A spotting scope is, simply put, a small and very portable telescope. It’s primarily used for land observation, unlike regular telescopes, which are commonly used for astronomical observation. However, in a pinch, you could theoretically use a spotting scope for limited astronomical observation. Spotting scopes are commonly used for outdoor activities such as hunting, bird watching, scenic observation, or nature study and telephotography.
Spotting scopes are somewhat of a middle ground between telescopes and binoculars. They’re right in the middle between those two. Compared to binoculars, they often give you a better magnification and clearer image. Compared to a telescope, they’ll give you the light-gathering capability and robustness that you won’t find on a telescope. This is a fairly big advantage when you’re out in the field. You get a lot of practicality with a spotting scope – something you can’t achieve with binoculars and telescopes. You will also find that a telescope commonly has a shorter focal length, and wider field of view. This, combined with the erecting prism which is there to ensure correct orientation, are all features that aren’t really necessary with a spotting scope.
When you’re looking at buying a spotting scope, there are quite a few options. For someone who’s well versed in what they need, this isn’t that much of an issue. However, for someone who is buying their first scope, or who wants to gift it to someone, maybe, picking out the best spotting scope can be a difficult ordeal. There are various types, there are various magnification levels and lens diameters, and all of this, combined with the various price ranges at which they come, can be confusing. Therefore, we have assembled a list of ten spotting scopes that excel when compared to their closest competitors. And that’s not all. In case you go through our list, but find you still can’t decide which one to get, we’ve also created an in-depth buyer’s guide. That explains all the things that you need to be careful about, and what aspects of spotting scopes are worth investing into. Without wasting any more of your time, let’s take a better look at our options.
At a Glance
If you’re looking to get in the spotting scope game, but don’t want to invest too much in your first scope, the Roxant Blackbird is one worth looking into. It is a fairly budget-oriented option that ticks all the right boxes for people who want a spotting scope, yet aren’t really sure about exactly what they need. It is Roxant’s first spotting scope, and even though it was released in 2017, it’s still one of the best you can get now. Let’s take a look at what makes it so good.
To kick things off, we have the specs. The Blackbird is a zoom spotting scope (we’ll talk about why that matters below), with a range from 12 to 36x. This is a fairly respectable zoom range, especially for the price. You get a relatively wide field of view at 12x, and you can get in closer to your subject by zooming in. And no, you won’t be noticing any quality loss at 36x, unlike with other products you might find on the market. The 50mm lens lets in plenty of light, and you will get a sharp and clear image. This is an angled scope, meaning you can easily mount it on a tripod and share it with a group of friends if you want to – it’s very convenient. The Blackbird has the highest degree of coating available – it has fully multi-coated optics, and you get a BAK4 prism. This combination ensures that there is no loss of contrast or image quality, regardless of whether you’re looking at the lowest, or highest magnification the scope offers.
Since this is a product that’s made for the outdoors, construction does matter. And it obviously matters to Roxant as well, because they’ve built this thing like a tank. It is a small device, but it’s made from a rugged, non-slip armor rubber. You get what they call a “Smooth Glide” focus ring on the main barrel, and this makes it somewhat of a hybrid between a single focus and a helical system. The grip is extremely comfortable, and since this is a small and lightweight device, it will not slip out of your hand. They also paid attention to eye relief, as the eyepiece is extendable or retractable, depending on whether you’ll be using it with, or without glasses. The main barrel also has an extendable sunshade, which helps quite a bit with reducing sunshine glare.
Last but not least, Roxant have included a couple of freebies in the package. The most important one is the portable tripod you’re getting. With an angled scope, you’ll most likely be setting it on a tripod and using it to observe a pre-defined field of view. Not having to invest extra money in a separate tripod is a good start. You also get a handy carrying case and lens caps, which make sure you won’t damage the Blackbird during transport.
All things considered, this is a very attractive scope, especially if you factor in the price range. You get a variable zoom eyepiece, a rugged construction, fully multi-coated optics, and a couple of handy accessories. The only potential downside is that Blackbird haven’t really mentioned water or fog resistance, and we weren’t keen on testing those out. You might want to be a bit more careful with it if you get caught out in the rain. Putting it in the carrying case and throwing it in your backpack should protect it, but we wouldn’t recommend using it in the rain, or in humid conditions. Apart from that, if you’re in the market for an entry-level spotting scope, by all means go for it – chances are you won’t regret it.
At a Glance
If you think you could go a bit further than the Roxant above, and your budget allows it, the next interesting proposition on our list comes from Upland Optics. Here we have their Perception HD spotting scope, which improves on some key areas where the Blackbird didn’t really stand out. You have somewhat of a different magnification range, a better build quality, and resistance to the elements. Upland Optics have an edge over numerous “entry level” brands, because the brand itself was created by hunters. Consequently, they know exactly what a hunter, or outdoors enthusiast requires in a product, and they know how to create such products. Let’s take a better look at the Perception HD.
When talking specs, the two most important numbers are magnification and lens diameter. And the Perception HD hits the sweet spot for both, with the 20-60x variable optical zoom, and the 60mm objective lens. That variable zoom gives you quite a bit of range to work with, and you can get relatively close to your subject if you wanted to. The field of view at 1000m ranges from 22m to 43m, depending on what end of the zoom range you’re at. The 60mm lens is a very good compromise between being able to let plenty of light in, and not being too big and clunky to carry around. Yes, the bigger the better, but a big lens is also heavy, and 60mm is a good middle ground. For people who might find themselves carrying glasses, or sunglasses, when using this scope, there’s an eye relief of 15-21mm. This should accommodate all your needs.
Now that we have the specs out of the way, let’s discuss the build quality for a second. Upland optics has a bit of a reputation for making sturdy, high quality products, and the Perception HD is no different. It’s an angled scope, making it very versatile, and the materials and assembly are carefully chosen, to ensure it won’t get banged up easily. The rubber coating won’t slip out of your hands, and even if it does, there’s a fair amount of rubber to absorb vibrations. You’ll be happy to find Extra-Low Dispersion (ED) Glass on the scope, as well as a BAK4 prism. This is somewhat of an ideal combination as far as clarity, contrast and image sharpness goes, and it won’t leave you asking for more. The focusing system is a single knob one, and you’ll find that knob on top of the scope. We mentioned that the Perception HD improves on Roxant’s Blackbird, and this is where the largest improvement comes – it is both waterproof, and fog proof. Sure, if you only go out when the sun is shining, and make sure to carefully assess the weather, you might not need this. But not many hunters and outdoor enthusiasts wait for the perfect weather to go out, and that often means that you might get caught up in sub-optimal weather. With the Perception HD, you don’t have to worry about it being damaged.
When you take a look at both the specs, and the build quality, there’s little to complain about with the Perception HD. The only thing you might not find to your liking is the zoom range, but that’s a personal preference, and not something we would be complaining about. It’s a lightweight spotting scope with an excellent build quality and great optics, and the price is absolutely suitable. If it falls within your price range, do give it a shot.
At a Glance
What both of the scopes above have in common is that they’re both small, lightweight options. However, there are some people that consider carrying heavier gear for the sake of image quality is actually very much worth it. This is where Celestron’s Ultima comes in. You will find it in multiple configurations, but we’ll be focusing on the 100mm angled model here. It’s a large and heavy scope, but is the image quality you get worth it? Let’s find out.
Starting the specs, this is another zoom lens. The range is 22-66x, which is a touch more than what Upland Optics offered, but it’s still within the reasonable all-round zoom range. You have a good combination of wide field of view, and the ability to get up close. In terms of numbers, you have 52 to 94 feet field of view at 1000 yards. This is an angled scope with a 45 degree viewing angle, which adds a bit of versatility in terms of usage. All the weight and heft of the device comes from the objective diameter. This is a number that’s commonly between 50mm and 80mm in general use all-round scopes, but here we have a large 100mm lens. If you think you might be using the scope in conditions where the light is sub-optimal, you’ll get around 50% brighter images when compared to a 50mm lens. This can mean the difference between seeing your target well, and not seeing it at all, in the dark. There’s also a 15-18mm eye relief, and the eyecups can be folded outwards if you intend on using the spotting scope with glasses.
The build quality is on par with the price range this scope belongs in. On the outside, you will find a rugged, armored exterior, which is bound to withstand hard use in the field. The single knob focusing system comes with a large dial for easy and precise focusing without wasting too much time. When you get to the inside, you will find multi-coated lenses which ensure you have a bright and sharp view. Combine this with the 100mm lens, and you don’t have to worry about it being “too dark outside” To use such a scope. It’s a pleasure to use in just about any environment. It is also completely waterproof, so you don’t have to worry about getting caught out in the rain with the Ultima.
If you decide to get it, there’s a very good choice of accessories that comes with it. The lens and eyepiece cover are more or less standard on most spotting scopes, but here you also get an eyepiece case and pouch, as well as a cleaning cloth, carrying case, and an off-set balance rail and T-mount ring. The off-set balance rail gives you a bit more versatility when you’re mounting this on a tripod, and you can use the T-mount ring to attach a DSLR camera to your scope for photography. All things considered, you will be hard pressed to find a better scope that offers a 100mm lens, and is within this price range. Add to that the great build quality, stellar optics, and slew of accessories, and you’ve got yourself a winner.
At a Glance
Redfield is an interesting company with a well-built portfolio. They’re a subsidiary of Leupold & Stevens, and their main task is to make high quality optics that don’t break the bank. If you take a look at their Rampage spotting scope, you’ll see that they have indeed managed to do that, and they’re backing it up with their No Excuses Limited lifetime warranty. Let’s take a closer look at the Rampage, and see whether it’s worth your money.
At first sight, the specs might seem too similar to Upland Optics’ Perception HD we talked about above. You have a zoom range that starts at 20x, and ends at 60x, and there’s a 60mm objective lens. The objective lens diameter is, as we said, the perfect middle ground, but with this specific scope, the zoom range leaves a bit to be desired. We’re not talking about the numbers, but about image quality. There aren’t many scopes out there that can actually achieve full image quality at maximum zoom, and unfortunately, neither can the Rampage. As you start to get close to 60x zoom, you will notice that the image quality starts to degrade. We honestly can’t recommend you to use this scope at anything above 40x zoom if you want a sharp and clear image with sufficient contrast. Like with some of the other options above, you have a BAK4 prism. It does give you plenty of clarity and contrast, but as mentioned, not at the maximum zoom.
When we start talking about the build quality, there’s another major difference between this, and the other spotting scopes above. This isn’t an angled scope, but a straight one. This does have its advantages, but the major downside is that when you set it on a tripod, you will need to adjust it to the eye level of whoever uses it, taking away some of its versatility out in the field. Again, we have a single knob focus design, and a waterproof polycarbonate body. We’d prefer rubber due to its proven durability in the field, but polycarbonate, when built properly, isn’t that far behind.
In the box, you don’t only get the scope, but a couple of accessories as well. There’s a compact tripod that comes in handy, as well as a storage case. If you want protection for it, but you still want to be able to use it, there’s also a view-through soft case that lets you do just that. If we take everything into consideration, this is a quality offering from a reputable brand, only hampered by its lack of quality at maximum zoom. If you can see past that, it’s definitely a scope worth considering.
At a Glance
With all of the scopes on the list so far, we’ve been hovering between the entry level and the midrange scope market. However, with the Vortex Razor HD we’re entering the premium segment. It does come with a price range that might be out of some people’s reach, but it also comes with Vortex’s years of experience in the field, as well as their quality guarantee. For many, this is a price worth paying. Let’s take a better look at it, and see whether it should be a price worth paying for you. Note that you can get this scope in an angled, or straight variant, as well as in 16-48×65, or 20-60×85 options. In our review, we’ll be taking a look at the 20-60×85 angled spotting scope.
Starting things off with the specs, the 20-60x magnification range is more or less the sweet spot. The good thing is that unlike with the Rampage, you won’t be noticing any image quality loss at either end of the magnification range. You have an 85mm diameter lens, which is on the larger end of spotting scopes. However, at a weight of 4.1 pounds, that’s actually not that bad when you consider the amount of light it lets inside the scope. All things considered, looking at larger objects can be done at over 1,200 yards, and you can easily see bullet holes at distances of around 100 yards. Inside the Razor HD is a Porro prism design which is an excellent compromise between optical performance and price. The lenses are XRPlus Multi-Coated, and they offer stunning performance. Light transmission is absolutely sufficient, and they reflect excess light really well, so you don’t have to struggle with it. Even well after sunset, you won’t be struggling to look at your target.
If the optical performance doesn’t do it for you, the build quality absolutely helps justify the price. It is extremely rugged and built to withstand the elements, and it’s completely waterproof. In case you don’t trust it, it’s backed up by the Vortex lifetime warranty, making it a very attractive option. There’s a dual focusing knob system, a first on our list. The inside, base ring will give you the faster adjustment, while the smaller, outer one will let you do all the fine tuning. You’ll find both knobs at the top of the scope, which is a very convenient position. If you’re a person who tends to use their spotting scope with glasses, there’s a 20mm eye relief, which can be easily adjusted at the end of the eyepiece, making it ideal for such use. On the other end is a built-in sunshade, and you will also find a permanent tripod mount at the bottom. There’s also a small knob that lets you rotate the scope’s body in its base. Once you’re done with spotting, you can pack everything in the included carrying case and throw it in the backpack.
If you’re looking at budget-oriented options, the Vortex Razor HD is far from the best spotting scope for you, there are much better option. However, if you already have some experience, or have a bigger budget to spend on this, you won’t regret it. Vortex is a very reputable brand, boasting quality all across its range of optics, and you’re absolutely getting that same quality here. If you can afford it, don’t hesitate.
At a Glance
Vanguard Optics are somewhat of a middle ground between the extreme budget options, and the high-end premium brands. However, even though their prices tend to gravitate towards the budget offerings, their quality is almost on par with high end spotting scopes. Such is the case with their Endeavor HD 65A, which is priced very competitively, yet offers performance, optical quality and build quality that shoots way above its price range. There are two variants of it, one with a 65mm lens diameter, and the other one with an 82mm, but we’ll focus on the first one for the purpose of this review.
When talking about the specs, the model we’re reviewing has a 15-45x magnification range, and a 62mm lens diameter. 15-45x is a bit close for some purposes, but if you’re in need of a general all-round scope, and prefer a wider field of view, you should enjoy it. And, 45x magnification tends to give a better image quality than 60x, for example, especially with budget and midrange scopes. If that’s something that matters to you, that’s another nice bonus. The 65mm lens is right in the middle of the 50 to 80mm range that’s common for scopes nowadays, and lets plenty of light inside without being too heavy and big to lug around. The angled eyepiece is detachable, and has a comfortable rubber eyecup. The eye relief is 19-20mm, which, as you know by now, lets you use it with glasses.
On the outside, there’s a rubber-armored magnesium body. This is much higher quality than the plastic and polycarbonate that some competitors offer at the same price range (looking at you, Redfield), and you have a built-in sunshield as a bonus. The construction and body are completely waterproof and fog proof, perfect for those situations when you get caught out in the rain, or in very humid weather. The ED glass ensures minimal fringing, and you have BAK4 phase-coated prism, along with fully multi-coated lenses. It’s becoming obvious that Vanguard didn’t sacrifice quality in order to keep the price down, which is nice to know. There’s a dual knob focus system, something we only saw on the premium Vortex scope so far, with one knob that lets you adjust the focus, and another one for fine tuning.
All things considered, if you’re after good build quality, decent optics, and premium features, but don’t want to feel a huge dent in your wallet, the Vanguard is a great scope. The only potential downside to it is the fact that for a bit more money, you might find something that offers much better quality and optical performance. If, however, you don’t want to spend “a bit more money”, just go for the Vanguard – you won’t regret it.
At a Glance
Even though Vortex first appeared on our list with a high-end scope, the Viper HD is their midrange offering which gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Before moving on further, we should clarify that even though Vortex have a whole new Viper HD , we’ll be focusing on the older model. The differences in specs aren’t that big, especially when you factor in the price difference, and the older Viper HD is still a great go-to midrange spotting scope.
Just like the Razor HD, you have the choice between a straight and angled scope, as well as between 20-60×80, and 15-45×65. We’ll be taking a look at the angled, 20-60×80 model, because that’s the one that gives you the most versatility, both in terms of setting it up and using it, as well as the zoom range and lens diameter. We don’t have to repeat everything we said about the 20-60x zoom range, but we will mention that with Vortex, you don’t suffer quality loss at either end of the scope. The 80mm diameter lens is made of HD/ED (High Density Extra-Low Dispersion) glass, which is something you only find on high end scopes costing at least twice as much as the Viper. And as an addition, all of the optics are also XR anti-reflective fully multi-coated, to ensure maximum light transmission and image clarity. It doesn’t get much better than this, especially when you factor in the price.
On the outside, there’s Vortex’s signature quality and build construction. The lenses are coated with Armortek, which ensures they don’t get scratched, or damaged by oil and dirt. The entire scope is sealed with O-rings, and purged with argon, for best-in-class waterproof and fog proof performance. The later model was updated with a helical focusing system, but this one keeps the dual knob one. As usual, there are two knobs, one for general adjustment, and the other one for fine tuning. When you want the focus to be as accurate as possible, the dual knob focus system actually has a bit of an advantage, to be honest. Also on the outside is a rotating tripod ring, which lets you put the scope on a tripod and rotate it as you find it appropriate. And last but not least, you have a sunshade at the front, to help reduce glare and provide some protection against the elements.
If you’re a fan of high-end scopes, but not their price range, the older Viper HD is an excellent compromise. The optical performance is there, the high-end features are there as well, and the quality of the materials used is extremely good. Vortex haven’t really sacrificed much, except in the weight department. This is somewhat to be expected from an 80mm lens, but the Viper HD is a bit heavier than we’d recommend for daily use. If you think you might have issues with that, stay away from it. Otherwise, there’s actually no reason not to get it.
At a Glance
We promise this is the last Vortex spotting scope on the list. But, considering they have three series that cover almost anybody’s budget, it would’ve been a shame to talk about the higher end Viper and Razor, without mentioning the budget-oriented Diamondback scope. It sits at the bottom of Vortex’s lineup, coming it at around a third of the high-end Razor HD’s price in most configurations. You might be noticing a pattern here, as we again have a choice between a straight and an angled scope. However, there’s only one zoom range, 20-60x, with either a 60mm or 80mm lens. The larger lens should let a bit more light at the expense of the scope being a bit heavier, and a bit pricier, but other than that, performance should be identical for both options. Therefore, our review applies to whichever you choose to go for.
As usual, we’re starting off with the performance. 20-60x is a very respectable zoom range, but unfortunately, at this price point, there’s somewhat of a quality loss when you go past 40x. This isn’t as severe, nor as noticeable as the Redfield, but if you pay close attention to details, you’ll notice it. The lens diameter choices are 60mm and 80mm, and which one you get should depend on whether you are prepared to pay a bit more and carry a bit more weight, or not. You have a BAK4 Porro prism which is fully multi-coated, but you won’t be getting the HD/ED glass found on its more expensive Vortex brethren. BAK4 is common at this price range, and it offers respectable optical quality. There is a 14-17mm eye relief, enough for glasses, and it’s digiscope adaptable.
On the outside, you have a fully weatherproof and fairly rugged construction which should hold its own against the elements. O-rings and nitrogen purging are there to help, and you get a rubber armor for both grip, and durability. Also unlike its more expensive brethren, you only have a single knob focus system. This is simpler to use, but doesn’t give you the fine tuning possibilities of a dual knob system. Depending on what you’ll be using it for, this may, or may not matter to you, but it’s good to know. The tripod mount lets you rotate the scope as you deem fit, and the eyecup is also adjustable, so you can get it in a position that provides the most comfort for you.
When you factor in all the things you’re getting, as well as the asking price, the Diamondback might be the best spotting scope in its class. The only thing competitors can try to improve on is the quality loss when you zoom past 40x, but apart from that, Vortex have pretty much hit the nail on the head with this one.
At a Glance
The Regal 65ED is a part of Celestron’s M2 lineup, considered by many to be their high-end lineup. Their goal with the lineup is to provide high-end features, quality construction and clear optics, without breaking the bank. The Regal M2 can be found in a few configurations, namely with a 65mm objective lens (reviewed here), as well as 80mm and 100mm options. Let’s see whether it holds up to its reputation, and whether you should be investing your money in it.
All of the Regal M2 models come with a zoom eyepiece, and the 65ED we reviewed had a 16-48x range. At this magnification, the 65mm lens lets in more than enough light, meaning this is a spotting scope that you can easily use once the sun sets. Something that’s not very common in this price range is the ED glass you get with the lens – it will minimize any chromatic aberration, and increase contrast and accuracy of the colors. The optics have a BAK4 prism, fully multi-coated with XLT, which is another thing you won’t find with many scopes within this price range. An interesting fact is that the eyepiece mount is 1.25”, which is compatible with a wide range of astronomy eyepieces. In case you get the 65ED, but decide you want a bit more zoom, all you need to do is get a new eyepiece. This is extremely convenient, and much better than needing a whole new scope.
On the outside, there’s a very rugged magnesium alloy body. With this combination you get strength and durability, but the weight is lighter than aluminum alloy, which is even more important if you decide to go for the larger lens diameter options. Waterproof construction is a must, and it works wonderfully here. The focus system is a dual knob one, another thing that’s much more common in more expensive scopes. There’s a built-in tripod mount that lets you rotate the scope when necessary, and there are quite a few accessories in the box as well. There are the regular things, such as a view-through case which is padded, as well as the lens and eyepiece covers, but there’s also a T-mount adapter, as well as a storage cover for the eyepiece and eyepiece port. It’s clear that Celestron want your scope to stay protected, even when you throw it in the backpack.
To sum things up, this is a very attractive proposition. Price wise, it sits somewhere between Vortex’s Diamondback and Viper, but as far as performance goes, it gets closer to the Viper than the price would indicate. If you’d rather get a bit more performance, than Vortex’s reputation, this just might be the best spotting scope for you!
At a Glance
We’ll wrap up the list with what is a spotting scope priced as a mid-range device, but with performance and specs that are suitable for something that’s a bit more high end. There’s another thing that stands out with this Visionking spotting scope, and that’s the magnification. The highest magnification numbers we saw on other options on the list maxed out at around 60x, while this one goes up to 90x. But we’ll talk more specs later. The Visionking comes from a brand that isn’t known as the most high end, but the scope has quite respectable performance and specs. Let’s take a better look at the scope, and see whether this is the best spotting scope if you’re after a zoom scope with high magnification.
We mentioned the magnification, and the eyepiece has a variable zoom that starts at 30x and ends at 90x. This is more than anything else on the list, so if you want to get really close to your subject, you can’t really beat it. The best thing is that there’s no noticeable image quality loss even at the end of the range, which can’t be said for all scopes we took a look at. When you’re dealing with magnification this big, you’ll need a big lens to let in enough light, and the Visionking delivers. There’s a 100mm diameter lens, which is what you’ll also be blaming for the 6 lbs weight. Make no mistake, this is a heavy device. As far as the optics go, you have BAK4 prism for optimum light transmission, and all lenses are fully multi-coated to give you a bit of extra brightness. The eyepiece is fairly big, and there’s a 18-19.1mm eye relief, so you can use it comfortably with, or without glasses.
Moving on to the build quality and construction, it’s safe to say that Visionking made sure you can take this everywhere with you on the field, without worrying about it getting damaged. It’s built like a tank, both on the outside and inside. The lens coating is RainGuard HD, ensuring no water drops stick to the lens, and the whole scope is fully waterproof and sealed with O-rings. It’s also purged with dry nitrogen, making it completely fog proof as well. There’s a retractable sunshade at the end, which minimizes any glare. And while we’re on the outside, it’s worth mentioning that there is a dual focus knob system, which lets you both quickly find focus, and precisely pinpoint it exactly where you want it.
All things considered, the Visionking checks all the boxes of a spotting scope that’s at least high up in the midrange options of premium manufacturers, while keeping the price low. There’s a high magnification eyepiece, large diameter lens, fully multi-coated optics, as well as complete resistance to the elements. If you were looking for a scope that has a good magnification range and is really well built, but won’t leave a dent in your financials, this is the one to get.
The buyer’s guide
As we mentioned at the beginning, choosing a spotting scope can be a confusing task. There is a huge amount of options, all of which offer some kind of an edge over the competition. There are also a lot of spotting scopes brands, all of which have various qualities. But, as with most products you’d buy nowadays, there are things that you should know, that would make the buying decision a bit easier. Let’s check out some of the differentiating things that make the best spotting scope better than the worst, and see which ones you should be careful about.
What kind of spotting scope do you get, in terms of design or type?
Even though there are also Newtonian and catadioptric designs, the most common spotting scope design you’ll find is the prismatic refractor. If you’ve ever looked at binoculars, this might sound familiar. That’s because it is – it is basically the same design. You get one image the right side up, and one that is correct left to right. There is basically no reason not to use this kind of design – it works really well, and it is rugged enough to withstand field use. This is why catadioptric designs aren’t used that often – they’re fairly expensive to make, and aren’t nearly as rugged as a refractive scope. Therefore, we’ll only be discussing refractive spotting scopes, and those are the ones that you should get.
Furthermore, there are two designs as far as refractive scopes go. You have the straight, and angled (at 45 degrees) design. Both of them have their respective advantages and disadvantages, so let’s take a look. Kicking things off with the straight design, using one lets you easily locate a subject, just by aligning the eye along the scope’s body. This also makes it much easier to look at something from a concealed position, such as behind a fence, or out of a car. A straight spotting scope will also cause less strain on your neck, and the eyepiece has a smaller chance of collecting rain and dust. It is also much easier for aiming, especially for novice users which don’t have a lot of experience with spotting scopes. However, there are downsides as well. If you’re a group and you’re all using the same scope, you will need to set the eye-level to the one of the group’s shortest person. This is where an angled scope has an advantage, for example.
An angled scope will let you share the scope within a group, without having to readjust it all the time if you mount it on a tripod. Sure, this does take a little getting used to, and might be a bit awkward if you have a shoulder stock or camera attached. However, this design makes bird watching much easier if the birds are in the air, as you can see things from a much more relaxed, sitting position. If you think you will commonly use your spotting scope in a group, it’s recommended that you get an angled one. If, however, you’re getting one just for yourself, you should be good with a straight scope.
What about the magnification and eyepieces?
When discussing spotting scopes, the magnification can usually go from 15x to 250x. This number tells you how many times larger, or closer, will the image be, compared to looking at it with the naked eye. Unlike binoculars, which have their optics and lenses dictate the magnification factor, the power of magnification with spotting scopes is determined by the eyepiece. This is a good design choice, especially when you consider that some eyepieces can be removed, and you can even find zoom eyepieces. A removable eyepiece gives you a lot of versatility, as you can easily interchange it, for maximum efficiency. Some common eyepieces with fixed magnification are 20x, 25x or 30x. If, however, you opt for a zoom eyepiece, you get variable magnification, such as 18-36x. All you need to do is choose how much magnification you want, and voila, you’re set.
Nowadays, as lens technology progresses, zoom spotting scopes are what’s commonly preferred for general use. You can use low magnification to locate an object, and then zoom in to the desired magnification. This is why you will find that some models have a peep hole that lets you easily find the intended image before even looking through the scope. The other way to do this is use an interchangeable eyepiece, as many people tend to prefer the optical clarity and simplicity of a fixed magnification eyepiece. There’s also the issue with some budget-oriented zoom lenses where the image becomes too dark when you reach magnification levels of 60x and higher. This has been somewhat solved with higher end, and some budget models, but it still exists on some spotting scopes. The simple solution would be to get a fixed zoom spotting scope if you’re going to be looking at the same spot for longer periods. And, a wide angle fixed eyepiece is also a great choice due to the wide field of view. If you’re going to be looking at objects that move quickly and can’t be tracked, you’re going to appreciate this.
And last but not least, you should always consider eye relief. Eye relief is the distance between the lens, and the point at which the pupil is in order to get the full field of view. This commonly varies between eyepieces, but if you wear glasses it’s a consideration that you must make. The eye relief should be within the right distance if you want to see the full, uncropped image.
Lens diameter and glass options
That large lens at the front is what’s known as the objective lens. The diameter of this objective lens is known as the “aperture” of the scope. This is commonly found written in millimeters when you’re looking at a spotting scope and its specs. The general rule of thumb is that a large lens will let more light inside, and in turn provide a brighter image. However, the consequence is that the larger the aperture, the heavier and larger the lens is as well. The number is commonly somewhere between 50 and 80mm. When you’re deciding which size to go for, there’s one thing to keep in mind. A bigger aperture is always better, but don’t get a spotting scope that’s heavier and bigger than what you’re willing to carry. Sure, a large lens will give you a superior image compared to a smaller one, if everything else is identical, but that won’t do you much good if you can’t take it with you.
The glass used in the objective lens is what will usually define the colors, contrast and sharpness when you’re looking through it. There are three common types of glass, ED, which stands for extra-low dispersion, HD, or high density, and FL, or fluorite. These are all types of glass that will let the scope focus all the light at the same point, or very near it. The glasses will reduce the strain on your eye, which is always helpful, and can increase the amount of detail you can see through the spotting scope. Now, the downside is that lenses that are made of these types of glass tend to be quite a bit more expensive than regular ones. The general opinion, however, is that if you’re using a scope that has 30x magnification, or less, you won’t notice that much of a benefit from getting FL, HD or ED glass. However, if you’re getting a high magnification scope, or if you’ll be using your spotting scope for photography, it’s highly recommended to get a scope with an improved glass.
Lens coating and focusing options
When discussing coating, we’re talking about the chemicals that are applied on a lens’ surface. These chemicals are used to reduce glare and maximize light. There are a couple of options available, and which one you have on your scope generally depends on how much you paid for it. A coated lens means that you have a single layer on at least one surface. A fully-coated lens, on the other hand, has a single layer, but on all air-glass surfaces. Multi-coated has multiple layers on at least one surface, and fully multi-coated lenses have multiple layers on all air-glass surfaces. As we mentioned, the more layers that are applied to the scope, the more expensive it is, but it also warrants a better image. For example, a high-end scope will almost always be multi-coated.
Last but not least, we have focusing. On refractive scopes, there are generally thee types of focusing methods. There’s a single knob mechanism, a double knob mechanism, or a helical system. The most common one you’ll find on spotting scopes is the single knob, where you have a knob on either the top, or the side of the scope, near the eyepiece. Now, focusing is usually slow, but a tad more precise than the other mechanisms. A double knob mechanism has two knobs connected on the same mechanism, and they both have different drive ratios. This is what you’ll find on Leica scopes. The fast knob lets you get close to optimum focus, quickly, and the slow one is used for fine tuning once you’re almost there. And last but not least, you have helical focus, commonly found on Canon and Swarovski models. Here, you have a collar around the scope’s body, which lets you quickly change the focus. What should be said is that there’s no “best” focusing method – it all comes down to personal preference, and the brand you’re getting.
Will you be using your spotting scope for photography?
You will commonly find spotting scopes being used instead of a telephoto lens. Most of them can be either attached to an SLR camera, or connected to a digital camera. When you’re using a camera, the common way to go is to remove the eyepiece, and replace it with an adapter. That adapter is specific to the spotting scope manufacturer, and contains a lens that is designed for photography. Then, you’ll need a T-Ring adapter, which is specific to the manufacturer of the camera, and lets you attach the camera to the spotting scope adapter. Commonly, this way you’d be effectively getting an 800mm lens with an aperture of f/11. For best results, you will need a heavy duty, sturdy tripod, and it’s also recommended that you have a high quality scope. Keep in mind, though, that you won’t be able to use auto focus, because the scope doesn’t have an auto-focus lens. However, with most digital cameras nowadays, manually focusing while looking through the display is fairly easy. Using a spotting scope for photography is actually the budget way of getting the equivalent of an 800mm camera lens. These lenses tend to be very expensive.
Wrapping things up
When you take everything into consideration, a spotting scope is a great thing to have if you’re an outdoor person, or if you’re looking for a cheaper way to get a telephoto lens for photography. Or both. There are a lot of options, though, and some of them can be better than others, but the general way to go is to check out a few options, and see which one suits your needs and requirements best. For example, you don’t have to get a high magnification scope with a zoom eyepiece if you’re going to need a wider field of view, do you? We hope to have answered any questions you might have about spotting scopes, and we hope to have provided you with options that suit a variety of requirements. All you have to do now is choose one and order!