A spotting scope is a big investment, and the next logical step up from a pair of binoculars. If you’re ready to buy a spotting scope, you probably want to learn about them from every angle first, so you can make an informed decision. Lenses, magnification, angle, digital needs, and the way you’ll be using your new scope are all top factors in the decision-making process. We’ve broken it down for you below so you can choose a spotting scope you’ll love.
Every spotting scope comes attached to a set of numbers, such as 20-60×60. The first part of that equation is the magnification range (due to zoom potential), which is at 20-60 times magnification. The second part is the lens size, in millimeters. In this example, it’s 60mm.
Magnification can be tricky to get right. Many people think the higher the magnification, the better the scope. This isn’t always true. The more powerful your lens, the more you’ll see every quiver and shake in your glass, to the point where it could inhibit you from seeing anything clearly. Most spotting scopes range anywhere from 15x to 60x magnification. Any more than this and you’re getting more into telescope territory. Magnification can also affect your field of view. The higher the magnification, the narrower your view. If you need to see broad landscapes, try cutting back on the power.
The proper lens can be hard to choose, as well. Too big of a lens, and you’ll be drawing in too much light and washing out your image. Too small a lens, and you’ll have the opposite problem. Most spotting scope lenses range between 50-80mm, as this is an ideal range for light absorption. You can find larger lenses if you search, but they’re not likely to add quality to your image unless you’re using them for stargazing. Keep in mind that larger lenses mean more weight, too. If you’ll be toting your scope around in a backpack, you’ll probably want to lean toward a lighter device. Coating is another factor with lenses. For optimal brightness and color, fully multi-coated lenses are best.
Many scopes come with a fixed eyepiece, meaning your magnification strength won’t change. This can be perfect for steady observations, such as astronomy or surveillance. If you need versatility, you can always swap your eyepiece for a stronger one. But the benefit of a zoom lens is that you get that versatility automatically. This is great for hunting or bird watching. It also means you won’t need to carry around extra lenses when you’re on the go. A 20-60x zoom is a good average to cover your bases.
Your spotting scope is meant to be far-sighted, but it’s good to know what kind of close focus range it has, as well. Close focus is the distance at which you achieve image clarity. If you point your spotting scope at your knees, your view will be blurred. Point it 20 feet away, and suddenly you have a sharp image. You’re most likely to get a close focus range around 25 feet. If it’s much farther, you’ll lose some versatility. Another factor is eye relief. This is the space between the eyepiece lens and where your eye rests. If you wear glasses or will need goggles for glassing, you’ll want more eye relief.
The debate over straight vs. angled spotting scopes will never be resolved, but your personal preference is important here. An angled scope is great for birding, especially if you’ll be looking into treetops. A straight scope is better for hunting, as it’s easier to track game quickly and efficiently with a straight line-of-sight. Consider what angle your neck will be in when you’re glassing. If you’ll need to strain your neck to see in a straight scope, go for the angled. Group viewing is another common factor in choosing. If you’ll be glassing alone, you won’t need to worry about adjusting your height, so a straight scope is fine. If you have a group of people, an angled scope is better suited to everyone’s varying heights (it requires you to bend rather than crouch at the right height).
The high magnification strength of a spotting scope can cause image instability due to hand shakiness or wind. So, it’s a good idea to mount your scope to a tripod for clear sight. If you’re using a straight scope, an adjustable, full-size tripod is your best bet. For an angled scope, a compact tripod can work perfectly, as you’ll be bending down to see into your scope anyway.
One of the most exciting features of spotting scopes is digiscoping. This entails attaching a digital camera lens to your spotting scope to take high definition pictures. Most digiscopers use the digital camera on their smartphones and hold them to the spotting scope’s eyepiece. There are spotting scopes on the market, however, that come with digital camera eyepieces. Though an expensive option, this can be exciting for birders, nature observers, and astronomers.
The way you’ll be using your spotting scope is the biggest determining factor of what scope you’ll want to buy. We’ve broken down the most common scoping activities below to help you choose a scope fit for your hobby.
If you’re a nature lover, you’ll probably want decent magnification for wildlife viewing. This is especially true for hunting. If you get too close for a good image, you’ll risk scaring the animal away. For birding, a bigger lens can be beneficial. Looking into dark treetops means you’ll need to capture more light to see clearly. Go for an 80-100mm lens for optimum sight. If you’ll be hunting or viewing animals across a plain, however, you’ll want to keep the lens size to around 80mm. You’ll probably also want a zoom eyepiece to capture those finer details, or to get a closer lock on game. A 20-60x range is ideal. See our Top 5 Spotting Picks for Hunting here.
There are many different conditions under which you may be surveilling, and your spotting scope should be versatile. If you’ll be watching a specific area, a 30x fixed eyepiece can be perfect. It will keep you from having to make constant adjustments. You’ll likely want a smaller lens, as well, to keep your image clean in areas with a lot of light. A 65mm lens is a good middle ground.
You’ll want high magnification and a nice big lens to capture as much light as possible for astronomy. Go for a 20-60x zoom eyepiece and a hefty 100mm lens. You’ll definitely want a tripod at that magnification strength, but the extra zoom and brightness will be worth your while. Astronomy is a great opportunity to practice digiscoping, as well.
As with all optics, there is a wide price range for spotting scopes. The good news is, angled or straight scopes run roughly the same. Depending on zoom and lens strength, though, your price could rocket up. If you aim for the middle of the road, you can find a decent spotting scope in the $200 to $400 range. Anything less than $100 is probably not worth your time, and anything more expensive may not offer much extra quality for the price tag.
Whatever you do, don’t buy a spotting scope blindly. It’s a lot of money to slap down for something that may not work for you. It’s important that you try them before you decide on the most comfortable magnification strength, lens size, field of view, eye relief, weight, and proper durability. This will ensure you find something you won’t regret buying. After you find the perfect scope, make sure to keep it properly cleaned and stowed in a protective case when it’s not in use. That way you’ll have your awesome spotting scope around for as long as possible.
Header image credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife, Flickr
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