Last August Nikon announced their new 500mm lens, and a weird gadget that caught my eye: the Nikon DF-M1 Dot Sight. This attaches to your hot shoe and adds a laser dot focusing system to a camera, similar to those many hunters use on rifles.

I was intrigued, curious if this might be a way to improve aiming a big birding lens on distant targets, or on birds in flight, where trying to keep a bird centered in the sensor of a 600mm lens through the EVF can be an exercise in futility. But at $170, the Nikon was expensive enough that I wasn’t going to buy it to see if it might be useful.

It did get me thinking that there was probably a way to take a hunter laser sight and adapt it to a camera for testing. I was right, and for $17 I bought a Feyuchi Laser sight. The connector wasn’t compatible with a camera hot shoe, but there are a number of available adaptors. For another $11, I picked up the Higoo Universal Camera Flash Hot Shoe 20mm Rail Adapter for Optics Scope Sight. So, for $28 I had something that would at least tell me if the idea was worth pursuing.

I took this setup with me on my trip to oregon last fall, and I’ve took it out twice more. I’ve spent the last few months trying to decide if I wanted to talk about it at all, and finally decided that even failures give us things to talk about and learn from.

And yes, I have to declare this a worthwhile experiment that simply didn’t work for me.

How it works

This is not the type of device that shines a laser beam on whatever you’re attempting to target — no red (or green) dot here. Instead, there’s a low power laser that shines a target point on a screen. You look through that screen out at the target and when the target is behind the laser display, you’ve lined it up.

That is, assuming you have the sight aligned properly and haven’t knocked it askew in use.

I found I had problems with both.

Set up of the laser sight is fairly simple: you install a battery, you attach it to the adapter, and you attach the adapter to the hot shoe of the camera. First problem I found was the adapter had a tendency to shift side to side in the hot shoe and I couldn’t really tighten it enough to make it stay in one place. In the field, I found I was regularly bumping it out of alignment and had to stop and fix that before I could use the sight. This is fixable, but annoying.

Then you have to align the sight to the camera. That involves using the EVF to aim the camera at a distant object like a tree, and then adjust the sight until the sight aiming matches the EVF. This has to be done on a locked-down tripod, obviously, but once the two are lined up it should just work. Assuming you haven’t knocked the alignment off.

Theory vs Practice

At least in theory. I found a few problems in practice.

If you think about how this kind of sight works on a rifle, the rifle is typically steadied on your shoulder, so there’s a direct connection between the sight and rifle and shoulder, which allows you to, with a bit of practice, reliably put your eye in the right place to aim reliably through the sight.

Put the same sight on a camera on a tripod, and now your head and eye are moving independently of the camera, which you’re aiming with your hands as it pivots on the tripod. I am sure with practice I could learn how to make all of these moving parts stay in alignment as I’m madly trying to target a bald eagle in flight a quarter mile away, if I gave it enough time and practice. I am also absolutely sure I do not have the patience or motivation to put in that work.

Using the device handheld, counter-intuitively, worked better because now you’re supporting the camera with your hand and arm, and the arm is usually wedged against the body for stability, so you now have that connection that helps keep it all aligned. In my testing, though, I never felt like it was more effective at aiming, especially for birds in flight, than the EVF.

One other issue I found with the sight: once I had it aligned and aiming properly for my lens at maximum telephoto (560mm with the 1.4x teleconverter), if I reduced the power to, say, 300mm, the sight’s alignment was off. That just seems to be a physics problem, and without getting into angles and parallax and all the crazy nerdy stuff, it means the sight is really only useful when at the single telephoto power it was aligned to focus for. If you’re shooting a fixed lens, that’s fine. If you’re using a zoom, it turns this into a why bother.

My bottom line

So after a few tries, I found the idea of adding a laser aiming sight to the camera to be an interesting and well-intentioned failure. I expect with practice it could give me some marginal improvement over the EVF when handheld. I’m not convinced it’d be an improvement for a tripod-based camera.

The testing setup I built had some fussy bits, but I’ll write those off to doing this for $30 instead of $170, but I think the more general issues of aiming reliability, dealing with zoom lenses, and, basically, it being one more piece of gear to deal with, maintain, carry and pay for, I just don’t see the value. You may want to experiement with this if it sounds interesting, and you may have better results than I did.

But my bottom line is that I just don’t see enough added value to warrant the cost, the time needed to learn how to use it well, and the weight and bulk of carrying it. It’s not noticeably better to me than simply using the EVF.

But it was an interesting experiment I’m glad I tried.

But sometimes, it just doesn’t work.