src=" Digiscoping, the GH4 & 4K photography - An interview with Tara Tanaka

Date: 19/06/2015 | By: Heather

Digiscoping with the Panasonic GH4 & Swarovski Optik scope – An Interview with Tara Tanaka

DMC-GH4, 1/800, f/ 17/10, ISO 400

Digiscoping with the Panasonic GH4 & Swarovski Optik scope – An Interview with Tara Tanaka

Welcome to our series of 100 interviews we will be holding with photographers who use mirrorless cameras for their work! “Switching to a smaller and lighter system” has become somewhat of a buzz phrase as of late, but many working photographers take this philosophy seriously. From medical reasons such as resolving back and shoulder pain to the simple realisation that bigger does not mean better, photographers are turning to mirrorless systems now more than ever before.

This week’s interview is with Tara Tanaka, an award-winning digiscoper who uses the Panasonic Lumix GH4 and a Swarovski Optik scope for her bird and wildlife photography. She was recently interviewed by Rob Knight on the popular podcast This Week in Photo about her work, and is one of the jury members for the Movement and Action category for this year’s Digiscoper of the Year photography competition.

Visit Tara’s Vimeo channel and follow her on Flickr.

All images in this article are property of Tara Tanaka and are published with permission.

Who is ‘Tara Tanaka’ in three simple sentences?

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  • A digiscoper who is 1,000 times happier in her blind than in a five-star resort
  • Was lucky enough to marry her best friend and work with him to create their own wildlife sanctuary
  • Hopes that by connecting people with birds through photos and video that they will be moved to protect them

You are a wildlife photographer, birder and digiscoper based in Florida. What drew you to this genre in the first place?

My husband and I have lived on a 45-acre cypress swamp since 1993, and some of the most beautiful species of birds live and nest here, including Wood Ducks and Great Egrets.

In 2009 I decided that I would expand my very limited knowledge of photography in order to capture the beauty and incredible behaviors I was seeing every time I walked past a window.  A couple of years before a friend had brought over digiscoping gear to record an unusual bird species, and when I saw the small camera mounted on a spotting scope, I was immediately impressed by the elegant simplicity of the system.

digiscoping swarovski
DMC-GH4, 1/13, f/ 1.7, ISO 200

How important is it to know the habits and behaviors of your subject to be a successful wildlife photographer?

I think it is very important, and I’m very fortunate that most of my subjects are right out the window, allowing me to observe them on a daily basis.  If I’m traveling I don’t usually do extensive research ahead of time, but rather try to plan to have at least a few days to get to know a species, or sometimes an individual bird’s behavior.

Observing birds through my camera and scope at 1000mm or more I am able to see behaviors, glances and even the expansion and contraction of a bird’s pupils when it sees prey or feels fear.  Being sensitive to and in tune with how you are affecting your subject and his behavior is also very important.  Being still and quiet and becoming just another part of your subject’s environment — not something scary or threatening — is not only much better for the birds, but will result in opportunities for intimate portraits of birds that would never be possible otherwise.

digiscope photography
DMC-GH3, 1/250, f/ 1.7, ISO 400

Is there a specific species of bird you enjoy photographing the most?

I love photographing the larger species, and Reddish Egrets are my favorites.  They spin, dance and run – tossing their lion mane-like feathers.  It’s an absolutely mesmerizing experience to have your eye pressed up against your viewfinder — with the rest of the world blocked from view — following a world-class avian dance performance with 1000mm.

Below you can find a video of a Reddish Egret feeding shot by Tara in 96fps and 4K:

4k photography
DMC-GH4, 1/2500, f/ 1.7, ISO 400

You use the Lumix GH4 and Swarovski Optik scopes (STX 85 and 95). Why did you choose these tools for your photography?

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The GH4 and the scope

I set my initial budget for my first extreme-telephoto digiscoping system at a naively modest $1000, but ended up spending $1400 once I’d bought my tripod and adapters.  It was a $600 Nikon scope with a Nikon P5100, aluminum tripod legs and a $100 pan and tilt head.  No raw, no EVF, no remote shutter.

I worked really hard at learning a set of virtually undocumented skills, figuring it out as I went.  Within a few months I realized that the optics of my system were not capable of capturing the quality that I thought was possible with digiscoping, and by then I knew I wanted to shoot in raw.  I upgraded my scope to a Kowa with high quality glass and bought my first micro four-thirds camera, a Lumix G1.  It had raw, burst mode, an EVF, an electronic remote and the all-important magnifier feature that I needed to fine-tune my chosen method of manually focusing the scope.  I’ve used the Lumix G cameras most days over the last six years, including the G1, GH1, GX1, GH3 and now the GH4.   I’ve tried a couple of other cameras for digiscoping, but the GH4 is my dream digiscoping camera.

In 2012 I won the Swarovski STX 95 scope in their international Digiscoper of the Year contest, and just can’t say enough good things about the optics of this scope.  Because the lowest power on the eyepiece of this scope is 30x, the shortest focal length I can get with the GH4 + 20mm/1.7 lens on the STX 95 is 1200mm, which can be too much, especially for larger subjects.  I sold my Kowa and another Swarovski I had won and bought an STX 85 whose eyepiece starts at 25x, so that I could have the option of shooting with a “modest” 1000mm.

digiscoping swarovski
DMC-GH3, 1/125, f/ 1.7, ISO 400

Are there any particular features on the GH4 that you find useful for your work as a wildlife photographer? If so, which ones and why?

Digiscoping allows the photographer and/or videographer to capture incredible details with a relatively light-weight system, costing considerably less than expensive long lens shooting.

Because of the extreme focal lengths involved, any movement can result in blurry images, so mirrorless designs are perfect for this niche method.  I don’t ever use flash on birds, but yesterday I took a photo of a Barred Owl using an ISO of 200 and a shutter speed of 1/13 second under a dark canopy using a tripod and electronic remote.

The GH4 had just been released the week before, and I was leaving for a week-long trip that included a few days with my favorite Reddish Egret.  I didn’t know much about 4K video or that the camera had 96fps capability, and although I knew it had focus peaking, I thought it might get in the way.  I knew it had 12 fps burst capability and better ISO handling than my GH3, and that the terrible EVF of the GH3 had been completely redesigned, so I decided to upgrade for those reasons alone.  The night before we left on our trip I found a YouTube video discussing its 96 fps capability.  I shot a few slow motion clips on the beach my first day, and almost fell over when I saw the quality.  Then I tried 4K – I was hooked!  I’d only shot video on occasion before I got the GH4 – when there was some behavior that was better captured with video – but I’ve spent a lot more time shooting video than photos since I got the GH4.

4k photo camera
DMC-GH4, 1/125, f/ 1.7, ISO 400

Because I’d always taken photos by manually focusing the scope it was a relatively seamless transition to pulling focus on moving birds – however it requires continuous rather than intermittent accurate focusing – which is aided tremendously by the focus peaking feature of the GH4.   Even for stills, the focus peaking has turned out to be invaluable for keeping moving birds in focus, although if I find myself photographing a perched bird, I turn it off via a custom-programmed function button and go back to the magnifier feature for fine-tuning focus.

Zebras, available in both photo and video mode, are great for real-time feedback for preventing blown highlights, and weather sealing in Florida’s humidity is invaluable.  The EVF is excellent as is the resolution of the LCD screen.  I usually use a loupe on the LCD to better block ambient light and for a larger view for focusing.  The ISO handling is a bit better, and 12 fps can make a big difference when a Wood Duck stands up and flaps its wings.  Although I’d always rather capture photos in raw, extracting stills from 4K video or in 4K Photo mode gives you 30 fps to choose from in the form of 8MP JPEGs.  I was using 4K Photo mode to video a pair of Desert Cottontails playing, and when I extracted the individual frames I discovered that I’d captured three photos where they were touching noses in mid-air — it’s unlikely I would have gotten all of those at 12 fps.

4k photography
DMC-GH4, 1/2500, f/ 1.7, ISO 400 (4k Photo)

What are your typical settings for wildlife photography in broad daylight?

For digiscoping I always shoot with the aperture of my 20mm/1.7 lens wide open, due to the relatively small diameter of the light coming in from the scope.  I use aperture priority for both photos and video.  My default ISO is 400 with a default EV compensation setting of -2/3.  Using the zebras set at 100% as my main guide, I control the exposure by adjusting the EV compensation, however I will drop the ISO if there is a lot of light or if the bird is relatively still.  I keep the scope’s eyepiece on its lowest power to keep my ISO low and to keep my shutter speeds from dropping too low, as well as to better manage heat shimmer at the extreme focal lengths I work with.

digiscoping birds
DMC-GH4, 1/3200, f/ 1.7, ISO 400

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a scope as opposed to a long focal length lens?

Price and weight would probably top the list.  My scope is waterproof and although I’ve never tested it, I’ve heard of people dropping them with no resulting damage.  I believe that with the optics we have today, the results that can be obtained with digiscoping are comparable to those obtained with a lens costing twice as much as my scope.

Although it is possible to digiscope with the camera set on AF, the scope has to be at least close to in focus.  Although the few digiscopers I knew of were using AF, very early on I tried setting the camera on manual focus and just focusing the scope, and it’s the way I shoot 100% of the time.  I find it a lot simpler – there is no arguing with the camera about what you want to focus on when the bird moves behind a blade of grass – allowing me to put all of my attention on my subject.

Although some people complain about the challenge of achieving accurate focus given the very shallow DOF of digiscoping systems, I find it a tremendous advantage.  With video it allows me to move and direct the viewer’s eye around the scene, and with stills I can draw the viewer’s eye right to the eye of the subject, creating that all-important connection.

digiscoping birds
DMC-GH4, 1/1000, f/ 1.7, ISO 400

Are there any essential accessories you’d recommend to the budding digiscoper?

Until recently no one was making precision, custom-machined adapters for connecting cameras to virtually any spotting scope eyepiece.  There are some proprietary adapters for specific scopes that will accommodate certain cameras, and generic adapters that work with some combinations, but now Paul Sayegh of Digidapter can machine an adapter for virtually any scope’s eyepiece.  I have two of them and they’re all I use.

It is worth mentioning that not every camera + lens is compatible with every scope’s eyepiece.  It’s important to do some research and confirm that the entire system you’re considering will work together without vignetting  before you purchase a scope or camera and then try to find what it will work with.

A set of sturdy tripod legs is critical, and a quality video head will go a long way toward getting good photos and especially video.  For video a leveling base for your tripod head is invaluable.  I wouldn’t digiscope without a remote shutter release.

digiscope photography
DMC-GH4, 1/800, f/ 1.7, ISO 400

You won the Swarovski’s International Digiscoper of the Year contest in both 2011 and 2012. Can you tell us about the two winning images?

I was at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and saw a group of Roseate Spoonbills preening.  Just as the afternoon light dimmed to its most gorgeous warm tones, one of the birds started taking a bath that looked like she was trying to see how much water she could get into the air at one time.  Taken with the G1, I used an ISO of 100 with a resulting shutter speed of 1/800s.

digiscoping birds
DMC-G1, 1/800, f/1.7 , ISO 100

The following year I traveled to a Cattle Egret rookery to see if I could capture what is normally a very plain bird, but that has spectacular breeding colors and feathers for a very brief period each spring.  Even their primarily white feathers hold incredible delicate detail.   That photo was taken with the GX1 on the Swarovski scope I had won the year before with the Roseate Spoonbill photo.

digiscoping birds
DMC-GX1, 1/500, f/ 1.7, ISO 160

There are many great compact systems out there at the moment. If you hadn’t chosen to go down the Lumix route, would you have chosen another mirrorless system? Which one and why?

When I first won the STX 95, I also received Swarovski’s TLS APO 30mm lens that is made to slip directly onto the STX/ATX eyepieces.  Thinking I wanted to use the TLS APO for my digiscoping, I started looking for a mirrorless camera with a lower crop factor than the 2x of the Lumix G cameras, in order to get the equivalent focal length below 1800mm.

It was late 2012 and I rented the Fuji X-E1.  It may be different now, but I found that I couldn’t change any settings while it was writing to the card, which meant that if I shot a burst and saw I needed to drop the EV compensation, I couldn’t do that and keep shooting until the camera had completely finished writing to the card, which was a deal-breaker for me when I was trying to capture action that wouldn’t wait.  The EV compensation only had a range of +/- 2 which was not enough when I was photographing a big white bird against a dark background, and the “highlight” or “blinkies” function was only available in review mode, so I was not able to get instantaneous feedback on the exposure of the shot I’d just taken.  I also rented the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and found the menu system so counter-intuitive that I never took it out of the house.  I’ve never tried any of the Sony cameras, but if someone held a gun to my head and told me I couldn’t use my GH4, that is probably where I would start my search.

4k photography
DMC-GH4, 1/1000, f/ 1.7, ISO 400

Do you have any questions for Tara about her photography, the Panasonic GH4 or digiscoping in general? If so, be sure to leave her a comment below!

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About the author: Heather Broster

Heather Broster was born in Canada, has lived in Japan and Italy but currently calls Wales home. She is a full-time gear tester at MirrorLessons. You can follow her on Google+, Twitter or Facebook!

  • Tara

    Hi Thomas,
    Thanks so much for your kind words! I do think digiscoping takes a fair amount of practice for manual focusing to become automatic, but I wouldn’t trade my system for AF for anything. It is possible to AF through the scope if the scope is close to perfect focus, but then when the bird moves…

    The “didn’t end up needing back surgery” comment made me laugh — sort of. I’ve been rehabbing my back since the beginning of September after carrying 3 tripods, 2 scopes and 3 cameras out into my little blind for 25 days straight, waiting each morning for at least 4 hours for baby Black-bellied Whistling Ducks to hatch and jump. On the last morning I did get the video, and then I couldn’t stand up straight for 3 days.

  • Thomas Kibodeaux

    This is an AMAZING story and wonderfully explained way to get some fantastic images for really a fraction of the big glass SLR HEAVY option. I went that route a few years ago, all what 15lbs of 800mm f5.6 ($8k) 3lbs of SLR with extra battery pack, vertical grip etc. It was so heavy, I converted a golf bag caddy cart to hold the rig in the lens’ case when walking long distances. All the technique to keep all that extra weight steady added a new level of complication to the whole experience. Was it worth it, probably. I saw many things like never before and captured thousands of really incredible images and didn’t end up needing back surgery from packing all the weight! :-)

    I have since scaled down to a 150-600mm 5.6-6.3 since higher ISO is decent quality and having the VR is AWESOME!

    Yet.. still.. you have me re-thinking my WHOLE RIG! At least enough to maybe borrow/swap or rent a rig similar to your’s and test out digiscoping.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and your images that transfer your passion for the wildlife!

    PHENOMENAL work!

  • Tara

    Hi Bhima,
    Thanks for the kind words! I would definitely agree that $6000 is no small amount by any measure. I started with a really inexpensive system, and made improvements only after I felt like I had taken a piece of gear as far as I could. I’ve been very fortunate to win 4 spotting scopes over the years; selling 3 of them has essentially funded most of my other gear purchases. I do think that to get a lens comparable to the Swarovski STX 85, you’d need to spend close to $8000 or even $10,000. The Digidapter is very reasonably priced at $289.

  • Bhima

    Really great shots and impressive MF skills. This is a pretty expensive for anyone thinking of doing this as a hobby rather than professionally. The scope is almost $2k, the spotting zoom eyepiece is $2,400, the 20mm f1.7 is $300 and who knows what the adapter costs. This setup, not including the camera or tripod accessories, runs probably close $6,000.

  • Tara

    Hi Paul,
    Thank you so much for your nice comments. I very briefly (15 minutes) tried the 100-300 Panasonic lens, and quickly put it away and went back to my scope. I’m spoiled by the extra reach, such a bright image, and precise control over focus.
    I shoot a LOT of photos and look for that one special one with just the right tilt of the head and the perfect light on the eye. Amazing how in a burst of 10 there can be one that just stands apart from the others. Good luck with your equipment choice!

  • Paul Stuart

    Gorgeous images Tara amazed how you keep the birds in flight so in focus .
    I tried digiscoping with a dedicated slr Magic scope for micro four thirds but the lens had no contrast and was very soft in focus it kind of put me off but looking at your results has me envious ,just wondering what the price differential is going to be with the upcoming Olympus 300mm although even this with tele convertor falls short of 1000mm of your Swarovski scope .

    Love how you look for expression in the birds whilst photographing them great

  • Tara

    Hi Hal!
    Thank you so much for your very nice words! Eric flew his GoPro over the swamp this morning and we have even more Wood Storks than we thought! Really makes me want aerial capability!

  • Tara

    Thank you so much Atur! Since you have the EM10, I would put the money you would spend on the GH4 into the scope, since it is so important to your system. If you were to buy an STX 85 and for some reason decide to sell it, I think you could get most of your money back, they’re just so popular. Your Digidapter model will depend on your scope, so if you changed scopes you’d then have to change Digidapers too (although they are very reasonably priced). The Kowa Prominar scopes are very sharp, but their close focus distance is about 15′, and you get focus as close as ~11′ with the Swarovski. You could also consider a used Swarovski STM80HD with the 25-50x eyepiece.

  • Tara

    Thanks Heather! – Tara

  • Tara

    Thanks so much Jonsen! In the beginning it’s complicated, but once you get the gear and start using it, it’s really a pretty simple system. — Tara

  • Hal Knowles

    Heather and Mathieu,

    I love your site, especially these interviews and the incredible images these professionals share…Thanks!


    I am honored to be a Floridian and to have our gorgeous state and it’s species captured with such grandeur. I agree with the other posts, your images are awe inspiring! I hope to glean more tips and insights from our mutual friend Eric after he meets with you soon. Keep up the great work (in both imaging and conservation)!

  • Atur

    Tara, your photos and videos render me speechless. They are simply amazing!
    I was thinking of buying a 600 mm lens for my Canon, but now digiscoping seems the better alternative for wildlife photography. Do you have any suggestion for a beginner’s scope that will work with the Olympus EM 10 + Pana 20/1.7? Or should I get a GH4 right away, because the video capabilities are better?
    Will anything below the Swarowski scope work? The price is a bit steep for a “starter kit” …

  • jonsen

    Maybe Swarovski would be kind enough to send us over a couple scopes to try out and review. I have a GH4 and live around a lot of wildlife. 😉

    Again, thanks for the article.

  • Heather Broster

    Doesn’t she! I’d never even considered digiscoping before interviewing Tara, but now I’m really tempted to buy a scope.

  • jonsen

    Wow, great article and the images are just stunning. You make me want to get my feet wet in digiscoping.

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