Thursday, January 04, 2007

Zeiss DC4 Review

Zeiss DC4 Review - by Ben Lizdas of Eagle Optics

This past November while attending the Rio Grande Valley Birding festival in Harlingen, TX, I had the opportunity to try out the new DC4 digital spotting scope eyepiece from Zeiss. Having used other sport optic and digital camera systems before, Zeiss has produced the best integration I've seen yet.

Zeiss describes the eyepiece on their website:

The Camera-Eyepiece DC4 for all Zeiss Diascope spotting scopes unites both features in one device and defines "Digiscoping" - digital photography through a spotting scope - in a new, fascinatingly easy manner:

  • Observe and capture digital images - simultaneously!
  • No additional camera and adapter needed.
  • No time lost aligning camera and eyepiece.

The result is a high-grade 40x (when used on the 85mm Diascope) eyepiece with an integrated digital imaging system. The concept has crossed almost every digiscoper's mind - imagine being able to take photos of what you're seeing with no extraneous equipment to carry around. There's no set up time - just the simple press of a button when you're ready to snap a picture.

How it works:

From the spotting scope, the DC4 brings light into focus on two sensors. One sensor is your eye and the other is the camera sensor. The two sensors must be calibrated to match exactly (similar to using a diopter on center focus binoculars to match each eye). Because everyone's eyes have different focus characteristics, the calibration needs to be adjusted with each user to insure that their eye is in "focal harmony" with the camera sensor.

Calibrating the focus system of the scope, to the user's eye, and to the camera in the eyepiece was the most challenging aspect of using the DC4 for me. Since the time that I had spent with this DC4 prototype, I'm told that Zeiss has modified the DC4 to include a built in reticle with a focus aid that makes this task of setting the diopter compensation both simple and precise. This is critical to obtain the high quality photos that the Diascope and DC4 are capable of.

Like a digital camera, the DC4 has an external storage device. In this case, the camera uses an SD-Card. This provides a great deal of flexibility to store and transfer images via a conventional media.

What I Liked:

The most successful aspect of the DC4 is how easy it makes digiscoping. Like most novice digiscopers, I tend to struggle with equipment (getting my camera out, attaching an adapter, connecting it to the scope, refocusing, composing the image via the tiny LCD, etc.) and this comparatively minimal setup made digiscoping much more fun for an amateur like me. Once the bird is in focus through the DC4, simply press a button on the remote control.

Being able to look through the scope eyepiece to get a crisp view of the bird was another great advantage of the DC4. I find that when I'm digiscoping with a conventional camera, it's challenging and sometimes almost impossible to determine how finely focused the system is when I need to rely on the camera LCD screen for feedback. Sometimes it's the sun, other times just the tiny size of the screen that makes me think I've got a sharp image, only to get it on my computer and realize that the photo could have been sharper. It's particularly frustrating when you've got a $2500 spotting scope that you know can yield stunning shots and the less than perfect photo is a result of your own misjudgment.

A point that seems obvious to me given the Zeiss name, but is still worth mentioning is that the optical performance of the DC4 is superb. By no means did Zeiss skimp on optics of this piece in order to bring us the technology. I found the image through the eyepiece to be everything I would expect from a high-end optical outfit like Zeiss.

What I Didn't Like:

Naturally, in the realm of cameras and optics, Zeiss had to make a few trade-offs in order to make the DC4 a reality, though many of these drawbacks apply to most conventional digital cameras as well. Compared to your typical scope eyepiece, the DC4 is big and heavy (28 oz), though it didn't feel any more cumbersome than a typical scope eyepiece with an adapter and camera mounted on to it. Overall, the DC4 was pleasantly compact.

Inherent with any electronic device, there are aspects of longevity, reliability and durability that are going to be somewhat of drawback relative to what we expect out of a purely mechanical lens system typical of a standard spotting scope eyepiece. The DC4 is dependent on a power source (AA batteries for the camera/eyepiece, AAA batteries for the remote control) in order for the camera to function, but this is the case with any digital camera used for digiscoping. One critical point, however, is that the DC4 cannot function without the remote control. Having the remote control is a great benefit for reducing image blur, but if it gets misplaced there is no option to operate the DC4 independently. Likewise, if the batteries on the remote die, your digiscoping system is down.

Today's digital camera market sets the bar pretty high in affordable prices and image resolution capability. The DC4 uses a 4 megapixel camera sensor, which is on the low end of what digiscopers expect today for digital imaging. This may not be a significant limitation for the popularity of capturing images of rare birds and documentation shots, but it may hinder publishing opportunities. Perhaps the most significant drawback is its price. Once available, you can expect to pay $1900 for the DC4 digital eyepiece. Zeiss will be introducing a package which will include the DC4 with an 85mm Diascope for a ballpark price of $3500. Compared to a conventional digiscoping setup, the price tag is a bit steep. On the other hand, if you look at some of the large focal length camera lenses out there, it's a bargain.

The Zeiss DC4 is ushering in a new era of digital imaging technology which should make digiscoping easier and more enjoyable. To many would-be-digiscopers, the ease of use, convenience and simplicity of the DC4's design will be attractive enough to justify any of the potential downsides, particularly the cost. For those who have already mastered the art and technique of digiscoping, some of the DC4's conveniences may hold less appeal.

Sample images taken through a Zeiss Diascope 85 & DC4 digital eyepiece:

Check out the zbirding website for additional DC4 images.

All images © 2007 Zeiss & Steve Ingraham

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