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Cell Phone Bird Photography

Is all this camera gear really necessary anymore?

Is all this camera gear really necessary anymore?

Digital camera sales have been in the news lately – or, rather, the lack thereof. Canon recently reported that its compact camera sales have fallen 36% compared to one year ago, and sales of its digital SLRs have dropped by 19%. Nikon, meanwhile, has seen a 43% crash in compact camera sales in the past year, and shipments of its interchangeable-lens digital cameras have declined 31%.

In other words, people aren’t buying digital cameras like they used to. Why?

One practical reason may be that cameras have just become too good, and everyone who wants one already has one. I certainly won’t be trading in my battered SLR anytime soon; it pretty much does everything I want it to, even though it’s a few years old.

King Eider, photographed with an iPhone through a Swarovski spotting scope.

King Eider, photographed with an iPhone through a Swarovski spotting scope.

But the camera companies have another explanation. They say cell phones are starting to replace traditional cameras, at least in some situations. “Smartphones packed with advanced sensors and lenses are winning customers and cutting demand for cheaper compact cameras,” reported Bloomberg News last month. Phone manufacturers agree. If you’ve seen any of Apple’s ads this year, you’ve probably heard their boast that “Every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than any other camera.”

As they say, the best camera is the one you bring with you, and everyone seems to have a smartphone these days. Birds, however, are tougher to capture than your average selfie. The question is: Will birders ever leave their telephoto lenses at home, and use their phones instead?


Svalbard is more than 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle, above Norway.

Svalbard is more than 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle, above Norway.

This summer, I spent two months on an expedition cruise ship touring Svalbard, an isolated Arctic archipelago about 1,000 miles north of Norway, as an on-board ornithologist. The ship, a Cold War-era Russian vessel, can hold about 100 passengers at a time, and I stayed on for five back-to-back trips this season.

At 80 degrees north, Svalbard feels like the edge of the world. (Technically, a shifting gravel bar near Greenland called Oodaaq lies a couple degrees farther north.) It is an extreme place, characterized by polar bears, seabirds, harsh weather, rugged terrain, and up-against-it stories of human history. This year in Svalbard, I had the distinct impression of being on the front lines of digital wildlife photography, as well.

Just before heading north in June, I got a Kowa TSN-IP4S adapter to connect my iPhone 4S to the eyepiece of my Swarovski spotting scope – a handy little device, which holds the phone in position to take photos through the scope. I soon found myself using it constantly. Like many birders, I carry my scope everywhere, and it takes about five seconds to snap my phone onto the scope’s eyepiece and capture an image. If my calculations are correct, the 60x scope eyepiece equates to a 3,000mm camera lens, and the iPhone adds extra zoom. There are other benefits: Photos on a smartphone can be instantly emailed or uploaded, and, because the scope is on a steady tripod, videos work well. Mostly, the setup is frighteningly easy to use.

Common Ringed Plover, taken with an iPhone through a Swarovski spotting scope.

An iPhone-scoped Common Ringed Plover.

And I do mean scary. A couple weeks ago, I found myself iPhone-scoping a Common Ringed Plover, so close that I could see between its toes. After a few minutes, I stopped short. My backpack, sitting neglected at my feet, held enough camera gear to trade for a small car, yet here I was snapping photos with my stupid phone! Grimacing, I hauled out my SLR and telephoto lens, but, secretly, I had to admit that using the phone was just as much fun. In that moment, the mists of the future parted just a little bit.

In June, our ship was chartered by a group of British wildlife photographers who brought an impressive arsenal of optics on board. On the first day, one of them commented to me that anyone with lens envy should just get over it as soon as possible. “Size doesn’t matter,” he said, but he didn’t seem convinced.

When we spotted the first polar bear on that trip, I set up my scope on deck and whipped out my iPhone. Though the bear was nearly a mile away, I could get a reasonable record shot – full frame, but grainy when enlarged. It looked great on the phone’s little screen. This irked many of the photographers, whose 500mm lenses couldn’t reach far enough. “What is the point,” one guy said to me, “of having a $10,000 camera lens that can’t photograph a polar bear while an iPhone gets the shot?” I pointed out the necessity of the spotting scope, but he remained frustrated.

An iPhone-scoped Ivory Gull (with Glaucous Gull and Polar Bear).

An iPhone-scoped Ivory Gull (with Glaucous Gull and Polar Bear).

Of course, today’s smartphone cameras can’t compare to an expensive SLR in terms of technical quality. For the cover shot, a traditional setup will win every time. But for recording memories, phones may soon replace other cameras, even for birders.

This leads, I think, to an interesting possibility: In the future, the blurry line dividing photographers from birders may actually become more well-defined. Up to now, anyone wanting a visual memory of their bird sightings has had to invest in serious camera equipment, because it was otherwise impossible to get any images at all. Today’s gear depends on your motives. Those seeking publication-quality images will keep on buying big glass. For birders who just want documentation, though, a cell phone is enough.

In late July, for the last Svalbard trip of the season, we hosted a very different group. Nearly 100 Chinese passengers, more than half of them between the ages of seven and 16, boarded our ship as part of a traveling school group. On the trip’s first Zodiac cruise, we lucked out – a polar bear was discovered sleeping right next to shore, so our inflatable boats could approach quite close. As I eased my Zodiac toward the bear, I realized that, unlike the British photographers from earlier in the summer, not a single person in my boat was gripping a digital camera. When we got close enough for a good view, the Chinese kids reached into their pockets. Every single one of them pulled out a smartphone and happily snapped away.


The following videos were each recorded this summer in Svalbard with an iPhone 4S, Swarovski scope, and Kowa adapter. They are unedited except to cut different clips together. Best viewed at 480p resolution, and worth the wait to load!

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Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker, Associate Editor of Birding magazine, is author of Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica (2011) and The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human (2014). In 2015, Noah completed the ultimate big year, traveling through 41 countries to see 6,042 species of birds between January and December.
Noah Strycker

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