© Dr. Jörg Kretzschmar
Proximity, distance, and image composition: all a question of perception
Distance to the subject is a decisive factor in digiscoping. However, we need to distinguish between the purely technical aspects and the esthetic and narrative considerations, as digiscoping expert Dr. Jörg Kretzschmar explains.
Dr. Jörg Kretzschmar is a biologist and discovered digiscoping as a result of his work. He is one of the best-known digiscopers in the German-speaking countries and his shots always arouse a great deal of interest and admiration. For his pictures, he uses an STX 25-60x85 spotting scope with a TLS APO lens system from SWAROVSKI OPTIK.
From the purely technical perspective, the best distance is one at which the technical and physical artifacts do not have any negative effects on the image, as a result of haze, dust, heat, or optical limitations. This means that they move into the background in our perception of the image, although it is generally possible to identify them by looking closely.
Everything is magnified
In the summer or around the middle of the day, this distance is usually less than 40 m, because otherwise the spotting scope magnifies the environmental influences in such a way that it is no longer possible to take a technically correct picture. Many beginners and digiscopers with little experience of photography often underestimate the negative impact of magnification.
In the winter or after a heavy thundershower, digiscoping at distances of more than 70 m can produce impressive shots. However, where the subject is over 100 m away, images that are printable and also worth printing can only be created in exceptional situations, such as very soft light, clear air, and perfect technical settings. But shots with technical problems can also make an impact and attract attention in online forums.
The “correct” distance from an esthetic point of view often differs from the purely technical setting. In reality we often have to find a compromise between the ideal artistic distance and the appropriate technical one.
Taking shots of bears in a practical test
In the summer of 2013, I was in Karelia in Finland to photograph bears. Most of the digiscopers I know put a great deal of emphasis on ensuring that the subject is as close and as large as possible and that they shoot it full-frame. And, of course, the technical equipment available encourages us to do this.
I spent the first night of my trip in a hide which had been set up in a marshy forest clearing. Bears aged between two and four years came there to feed before sunset. They were followed later by the more dominant older animals, both males and females with cubs, who pushed out the young bears.
While the light was still good, a young bear came into the clearing and approached my hide, then returned to the nearby forest a little later. I took a shot of the bear: large, close-up, and full-format. But it wasn’t a good shot and would not be included in my portfolio.
Have the courage to be critical
This was one of my first digiscoping shots of bears and one which I couldn’t have taken with the photographic equipment I had in the past. But what did this photo say to other people? That I’d seen a bear close-up and was able to take a reasonably well-focused shot of it. Yes and what else?
Taking a critical look at the distance I needed in order to say something meaningful using digiscoping focused my attention on the differences in shot distances. Anyone who is sitting in a hide and has the zoom options of digiscoping available to them, as I did with the STX 25-60x85 from SWAROVSKI OPTIK, will say to themselves, “But it must be possible to get a closer shot!”
Careful composition in close-up pictures
So the next evening I asked the organizer to put the food for the bears (in this case simply dog food) closer to the hide, in the hope that a young bear would be brave enough to come nearer. No sooner said than done. Before darkness fell at midnight, a young bear lay down in front of my hide to eat.
In the case of close-ups of this kind, it is very important to compose the shot carefully (along the harmonious dividing lines or golden section) and to ensure the sharpness of the image. The result was the portrait of a young bear closer than you would be able to see one in a zoo.
The digiscoping shot of the bear was more impressive, but was it the best possible result? After several attempts I realized that bears eating do not make very rewarding subjects. For this reason, my next approach was to stick with close-up shots but to photograph a young bear standing upright from the side and in profile.
The fur made the difference
For composition purposes, I used the technical trick of the profile setting, which gives very realistic results. Although bears are very impressive animals, their faces are not particularly expressive because their eyes are small and dark and set deep in their thick coats. For this reason, I worked with the animals’ fur. I was happier with the results of this approach. The shot showed a wild animal looking around the sunny clearing and gave the observer the feeling of being there with him.
I took many more of this type of digiscoping image on the subsequent nights. Finally, I left close-ups behind and returned to (semi-) long shots. I wanted to show the individual animal, also capturing its unique characteristics.
A semi-long shot with the impact of a long shot
At 2.30 in the morning, which in June is shortly before sunrise just south of the Arctic Circle, a female bear with three cubs passed through the marshy clearing at a suitable distance. The mother was not interested in food. Her aim was to return to the protective cover of the forest as quickly as possible, because an old male in the area was making all the other bears unsettled. The cubs paddled through the ankle-deep water after their mother. The shutter button on my camera caused them to stop briefly, stand upright, and look toward me. Then they ran off quickly after their mother.
This type of digiscoping is extreme in many respects. From a composition perspective, this is a semi-long shot (a distance of around 30 meters), but it looks like a long shot because the cubs are so small.
The picture also showed the bears’ habitat: a marshy forest clearing with cottongrass. If the mother were included, we would only see her head and part of her upper body. However, it is also extreme because the photo was taken at night. The sun, which was just below the horizon, adds a beautiful touch as background lighting on the bears’ fur. The contrasts are still manageable from a technical perspective. An air temperature of 2 degrees and recent rainfall prevented air shimmer or haze from forming.
Digiscoping at the limits
The motion-blurred paw of the middle bear also indicates that digiscoping is at its technical limits in this case. The picture was taken with a Nikon D7100 at ISO 1250 and 1/40 second. The zoomed STX 25-60x85 spotting scope from SWAROVSKI OPTIK (aperture 8.6) and the optical capabilities of the TLS APO lens system did the rest.
What shot distance is technically reasonable and how close is desirable from a narrative perspective?
As in filming, there are three basic distance settings in digiscoping:
The long shot moves the subject or the entire event closer to us. However, it is important to ensure that there is still enough background around the subject, otherwise it will appear cramped. The composition determines the impact of the image. In long shots the foreground is generally given preference, because it lends the image its spatial depth.
In the case of the semi-long shot, the individual is in the foreground with mainly the head and a small part of the body visible. As in photography, it is important in digiscoping to ensure that the eyes are in the upper horizontal dividing line (golden section).
The close-up focuses on details or particular highlights of the subject. These must be carefully arranged (the balance of the image) and in sharp focus.
The following products are particularly suitable for this type of application.