A spotting scope is a portable telescope designed for land or sea viewing. It is a remarkable instrument loved by many nature observers, bird watchers and hunters. With a spotting scope, you can view across great distances and notice details that are nearly impossible to see with binoculars. The following guide covers the most important features to look for when buying a spotting scope and our Top 3 Spotting Scopes for 2017.
Should I Buy a Binocular, Spotting Scope or Telescope?
If you were just getting started with birding or hunting, then binoculars would probably work best. Binoculars are more compact, portable and intuitive to use. They are also good for travel and a variety of other uses. As you become more serious about your outdoor activity, you will, sooner or later, want a spotting scope and tripod. For bird watching, the high magnification and better stability will allow you to see details on birds that cannot be seen with binoculars. Hunters use them to effectively spot, follow and identify wildlife while target shooters use them for scoring.
Telescopes are purely designed for astronomy and viewing the night sky. Spotting scopes, on the other hand, are also designed for viewing subjects on land or at sea. A spotting scope would work great if you want to see boats in the bay, ships in the horizon, scenery as far as 30 Km away or simply observe subjects from a very long distance.
What Do the Numbers Mean?
A spotting scope is always represented by two sets of numbers. For example 20-60×80. The first set of numbers refers to its magnification (or zoom). For example 20-60x means 20x to 60x variable zoom. The second number refers to the diameter of its objective lens. A spotting scope will usually have a 50mm to 80mm lens.
What is the Best Magnification?
Most spotting scopes will have a variable zoom, for example, 15-45x or 20-60x. This suggests that you can manually adjust their magnification when viewing – just like a camera. Generally, a spotting scope will have a maximum magnification of 15x to 60x. The higher the magnification is, the more detail you will be able to see. Remember that you will always be able to zoom out when needed.
What is the Ideal Lens Size?
You simply need to choose if you prefer a better image quality or a smaller and lighter spotting scope. A spotting scope with a larger lens (60mm to 100mm) will have better light-gathering capability than a smaller 50mm lens spotting scope. This means that the image you see will be brighter and clearer. You will also enjoy a wider field of view. On the other hand the bigger the lens is, the larger and heavier your spotting scope will be. Larger spotting scopes are also more expensive.
Think about where you will be using the spotting scope the most. If you normally stay at a fixed location for a long period or don’t need to worry about extra weight then opt for an 80mm to 100mm scope (if you can afford it of course). If you like to travel light or move around more than a 50mm to 60mm scope will suit you better. Some 50mm scopes can even be used without a tripod when needed.
Should I Choose an Angled or a Straight Spotting Scope?
Most scopes offer two basic design options: a straight eyepiece or an angular one. With an angled spotting scope you will be peering down the eyepiece while with a straight scope simply looking straight ahead. Both have advantages and disadvantages. For bird watching or looking at the moon the angled spotting scopes are more popular than the straight ones because of the following reasons:
- They are easier to use for extended periods of time.
- They are more convenient to share with other viewers. If you set your angled spotting scope to a certain height most people will still be able to view through the eyepiece without needing to adjust the scope’s position.
- An angled scope allows you to aim skyward at a bird in a tree, soaring hawks, the mountains or the moon.
In other cases, a straight scope will be preferable. It is more trivial to use because where you point is where you look. A straight scope is also good for a hunter who is spotting game while lying on the ground. It allows for a straight “point and shoot” alignment as well as keeping your head down low when stalking wildlife. A straight spotting scopes works well when looking either straight ahead or downwards from an elevated location. For example looking down at the beach, checking the surf or viewing the landscape from your elevated porch.
What Other Features Should I Consider?
Spotting scopes are frequently used in extreme weather conditions, so features like waterproof and fog-proof are desirable. A lot of vendors say that they have waterproof scopes, but they are only protected against water. Proper waterproofing will make sure that your spotting scope is protected from all types of water and moisture and will not fog up. This also means that the inside of your scope will have protection from corrosion, which will be an added benefit if you like to use it near the ocean. Our spotting scopes by Vortex, Barska, Meade and Bushnell are all highly durable and 100% waterproofed and water sealed.
Another feature to look for is long eye relief. In plain English, this means that you will be able to position your eye further away from your eyepiece and still see a clear image. This is important if you’ll be wearing your glasses or sunglasses while using the spotting scope. Most mid to high-end scopes have a long enough eye relief for all users.
Do I Need a Tripod for My Spotting Scope?
In short, yes. Spotting scopes use high magnifications so must be stabilised to eliminate image shakiness. Although some smaller models can be used without a tripod, they are still better used with one. You can also mount your spotting scope on a table, stand or any other platform. But a tripod will definitely allow you to enjoy your scope’s full potential truly. All of our spotting scopes come with a standard tripod mount, which can be used, with nearly any tripod on the market.
Which Tripod Should I Get?
Some spotting scopes already come with a tripod in the box. Others come as a spotting scope+tripod kit. Read carefully through the product description to see if a tripod is included. If not, you can sometimes use your spotting scope with a standard camera tripod. If you choose a larger spotting scope (60mm to 100mm) we also stock selected tripods and mounts. These are a-bit more expensive than your standard camera tripod. They are better quality, heavy-duty tripods specifically designed to carry binoculars and spotting scopes. If you are buying a large or heavy spotting scope, we highly recommend getting a good tripod for it. Our suggested full-size tripod for each of our spotting scopes is mentioned below the scope’s product description.
How to Consider Image Quality vs. Price?
Once you’ve decided on an angled or straight version and if you prefer a smaller or a larger spotting scope, the next step would be to look at image quality. Some models will provide a better and brighter image than others. Image quality will depend on the size of the objective lens, the optics used and the coating process of the lenses. Higher-end models will feature fully multicoated lenses, which allow for a greater light gathering capacity.
With optics, you really do get what you pay for but we have a few outstanding choices for very affordable prices. Below is a list of our best-selling spotting scopes that we believe are also the best bang for your money:
Our Top 3 Spotting Scopes for 2017
** Note: All 3 spotting scopes recommended below are suitable for eyeglasses users **
Want to take photos or video using your spotting scope?
Checkout our blog post on digiscoping. It includes everything you need to know about photography using a spotting scope as well as our favourite spotting scopes and adapters for digiscoping.