Impromptu binocular digiscoping

January 18, 2017


I grew up in Oklahoma, on the Great Plains. The plains have a wild, forlorn beauty, but I have always craved seeing mountains. When I was a kid, that meant waiting for a family vacation to the Rockies or the Black Hills of South Dakota. I have been very fortunate that since moving to California in 2001, I have essentially always lived within view of mountains. In Santa Cruz and Berkeley it was the coast ranges, which are really more like ambitious hills. In Merced it was the Sierra Nevadas, which are legit, but not particularly close to Merced. The mountains were only visible as a low line on the eastern horizon, and only when the air quality was good, which was not often. Fortunately that was just one year.

Since 2008, I’ve had the privilege of living at the feet of the San Gabriels and especially Mount Baldy (formally Mount San Antonio, but universally ‘Baldy’ to locals), which looms directly north of Claremont like a slumbering god. So I get to see proper mountains – the San Gabriels are still rising fast so they are impressively steep, and Baldy tops out at 10,064 feet (3068 m) – pretty much every day that it’s not raining and there are no nearby wildfires. In the winter the mountains are often snowcapped, although never continuously so, it’s just too warm here.


A couple of days ago I was out running errands and the mountains looked so good that I had to drive up to the top of the First Street parking garage downtown to get some unobstructed photos. Off to the northwest, 22 miles distant, I could just make out the gleaming white domes on Mount Wilson. Then I remembered that I had my 10×50 binos in the car, so I got them out and spent a few pleasant minutes scanning the whole northern skyline, from Mount Wilson in the west to mount San Gorgonio, above Big Bear, 51 miles due east.


Then I got to wondering – if I held my iPhone up to the binos, would I be able to get a recognizable photo of Mount Wilson? It was worth a try. I had to prop the binos on my sunglasses to get the angle right, and the raw shot is vignetted because getting the camera-to-eyepiece distance correct is a little hairy, but hey, there are the domes.


Here’s a cropped, tweaked, and labeled shot. Except for the CHARA Array, an optical interferometer using six 1-meter telescopes in small domes that started work in 2002, all of the historically important installations are visible from 22 miles out.


I also got some shots of the nearby peaks, especially the higher foothills of Mount Baldy. This shot is a pretty good match for the last photo in this post, which was taken through a different instrument at a different time of day in a different season, but focused on the same peak. This peak is 10.5 miles from my house, as the crow flies, so about 10.25 miles from the Claremont parking garage where the photos in this post were taken.


Cropped and tweaked. Not too bad for 10×50 binos that cost less than $30.


  1. Very nice. I’ve also tried shooting through the binocs. I bought this monocular and a phone/digital camera mount. Each try was a little better results. I’ve seen some people who have really impressive shots through their expensive scopes.

    I like your results.

  2. Thought about this blog post as I sat in the truck for three hours in Loma Linda this afternoon, waiting for the crew to offload 45,000 pounds of Coors Beer that I hauled down from Golden, Colorado. The dock was situated so that I had a fairly panoramic view of the San Gabriels. Got out my 16×50 Nikon Aculons and started scanning the mountains, but the view was cut off by a building short of Mt. Wilson. Taking off for Reno tomorrow afternoon. I’ll be hitting one of my favorite spots just north of Montgomery Pass, north of Bishop. Lots of room to pull the truck over, new moon tomorrow night, clear skies predicted, Bortle 1 dark skies, plenty of time to get my load to Reno…the perfect storm! I might even drag the 8″ Orion Dob out of the sleeper and plug in the 13mm Ethos. Just read your “Wandering the Milky Way” feature in the March S&T, so I’ll have plenty of targets! One of my favorites is M35/NGC 2158. At 92x through my 15″ Obsession (which stays at home), 2158 looks just like a little globular off on the edge of M35. Don’t know how you can teach anatomy, study fossilized bird bones, write a monthly column for S&T, keep up this blog and still find time to stare at the heavens. Do you ever sleep?

  3. Very jealous of your Bortle 1 skies up north. I got to be out under Bortle 1-3 skies quite a few times last year, but the last time I was out that deep with a scope was July. I miss it.

    As for sleep – heh. Sometimes. I have to admit, 2016 is the year that I finally figured out where my limit is. I’m living there. From here on out, every thing I do means other things I don’t do. Fortunately, I’m pretty darned happy with the things I get to do.

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