compact camera would have.
In the pictures we can see the menu options, and just how adjustable the camera is.
This has been well thought out in terms of adjustment, but maybe not in terms of practicality.
I didn't find the menus difficult to understand, which was a good thing, and I also found that setting up was reasonably quick.
The camera is capable of shooting at 1/4000 sec, has a good ISO range, and 3 aperture settings.
The only real downside I found was that there is no kind of exposure meter when using manual mode. Most cameras have an exposure meter to help when using manual mode. I felt that with an exposure meter the photoscope would be much easier to use.
I tested it in good conditions and found that it actually worked very well. Zeiss have definately put a good camera, and amount of work into making this set up a really decent piece of equipment.
The Remote Controller
This is the piece of equipment that I'm just not sure about.
Its not that its a bad idea, it's effectivly the most elaborate shutter release cable I've ever used and the camera has to be controlled somehow!
Like I said earlier though, I expected the camera controls to be on the scope somewhere.
However, Zeiss have put them all on this controller, which is great, so long as you don't damage or lose it!
I found that the remote was easy enough to use, but I'd be surprised if a beginner would find it so straightforward.
The unit was responsive and the buttons didn't need to be pressed hard. It has to be used behind the scope so that the infra-red ports can be aligned.
The main drawback for me here is the speed that it all works at. Wildlife photography is all about seconds. Many subjects are in the correct position for successful photography for such a small amount of time and unfortunately fiddling around with a remote control is just very time consuming, and not overly easy!
Auto Focus Issues
Whenever I use a camera with autofocus (AF) I am never to sure about trusting it to focus on the right place.
Making sure that the focus is true is so important as you want your subject to be in focus, not the tree behind it!
I have always refocussed the scope to ensure that the correct point is being focussed on.
The Zoom Test
Without a doubt I wanted to know how well the zoom worked.
In my experience a lot of scopes struggle on higher zooms, with aperture being cut down.
The Photoscope boasts excellent aperture at 15x zoom (f2.4) and at 45x zoom (f3.3) so I was expecting it to perform well. The aperture can also be adjusted using the camera setting, but I found it worked best on the "open" setting.
Usual digiscoping technique applied to keeping things steady and making sure the focus was as good as possible.
I got the following results, using the same camera settings. I found it quite extraordinary that the image quality on higher zooms was just as good, and that there seemed to be very little loss of light through the scope.
I think the results below speak for themselves..
The Field Test
I chose a nice, still day to test the Photoscope.
The sun kept going in and out, so I apologise if some of the pictures are not as well exposed as normal.
The scope itself sat nicely on the tripod, and wasn't too bulky although the scope itself was quite heavy. I picked my spot, with the sun behind me and turned on the camera.
Zeiss also recommend that the eye diopter is focussed properly so that good pictures can be taken. It is important to focus this as accurately as possible.
Having had a play already in my back garden, I knew what to expect from the scope and camera. I knew that the settings on the camera took more time to adjust than my usual compact, so I tried to sort the main camera settings up in advance, so that I could keep this to a minimum when taking pictures. I also knew that I could tilt the LCD screen so that glare from the sun was kept to a minimum.
Finding the subject with digiscoping is often one of the hardest and most frustrating parts. Vital seconds spent desperately scanning is often too long, and the chance is missed. With the Photoscope though, things are much easier. As you would expect, the image that is seen through the scope is the image that appears on the cameras LCD display. Finding targets becomes easy. This method of finding the subject is by far the best and easiest way I've ever found in the field. I'm not sure however that the same quality of image is produced when looking through the eyepiece of the scope. The crystal clear image seen through the scope is not reflected in the LCD screen of the camera so its best to get the image on the LCD screen in focus to get the sharpest pictures.
One good way to use the scopes eyepiece to an advantage though is this. As I've already mentioned, the view through the scope is so much better than the view on the LCD screen. Once you have the subject in focus, it is possible to use the view through the scope to "time" when your subject is looking its best, e.g with an open beak/mouth
I found, as I expected too that once I was more aware of where the correct controls were on the remote control that the process of taking pictures sped up. I found the zoom to be no problem to use. Like with all different digiscoping set ups it takes a while to learn exactly what settings work at varying focal lengths, but the Photoscope seems to be pretty easy to use at all lengths, without having to vary the shutter speeds or ISO. This is a definite advantage. On more than one occassion I've zoomed in using other set ups and forgotten to adjust the shutter speed to compensate for loss of aperture and ended up with dull pictures, so its nice that the Photoscope has such excellent aperture.
Overall I found the Photoscope easy to use, excellent for finding the subject quickly, that it worked well in lower light conditions but perhaps a little slow to change settings in the field.
My first impressions of the Photoscope was that it would be a heavy, awkward piece of equipment to use. But in reality it wasn't. I actually found it to be a very well built, and well thought out piece of digiscoping equipment, that was more than able to take good pictures. From a beginners point of view though, I still think that a lot is expected from a beginners limited knowledge. This is quite a professional piece of equipment, and if I had picked this scope up as a learner then I would have more questions than answers.
The tiltable screen is brilliant, and I was really glad that the screen didn't just flip out. Glare on the LCD screen from the sun is a real digiscoping problem, so Zeiss has made a sensible decision here to include the tilting screen. The screen itself is a bit small, and seeing subjects at more than 20 meters away on 15x zoom was a little difficult. The screen did show good detail at highers zooms, thus making things much easier. The screen also included all the right settings information, which any photographer would find useful. The only drawback of the screen is that it needs to be bigger, so that it is easier to get a good, sharp focus of the subject.
Speed is of the essence in the field, so I found it best to get as many of my settings ready before the subject was there. There is no doubt that the remote controls way of adjusting the cameras settings required knowing the equipment very well, and as much as Zeiss had to have a way to control the camera, a touch pad & command wheel may have been a quicker & better option. But, I found a way to quicken things up. I decided that it was better to pick an aperture and ISO, and then manipulate the exposure but adjusting the shutter speed only. I found that if I left the menu in shutter speed adjustment mode that I could then go straight back to it for a quick adjustment just by pressing the menu button. The LCD screen would go lighter or darker depending to signal the kind of exposure I would get. It was still a bit of a guessing game, but it did at least give some kind of indication, which i think anyone would find helpful.
The camera is very good. A few more MP wouldn't have gone amiss, but this camera has got real potential. It is capable of taking pictures at up to 1/4000 sec, which is as good as any DSLR, and 3x quicker than my usual compact camera. Basically speaking, with practice & the right conditions it is more than possible to take great pictures with this scope. The 85mm objective lens will help to let the light in, (even though the scope can perform in lower light conditions) and the great apertures will also contribute to keeping shutter speeds high, and sharpness up. They all combine well to make things easier for the user. For once higher zooms have not been put before quality, and the fact remains that the excellent performance of this scope at higher zooms is still amazing me.
This is without a doubt an excellent piece of equipment, and I would say its a must for anyone, but to be honest the drawback is the price. At nearly £5000 this ultimate digiscope is very expensive. In Zeiss' eyes this price is probably just, as there is no doubt that a lot of time and effort has gone into the scopes production. But in creating this, the basic "trade off" between digiscoping and conventional photograpy has been forgotten. For those that don't know what I mean, basically, digiscoping has always been a means of making a telephoto style camera set up for a fraction of the cost of a conventional telephoto set up. But at nearly £5000, there isnt really any trade off. An entry level 400mm Canon lens only costs £1000 so I could ask what a good reason is for spending so much on a device like this, and I would argue that most would opt for a conventional set up if they had £5000 to spend.
For me, the concept is a good one, but sadly let down by the massive price tag. The results are good, and the camera is excellent. The build quality and optics are as you'd expect from Zeiss. This is definiltely a great piece of equipment and thanks go to Carl Zeiss UK for giving me the opportunity to loan, use and review their equipment.