ESM-1 & PGD Tracker... the Evolution of a Better Mouse Trap

You can’t use an iPhone to take an award winning shot of two eagles fighting over a fish in mid air several hundred feet away! We have all heard the cliche, “it isn’t the camera, it is the person behind the lens”. There is certainly some truth to that bit of wisdom, but it is a simplistic idea that ignores, among other things, the laws of physics.

Wildlife shooters typically desire long telephotos, cameras with fast frame rates, and fast auto focus specs to increase the likelihood of getting good captures. Especially in the case of moving subjects. Good equipment can lead to better captures, of course, but large focal length lenses have a narrow field of view and that brings a different set of challenges.

Shooting the large populations of migrating eagles at the Conowingo Dam in Maryland I became painfully aware, even with good equipment, how hard it is to keep fast and agile eagles in the viewfinder! The longer the focal length of lens one uses, the narrower the field of view is. The exciting shot that gets the action in frame is what we work for, but it might take hundreds of frames to get that shot, with a lot of “misses”. If you “lose” the subject while tracking the flight, good luck getting it back in the viewfinder without looking up to see where the subject “disappeared” to. In the mean time you may have missed “the shot”. When you add in the fact that there is considerable “blackout time” while the mirror is popping up for each shot, it becomes extremely challenging to keep the target in your viewfinder.

Four months later I returned to Conowingo. I knew the majority of eagles were long gone, but a few were reported to be year long residents. Instead of finding hundreds of photographers and no place to park, the place was nearly abandoned, save a few optimistic shooters. As I approached a fellow photographer who was waiting for some roosting eagles to take flight, I immediately took notice of a device mounted on his camera hot shoe. That device was what is commonly referred to as a “Red Dot” sight, typically mounted on firearms to aid fast and accurate target acquisition.

Instead of keeping the viewfinder glued to your eye, here was a way to use both eyes to watch and track the target as we have done for eons. Keeping the red (or green) “dot” reticle on the target is infinitely easier than being scrunched up tight with an eye to the viewfinder. And there is no mirror blackout! The gracious shooter let me look through his rig. That was a truly epiphanous moment.

             My inspiration at Conowingo Dam

             My inspiration at Conowingo Dam

A few days later and back at home base,  I ordered a sight and some parts to make my own hot shoe “red dot” sight mount. I have spent my entire life designing and making things… industrial machines and fixtures, aviation related parts, you name it. I also have a small machine shop that supports my engineering work, so making prototypes of what ever I am dreaming up is never a problem.

The first prototype was functional and successful, but I quickly realized how sensitive and critical the accuracy of the sight mount is to be able to repeat the sight’s position each time it is removed and then re-mounted to the camera. Any deviation would require that the sight be re-calibrated to the camera. While that is not particularly difficult, it is time wasted and wasting time is not something I tolerate well.  I refined and perfected the mount design to achieve the precise repeatability I wanted.

Practicing with the sight on a nearby nesting osprey pair made a true believer out of me. I was able to stay on the flying birds with much greater consistency and precision. I captured so many dramatic, close up, frame filling shots, it was hard to choose which ones to keep!

At this point I gave the sight and mount to my friend and fellow bird shooter extraordinaire, Paul English, (@paulenglishimages). He started out pretty skeptical of the idea of not looking through the lens while shooting. After all, that is how he, and the rest of us, have always shot using our DSLRs. By the end of that afternoon and the subsequent download of dozens of good, in frame shots of fast moving birds, Paul was hooked as well.

Like me, Paul has made a career of making stuff and today owns English Manufacturing Inc., a facility with computer controlled machining equipment and operators who routinely work to tolerances of only a few thousandths of an inch.

Our combined expertise of design, development, and manufacturing - plus our passion for wildlife photography, led to forming Photo Gear Designs. We can now share our our unique solutions to photographic challenges with all of you and we are starting with the PGD Tracker Kit which includes the ESM-1 (external sight mount), and our own optical reflex sight, the PGD Tracker, specifically customized for photography.

This accessory is a game changer for getting close up telephoto shots of moving subjects!  

PGD Tracker instructions are here.