July 20, 2020
By Mark Fingar
It’s no mystery why many gun owners also enjoy photography. Both share the practiced skill of a steady hand, proper sight picture, trigger control and can result in a trophy hung on the wall. Hunting with a camera can be as satisfying as hunting with a firearm. It’s definitely easier to drag your quarry back to camp.
However, to get the winning shot, you have the problem of quickly finding your target through the lens of the camera, especially when using a big telephoto lens. The solution is using a red-dot optic.
Firearms and red dots are a match made in heaven. They allow shooters to track fast-moving objects and quickly engage targets. Cameras, on the other hand, rely on a small viewfinder, making it extremely challenging to track anything since most of your viewing area is obscured by a bulky camera body. Since the principles of aiming and shooting are so similar, why not use a red dot on your camera? I’ve been doing just that for about six years and can attest it works phenomenally well.
Since your camera has zero recoil, even the cheapest optic on the market will do fine. Odds are, you have a moderately priced red dot sitting in a drawer collecting dust. It’s time to put it to work.
While selecting a camera optic, consider four things: viewing area, brightness, battery life and height. Waterproofing, combat-ruggedness and glass quality is less critical.
A big, wide-viewing area is the most important thing. The whole idea is to make photography easier, so stick with large displays and avoid compact mini red dots.
A large camera and lens is bulkier to maneuver than a rifle, so it’s a bit more challenging to line up the dot. My personal favorite is a TruGlo TruBrite that sells for about $50. It has a generous viewing area and sits pretty low. TruGlo also makes a great 30mm scope that also performs beautifully. Both have large variable brightness knobs and easy battery access.
Brightness of the dot is another thing. For example, a good portion of my photography is aviation and birds in flight. A setting that’s perfect on a ground target might be nearly invisible when aimed at the sky, so I tend to max out my brightness and keep a good supply of CR2032 batteries handy. If lighting changes or I switch to a darker target, I dial down appropriately. An optic that gives you a choice of both green and red reticles can help deal with changing conditions as well.
Height is the final thing I consider. On a firearm, you want to get an optic as low to the bore as possible. Same thing with a camera. While a camera’s target is always line-of-sight (no ballistics), there is still a convergence issue if your optic is too high. Once you zero your optic at a given distance, you’ll want the least amount of adjustment when transitioning from distant targets to closer ones. An ideal optic will clear the lens in front of it and go no higher.
Now that you’ve selected an optic, you’ll need a way to mount it to your camera. That’s where your camera’s hot shoe comes into play. A hot shoe is the top bracket where an external flash gets mounted. It’s relatively solid on most cameras and makes an ideal location for an optic. If you Google “DSLR hot shoe red dot,” you’ll see a variety of options. Some are better than others, with most options priced under $20. Buy a couple different mounts and see which works best for you.
My first choice would be the Astromania Silver Plate. It secures firmly in place with two set screws. It accepts Weaver, Picatinny and even rimfire dovetail mounts. If your optic base has a cross bolt or Picatinny lug, you may need to break out the Dremel. Overall, it is the lowest and most solid of all the mounts I’ve used.
If your optic demands a true Picatinny interface, I’d go with the Meinuoke 20mm Rail. It’s very robust and low. It secures to the hot shoe with a wheel-type tensioner, making it easy to remove if needed. It has dual base screws that keep the rail from rotating in the hot shoe bracket.
Lastly, Sharpshooter Industries makes a Picatinny rail that shifts the optic forward a bit. That’s a good thing if you wear a ball cap and want that extra clearance. It’s made of glass-filled polymer and is very rigid.
If your mount’s base has a wheel-type tensioner, make sure to use a pair of channel locks to make sure it’s extremely tight or you’ll chance losing your zero. Test-mount your optic and adjust as needed, then tighten everything down. I use blue Loctite on any threads for good measure.
Now, you’ll need to zero.
Did He Say Zero?
Now that your optic is mounted tightly to the camera, it’s time to zero the dot to the dead-center of your viewfinder. The best method I’ve found is to mount your camera assembly onto a stable tripod. Rotate the camera until there’s a stationary object centered in the viewfinder.
Make sure that object is at the distance you’ll likely be taking photos. Confirm that the object is covered with one of the camera’s focus points. Then, using the optic’s elevation and windage adjustments, carefully move the dot until it covers the intended object. Double-check both the camera and red dot are precisely aiming at the same point.
Slowly depress the shutter button. The autofocus should snap onto the object. Take a photo and confirm the object is centered and tack-sharp. If you don’t have a tripod, use a shooting bag or heavy sandbag across the hood of your vehicle or shooting bench.
If your optic base is too high, and you zero at around 50 yards, an object closer to you will be lower in the viewfinder than the dot. A lower mount will narrow this convergence.
TruGlow makes a vertical three-dot reticle option in their 30mm that reasonably covers the range of most distances. Think of it as a range reticle. The top dot can be 100 yards, the bottom can indicate around 15 yards. Personally, I just use a single dot zeroed for the farthest distance, then I wing it if something comes 20 feet away, which I know to aim about 6 inches high.
Set your camera’s autofocus to update continuously as you take images. On Canon cameras, this setting is called “AI Servo.” For Nikon, it’s “Continuous/AF-C.” Now, as an object moves, your focus will update with it. Each time you go on a photoshoot, confirm your zero by taking a photo of a stationary object and checking your image to make sure everything is centered. You are now ready to start taking photos. It’ll take some time to get a feel for when a target is in focus. I can feel it through my lens.
You should now be ready to “run-and-gun” freestyle. Bring your face right up against the viewfinder to steady the camera and look through the optic with both eyes open. You should be able to track planes, trains and any game animals, keeping everything focused and in the frame. It feels like cheating. If you panic, the viewfinder is still there as a backup.
I like mounting my rig on a tripod with a smooth video head. This way I can stand about 2 feet back and chase objects with the dot, keeping both eyes open.
So, give it a try. You’ll be shocked at how easily you can photograph sports, wildlife and other nonstationary subjects. People will think you’re a photographic magician!
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