Zeiss PhotoScope 85 T*FL


We have now entered an era where, increasingly, birding goes hand in hand with capturing images of the birds we are watching. Digital photography has made it possible for anyone equipped with a telescope and a compact digital camera to take sometimes excellent images of distant birds, and optics manufacturers are capitalising on this, producing an array of both universal and product-specific digital camera adapters to meet buyers’ demands.

Zeiss, however, has gone one considerable step further. The PhotoScope 85 T*FL represents a slick consolidation of all three essential items into one fully integrated unit. In this it is unique – there is no other optical product approaching it. It has been designed primarily for ‘non-photographers’ with a desire to quickly and easily photograph birds and other wildlife at the same time as they are observing them in the field.

This is not the first time Zeiss has made a foray into improving what is essentially a digiscoping experience. The PhotoScope is the natural successor to the DC4 camera eyepiece (reviewed in Birdwatch 188:48, February 2008) which, even with its 4 MP processor, produced excellent images, although its fixed magnification of 40x somewhat limited its ease of use.

A brief encounter with the PhotoScope at the Birdfair in 2009 left me impressed with the overall concept and design. As it houses a camera unit, I expected it to be bulkier than it is, but with the angled eyepiece it still looks like a telescope. It is surprisingly sleek and compact, and Zeiss, in my opinion, has excelled in making it aesthetically pleasing while at the same time keeping it practical. On first examination you are not under any illusions: first and foremost, this is a scope which captures images and not simply a camera with a long lens which allows distance viewing.

Every aspect of its purpose as a telescope is as you would expect. It is rubber armoured and gas filled, although because of the integrated photographic equipment, it is weatherproof rather than fully waterproof. To clarify this latter point, the unit is usable in the rain, but cannot be immersed in water.

The objective lens hood slides out effortlessly and incorporates a raised line of sight. Both the zoom adjustment and focusing take the form of adjacent milled rings built into the telescope’s body. This is a departure from the more usual finger-operated focus and eyepiece zoom, but a functionality requirement of the scope for its use as a camera. The eyepiece is non-detachable and the rim twists out to click-lock in two positions above the base.

Built into the base of the scope, below the eyepiece, a rectangular ‘block’ forms the housing for the camera and electronics. The left-hand side of this opens out to reveal a 70 mm OLED colour screen. When the unit is switched on, the screen displays the image ‘live’ exactly as seen through the scope’s eyepiece. The right-hand side of the block opens to allow access to the battery compartment, which houses a 7.4V Li-ion rechargeable battery, and the slot for the SD memory card. There is also an external power supply socket, allowing the battery to be charged via an in-car cigarette-lighter power point and a USB port, which provides the option of connecting to a PC to view the images stored on the memory card. A USB cable and cigarette-lighter power adapter cable are supplied with the unit.

Mounted externally on the right, there is a power on/off switch and an infra-red receiver for the hand-held remote control unit, the principal functions of which are to change camera settings and to capture images free from vibration.

Operating the unit purely as a telescope is straightforward. At nearly 3 kg it is relatively heavy compared to conventional telescopes, but potentially not as heavy as some camera equipment. Both zoom and focusing wheels turn freely and smoothly and the field of view is exceptionally wide – 80 m at 1,000 m at 15x magnification is, as Zeiss puts it, unparalleled.

One aspect of viewing any image through the scope is the graticule in the eyepiece, which some users may find a source of annoyance, although I got used to it and it does help with centring when the scope is being used for image capture. Otherwise, the image is bright and sharp virtually to the edge. The colours are true to life and I struggled to find any chromatic aberration. A beam splitter sends the image to the camera’s electronics, as well as it being viewed through the eyepiece.

Operating the camera is easy, and familiarisation with the various menus and operating instructions is key to obtaining acceptable images. Before image capture is attempted, it is absolutely essential to sharpen the reticle by turning the dioptre ring at the base of the eyepiece. This is performed only once on set-up and failure to achieve this initial sharp setting results in out-of-focus images. The advantage the PhotoScope has over a camera is that you can see by viewing through the eyepiece the detail on exactly what you are photographing.

Image capture is performed by using the infra-red remote control, ideally worn around your neck for quick access. I also wore my binoculars at the same time with no conflict between the two! The positioning of the remote for communicating with the unit needs to be perfected. It has to be held raised and pointed at the infra-red receiver on the scope’s body. It does not function when pointed randomly or at the screen. I found it easy to operate – a simple press of a button allowed image capture, which is indicated on the screen at the point of capture by a flashing memory card icon and a freeze frame.

The remote also allows quick and easy access to the six menus, two which are for camera capture parameters (ISO, image size, shutter speed, aperture and so on), one for image optimisation (size, sharpness, time stamp and so on), one for screen display parameters, another for basic defaults (language and so on) and a final menu for storage parameters.

During the course of testing I experimented with a range of capture parameters. I shot in JPG on the ‘high-quality’ setting at the maximum 7 MP resolution (2 MP and 4 MP are also available); I did not use RAW.

Although tempted to take the easy way out using the auto settings, I found that better results could be obtained by selecting manual or part-manual modes. When a combination of auto ISO and auto white balance was selected, for instance, I found that the images appeared to take on a colder, bluer cast and my best results came from ISO 100 to reduce noise and manually selecting white balance according to conditions. I usually left settings for shutter and aperture on auto, and for light metering I used centrally accentuated integral measurement for subjects for which the exposure is predominantly derived from the centre of the image (AE mode). Most images were captured at just below the 45x magnification limit.

I discovered that the PhotoScope does not produce large images of birds at the long ranges you might expect and being close helps, because with just 7 MP, cropping images of distant birds too heavily produces some loss of quality – although keeping to ISO 100 helps. The results may have been different if I had used RAW format, however.

My first experimental attempts produced reasonable images of Curlew Sandpipers and, as I became more proficient in the limited time I had, I obtained better results for Northern Wheatear and Pectoral Sandpiper. I switched to AVI mode for the last of these birds and obtained some reasonable, though slightly shaky, footage. It is very easy to switch between stills and movies using the remote. There is no audio recording in AVI mode, however, as there is in many digital cameras.

So has Zeiss achieved its objective in providing the ultimate integrated nature-observation and image-capturing kit? Largely, yes. The PhotoScope has several advantages over digiscoping equipment in terms of ease of use and portability. With a single unit there is no need to add, remove or set digiscoping adapters in position, no chance of a camera accidentally becoming detached, no possibility of vignetting and no need to operate a self-timing system to eliminate shake (with resultant image blurring), as the unit is remotely controlled.

On the negative side, you can’t record sound in AVI mode and there are no external controls if you lose the remote, nor is it possible to connect ‘live’ to a large-screen monitor, which might be a useful piece of functionality for some users. There is also no way to upgrade the photographic equipment as you might with a digiscoping outfit.

Accessories include a large carry case, spare batteries for the unit and the remote control, USB cable, car-charger cable and mains battery charging unit.

Prospective purchasers of the PhotoScope should be aware that updates are available from Zeiss for the unit’s firmware, and to check that the most up-to-date version is loaded on the unit at the time of purchase. Upgrades, which are self-installing, are easy to load via the SD card and I loaded the latest version (v1.4) onto the review unit with no difficulty.

Finally, the price. At a retail cost of £4,785, it’s not cheap, but add the component parts together and one might argue that it’s not expensive either! Shopping around is recommended as ‘street’ prices are currently running at about 10 per cent below the retail price.

Northern Wheatear unenhanced Northern Wheatear enhanced
This Northern Wheatear photo was taken using the PhotoScope. The image on the left is completely unenhanced; that on the right has had some sharpening and levels adjustment in Photoshop, showing the full capability of the unit with some post-production work! Both photos by Mike Alibone.

Tech spec

Price: £4,785
Size: 438 mm
Weight: 2,990 g (including battery)
Magnification: 15-45x zoom
Field of view: 80-27 m at 1,000 m
Close focus: 5 m
Gas-filled: yes
Waterproof: weatherproof
Guarantee: 10 years for the optics and mechanics, two years for the electronics