Spotting Scopes Selection Guide

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Written By Andrea Bullock
UPDATED:
spotting-scopes

Birdsong echoing through a tranquil forest, the graceful dance of a distant eagle, or the captivating sight of a rare creature in its natural habitat – these are moments that stir the soul of a nature enthusiast. For birdwatchers, wildlife lovers, and those who find solace in the great outdoors, spotting scopes are indispensable companions. They bridge the gap between the observer and the observed, offering a closer look at the wonders of the natural world.

In this comprehensive guide, we embark on a journey through the world of the best spotting scopes around. We understand that selecting the perfect spotting scope is crucial to unlock the full potential of your outdoor adventures. Whether you’re a seasoned birder or an aspiring wildlife enthusiast, choosing the right spotting scope can make all the difference in capturing those breathtaking moments.

spotting scope

Join us as we delve into the essential features, different types premium optics, and key considerations for spotting scopes. By the end of this guide, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge needed to make an informed choice and elevate your nature-watching experiences. Let’s embark on this exploration together, and bring the beauty of the natural world into sharper focus.

What Are Spotting Scopes?

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Spotting scopes, often referred to simply as “spotters,” are portable telescopes designed for outdoor observation. They serve a vital role in activities like birdwatching, wildlife observation, and even astronomical viewing. These scopes are favored for their ability to bring distant subjects into clear focus, much like a telescope but with greater portability.

The primary function of a spotting scope is to magnify distant objects, allowing viewers to observe intricate details that might be otherwise invisible to the naked eye. This capability is invaluable for nature enthusiasts, as it enables them to enjoy wildlife and landscapes in greater detail and clarity.

boy looking in a spotting scope

Spotting scopes consist of several key components, but one of the most crucial is the objective lens. This lens is located at the front of the scope and is responsible for gathering light. The objective lens’s size and quality play a significant role in determining the image quality and brightness. A larger objective lens allows more light to enter the scope, resulting in brighter and clearer images, especially in low-light conditions.

Types of Spotting Scopes

Spotting scopes come in different configurations, each designed to cater to specific preferences and requirements. Understanding the various types is essential to select the one that best suits your needs. Here, we explore two primary spotting scope types: the straight body scope and angled scopes, shedding light on their advantages and disadvantages.

1. Straight Body Spotting Scopes

straight body spotting scope

Advantages:

Easier to Aim: Straight scopes are generally easier to aim quickly, making them preferred for activities like birdwatching where subjects are often in motion.

Simpler Setup: Setting up a straight scope on a tripod is straightforward, and aiming is as simple as pointing it in the general direction.

Great for Straightforward Terrain: In relatively flat terrain or when your subjects are typically at or near eye level, a straight scope is efficient and effective.

Good for Scanning: If you’re scanning a broad area, like a lake or a vast meadow, a straight scope can be more comfortable for extended periods of scanning.

Disadvantages:

Less Comfortable at Angles: When you need to observe objects at different angles or elevations, straight scopes may require adjusting the tripod height more frequently, which can be less convenient in group settings.

Less Ideal for Digiscoping: While it’s possible to use a straight scope for digiscoping, it may require more adjustments and patience to align the camera with the eyepiece.

2. Angled Spotting Scopes

angled spotting scope

Advantages:

Comfortable Viewing at Angles: Angled scopes have the eyepiece positioned at an angle to the scope’s body. This design allows for more comfortable and ergonomic viewing when the scope is set up higher than your eye level. It’s particularly advantageous when sharing the scope among individuals of varying heights.

Better for Group Observation: Angled scopes are often preferred in group settings, such as birdwatching trips or wildlife tours. Multiple observers can use the scope without needing to adjust the tripod height frequently.

Versatility for Terrain: When you’re in uneven terrain or need to view objects above or below eye level, angled scopes offer greater flexibility. You can keep the scope low on a tripod and still observe comfortably.

Easier to Use for Digiscoping: If you’re into digiscoping (attaching a camera to your scope), angled scopes can be more convenient. You can position the camera at a comfortable angle, avoiding the need for awkward contortions.

Disadvantages:

Slightly Less Intuitive: Some users find angled scopes slightly less intuitive to aim, especially when trying to quickly locate and track moving wildlife.

3. Interchangeable Eyepieces

interchangeable eyepieces spotting scope

Advantages:

Versatility: Spotting scopes with interchangeable eyepieces offer flexibility in magnification ranges. You can switch eyepieces to adapt to different viewing scenarios.

Cost-Efficiency: Instead of buying multiple scopes, you can invest in a single body and multiple eyepieces, which can be more cost-effective in the long run.

Customizing for Specific Activities: Different outdoor activities often require different levels of magnification and clarity. Interchangeable eyepieces let you tailor your spotting scope to the task at hand.

Cost-Efficiency: Instead of investing in multiple spotting scopes with fixed magnifications, you can save money by purchasing one quality scope with interchangeable eyepieces. This not only reduces the overall cost but also minimizes the need for extra storage space.

Disadvantages:

Added Complexity: Changing eyepieces might require some technical know-how and can be less convenient in the field.

4. High Magnification Ranges

high magnification spotting scope

Advantages:

Detailed Viewing: Spotting scopes with high magnification ranges are excellent for observing fine details, making them ideal for birdwatching, wildlife observation, and even astronomical viewing.

Disadvantages:

Image Stability: High magnifications can make the image more sensitive to atmospheric conditions, requiring stable mounting and steady hands for clear viewing.

Narrow Field of View: As magnification increases, the field of view decreases, with more magnification, making it harder to locate and track fast-moving subjects.

The choice of spotting scope type depends on your specific needs and preferences. For bird watchers, a scope with interchangeable eyepieces might offer versatility, while photographers may prefer an angled scope for digiscoping. Understanding these different types and their pros and cons will help you make an informed decision when selecting a spotting scope for your outdoor adventures.

Understanding the Objective Lens

The objective lens is a pivotal component of a spotting scope, and comprehending its importance is crucial when choosing the right scope for your needs.

Objective Lens Size:

Objective lenses come in various sizes, typically measured in millimeters (mm). For spotting scopes, you’ll often see objective lens sizes like 50mm, 65mm, 80mm, or even larger. The objective lens size directly influences two critical aspects of the scope: light-gathering ability and image quality.

Light-Gathering Ability: A larger objective lens can capture more light, which is particularly advantageous in low-light conditions. This means you’ll get brighter and clearer images, making it easier to spot wildlife or observe celestial objects during dusk or dawn.

Image Quality: A bigger objective lens can also improve image quality by reducing optical aberrations, such as chromatic aberration, which can cause color fringing around objects. This results in sharper and more true-to-life images.

Objective Lens Coatings:

The quality of the lens coatings on the objective lens can significantly impact your viewing experience. High-quality spotting scopes often feature fully multi-coated lenses. Here’s how coatings affect performance:

Light Transmission: Coatings are applied to reduce reflections and improve light transmission. This is crucial for maintaining image brightness, clarity, and color fidelity, especially in challenging lighting conditions.

Reducing Glare: Coatings help minimize glare, allowing you to view subjects near bright light sources without image degradation.

Color Reproduction: Quality coatings enhance color accuracy, ensuring that the observed images are as true to life as possible.

Durability: Coatings also add a layer of protection to the lens surface, safeguarding it against scratches and abrasions.

Choosing a spotting scope with a larger objective lens size and high-quality coatings is often a trade-off. While larger objective lenses generally offer better image quality, they can make the scope heavier and bulkier. Therefore, it’s essential to strike a balance based on your specific needs. For birdwatching in well-lit areas, a smaller objective lens may suffice, while serious wildlife enthusiasts or astronomers may prefer larger objective lenses for optimal image quality in diverse lighting conditions.

Factors Affecting Image Quality

When it comes to selecting a spotting scope, quality is paramount. Several key factors influence the clarity and brightness of the images you’ll observe through your scope. Understanding these factors can help you make an informed choice tailored to your specific interests, whether it’s birdwatching, wildlife observation, or astronomical viewing.

1. Lens Quality

The quality of the lenses used in a spotting scope has a direct impact on image quality. Premium spotting scopes feature high-quality lenses with excellent optical properties, reducing chromatic aberrations and other optical distortions. This results in sharp, clear, and true-to-life images.

2. Lens Coatings

Coatings applied to the lenses are essential for enhancing quality. Fully multi-coated lenses are the gold standard, as they minimize reflections, improve light transmission, reduce glare, and enhance color fidelity. These coatings are especially beneficial when observing subjects in varying lighting conditions.

3. Magnification Range

The magnification range of a spotting scope plays a vital role in image quality. Spotting scopes with a wider magnification range offer greater versatility. Lower magnifications provide a wider field of view, making it easier to locate and track wildlife or birds. Higher magnifications, on the other hand, allow greater magnification for detailed observation of distant objects but may require more stability and result in a narrower field of view.

4. Objective Lens Size

As discussed earlier, the size of the objective lens influences image quality. Larger objective lenses capture more light, resulting in brighter and clearer images, particularly in low-light conditions. While this is advantageous for birdwatching at dawn or dusk or stargazing at night, it can also make the spotting scope bulkier.

5. Light Transmission

Quality optics and coatings contribute to improved light transmission. This means that more available light is transmitted through the scope to your eye, resulting in brighter and more detailed images. This is particularly important when observing wildlife in shaded areas or during overcast days.

6. Durability

The build quality of a spotting scope can affect image quality over time. A sturdy scope with robust construction is less likely to suffer misalignments or damage to its lenses, ensuring consistent quality throughout its lifespan.

7. Fog-Proof and Water-Resistant

Environmental factors can impact quality. Fog-proof and water-resistant features prevent internal moisture buildup and lens fogging, ensuring clear views even in damp or humid conditions.

8. Anti-Reflective Coatings

Anti-reflective coatings on the lenses reduce unwanted reflections and flares, further enhancing image clarity. These coatings are particularly beneficial when observing subjects near bright light sources.

9. Extra-Low Dispersion (ED) Glass

Some high-end spotting scopes use ED glass to minimize chromatic aberrations. This type of glass provides superior color accuracy and image sharpness.

Specialized Features: Elevating Your Spotting Scope Experience

Spotting scopes have evolved significantly to cater to the diverse needs of nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and wildlife lovers. Among the array of advanced features available, zoom eyepieces, tracking mounts, and extra-low dispersion (ED) glass stand out as specialized tools that can enhance your spotting scope’s performance in specific scenarios. Let’s delve into how these features can elevate your spotting scope experience.

1. Zoom Eyepieces:

Enhanced Magnification Range: Zoom eyepieces offer adjustable magnification ranges, allowing you to seamlessly transition between low and high magnifications with a twist of the eyepiece. This versatility is particularly valuable for birdwatching and wildlife observation, where subjects can be near or far.

Convenience: Zoom eyepieces eliminate the need to carry multiple eyepieces, simplifying your gear setup and reducing the risk of misplacing or switching lenses in the field.

2. Tracking Mounts:

spotting scope with tracking mount

Stability and Precision: Tracking mounts, also known as motorized mounts or tracking systems, provide stable and precise tracking of celestial objects. While initially designed for astronomical telescopes, they can also be beneficial for capturing wildlife or birds in motion.

Long Exposure Photography: These mounts allow for long exposure photography, ideal for capturing night sky phenomena or elusive nocturnal wildlife.

3. Extra-Low Dispersion (ED) Glass:

Reduced Chromatic Aberrations: Spotting scopes with ED glass elements minimize chromatic aberrations, which are color fringing or distortion around high-contrast objects. This results in sharper and more accurate color rendering, crucial for observing birds and wildlife with fine details.

Improved Image Brightness: ED glass enhances light transmission, ensuring that more light enters the scope and reaches your eye. This is especially advantageous in low-light conditions, such as dawn or dusk, and contributes to superior image brightness and clarity.

4. Fog-Proof and Nitrogen Purged:

Weather Resistance: Many advanced spotting scopes are fog-proof and nitrogen-purged, making them resilient against sudden temperature changes and preventing internal fogging. This feature is essential for birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts who venture into various outdoor environments.

5. Close Focus and Image Clarity:

Close Focus Capability: Some spotting scopes are equipped with close focus capabilities, allowing you to observe subjects at a remarkably close distance. This is advantageous for birdwatchers aiming to view birds perched on nearby branches or wildlife enthusiasts observing insects or plants.

Nitrogen-Purged: Nitrogen-purged spotting scopes are particularly suitable for wildlife lovers who may encounter humid or wet conditions during their excursions. This feature prevents moisture ingress and ensures that your scope remains clear and fog-free.

Maintenance and Care: Preserving Your Spotting Scope Investment

A spotting scope is a valuable tool for nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and wildlife lovers. To ensure it continues to serve you well and maintain its optimal performance, proper maintenance and care are essential. Here are some valuable tips to help you preserve your spotting scope investment:

1. Cleaning:

Gentle Approach: When cleaning the lenses or body of your spotting scope, always use a gentle touch. Use a soft brush or a bulb blower to remove loose dirt and dust particles. Avoid applying excessive pressure, as this can scratch the lens coatings.

Microfiber Cloth: For more thorough cleaning, use a microfiber cleaning cloth designed for optics. These cloths are designed to lift away dirt and smudges without leaving scratches. If necessary, lightly moisten the cloth with a few drops of lens cleaning solution.

Cleaning Solutions: Only use lens cleaning solutions specifically formulated for optical surfaces. Apply the solution sparingly to a cleaning cloth, not directly on the lenses, to prevent excess liquid from seeping into the scope.

2. Lens Caps and Covers:

Use Protective Covers: Keep the lens caps and covers on when the spotting scope is not in use. These protective accessories safeguard the lenses from dust, dirt, and potential scratches.

3. Storage:

angled spotting scope packed in a box

Dry and Cool: Store your spotting scope in a dry and cool environment when not in use. Avoid extreme temperatures, as they can affect the seals and internal components of the scope.

Secure Position: Store the scope in a secure, upright position to prevent any accidental falls or damage.

4. Protection Against Environmental Factors:

Rain Guards: If you anticipate using your spotting scope in rainy or wet conditions, consider attaching a rain guard or protective cover to shield the eyepiece and objective lens from moisture.

Sunshades: In bright, sunny conditions, a sunshade attachment can reduce glare and help you maintain a clear view. It also provides additional protection to the objective lens.

5. Transport and Handling:

Carrying Case: Invest in a quality carrying case or bag designed for spotting scopes. This not only facilitates safe transport but also shields the scope from dust and potential impacts.

Handle with Care: Always handle your spotting scope with care, particularly when setting it up or taking it down. Avoid any sudden jolts or impacts that could misalign the optics.

6. Nitrogen-Purged and Fog-Proof Scopes:

Maintenance-Free: If your spotting scope is nitrogen-purged and fog-proof, you generally won’t need to perform additional maintenance. These spotting scopes represent and are designed to withstand humidity and prevent internal fogging.

Spotlight on Accessories: Enhancing Your Spotting Scope Experience

While a high-quality spotting scope is crucial for nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and wildlife lovers, the right accessories can significantly enhance your overall wildlife viewing and experience. Here’s a spotlight on essential spotting scope accessories that can elevate your adventures:

1. Tripods:

spotting scope with a tripod stand

A sturdy tripod is the backbone of your spotting scope setup. It provides stability, reduces vibrations, and allows for hands-free operation, especially when viewing distant or stationary subjects. When choosing to choose a spotting scope tripod, consider its height, weight, and ease of adjustment. Carbon fiber tripods are lightweight and durable, making them an excellent choice for outdoor use.

2. Window Mounts:

Window mounts are convenient accessories for birdwatching from the comfort of your vehicle. They secure your spotting scope to your car window, providing a stable platform for viewing. Window mounts are especially useful for capturing distant bird sightings or other wildlife while minimizing the need for heavy equipment.

3. Eyepieces:

Eyepieces play a critical role in determining the magnification and field of view of your spotting scope. Many spotting scopes offer interchangeable eyepieces, allowing you to adapt to various viewing conditions. Some eyepieces are designed to be eyeglass-friendly, providing a comfortable viewing experience for those who wear glasses.

4. Digiscoping Adapters:

For those interested in capturing the beauty of nature through photography or videography, digiscoping adapters are indispensable. These accessories enable you to attach your smartphone or camera to your spotting scope, turning it into a powerful telephoto lens. Look for adapters that are compatible with your specific spotting scope model and your device.

5. Sunshades:

In bright, sunny conditions, sunshades can reduce glare and minimize the risk of lens flare. They attach to the objective lens of your spotting scope and are particularly useful when observing subjects against the sun. Sunshades also offer added protection to the objective lens.

6. Carrying Cases:

A well-designed carrying case or bag is essential for transporting and protecting your spotting scope. Look for cases with padded compartments to safeguard your scope and its accessories. Some cases also feature additional pockets for storage.

7. Cleaning Kits:

Regular maintenance is key to preserving the clarity of your spotting scope’s optics. A compact cleaning kit designed for optics should include a soft brush, microfiber cloths, lens cleaning solution, and lens tissue. Regularly cleaning your lenses helps prevent dust and smudges that can hinder your viewing experience.

8. Camera Adapters:

digital camera connected to a spotting scope

If you’re a serious photographer, a dedicated camera adapter can be invaluable. These adapters provide a secure connection between your camera and your spotting scope, ensuring stability and precise alignment for capturing detailed images and videos.

9. Spotting Scope Covers:

When your spotting scope is not in use, covers or wraps can shield it from dust, moisture, and minor impacts. These protective accessories are especially handy when you’re out in the field or traveling.

Choosing the Best Spotting Scope: A Comprehensive Guide

Selecting the perfect spotting scope for your outdoor adventures, birdwatching excursions, or wildlife observations can be a rewarding experience when approached thoughtfully. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you make an informed decision and find the spotting scope that best suits your needs:

1. Define Your Purpose:

Determine the primary activity you’ll use the spotting scope for. Are you a birdwatcher, wildlife enthusiast, or an outdoor adventurer? Different activities may require specific scope features too.

2. Set Your Budget:

Establish a clear budget range before you start shopping mid priced spotting scope. Spotting scopes come in a wide price range, so knowing your budget will help narrow down your options.

3. Choose Your Magnification Range:

Consider the magnification range you need. For general-purpose use, a spotting scope with 20x to 60x magnification is versatile. Higher magnification is ideal for detailed observations, while lower magnification provides a wider field of view.

4. Decide on Angled Scope or Straight Scope:

Determine whether you prefer an angled spotting scope or straight body spotting scope. Angled scopes are great for sharing with others and offer more comfortable viewing when objects are at different angles. Straight scopes are easier to use when subjects are at eye level.

5. Assess Objective Lens Diameter:

The various objective size and lens diameter affects the amount of light the scope gathers and, consequently, image brightness. For low-light conditions and better quality, opt for a spotting scope with a larger objective lens (e.g., 80mm).

6. Evaluate Lens Quality and Coatings:

The quality of the scope and telescope mount’s lenses is paramount. Look for spotting scopes with quality lens materials and fully multi-coated lenses. These coatings enhance light transmission, color fidelity, and overall image clarity.

7. Consider Weight and Portability:

If you plan to take your spotting scope on hikes or travels, consider its weight and size. Compact and lightweight models are more convenient for on-the-go use.

different spotting scopes

8. Explore Additional Features:

Investigate extra features that align with your needs. These may include interchangeable eyepieces for variable magnification, zoom eyepieces for versatility, or extra-low dispersion (ED) glass for superior color accuracy.

9. Check for Waterproofing and Fog Proofing:

If you intend to use your spotting scope in varying weather conditions, opt for models that are waterproof and fog-proof. These scopes are sealed against moisture and internal fogging.

10. Assess Eye Relief:

Eye relief is crucial, especially for eyeglass wearers. Ensure the spotting scope you choose has sufficient eye relief for comfortable viewing without the need to remove your glasses.

11. Read Reviews and Seek Recommendations:

Research online reviews and ask for recommendations from experienced users or birdwatching groups. Real-world bird watching experiences can provide valuable insights into a spotting scope’s performance.

12. Visit a Store for Hands-On Testing:

Whenever possible, visit a store to test different spotting scopes. This hands-on experience allows you to assess ergonomics, ease of use, and the clarity of the image through the scope.

13. Consider Warranty and Customer Support:

Look into the manufacturer’s warranty and the availability of customer support. A reputable brand with a good warranty can provide peace of mind.

14. Make Your Decision:

After thorough research and consideration of the above factors, make your decision. Select the spotting scope that aligns best with your needs, preferences, and budget.

spotting scope held in a case on tripod stand

Frequently Asked Questions about Spotting Scopes

Q: What is the purpose of a spotting scope?

A: A spotting scope is a portable telescope designed for observing distant objects with great clarity. It is commonly used by nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers, hunters, and astronomers for detailed, long-range observations.

Q: What is the difference between angled and straight spotting scopes?

A: Angled spotting scopes have the eyepiece set at an angle to the scope’s body. They are often preferred for group use and when subjects are at varying angles. Straight spotting scopes have the eyepiece in line with the scope’s body, making them easier to use when subjects are at eye level.

Q: How does objective lens size affect image quality?

A: The size of the objective lens impacts how as much light as the scope can gather. A larger objective lens allows more light to enter, resulting in brighter and clearer images, especially in low-light conditions.

Q: What are fully multi-coated lenses, and why are they important?

A: Fully multi-coated lenses have multiple anti-reflective coatings on all air-to-glass surfaces. These coatings enhance light transmission, reduce glare, and improve image quality by maximizing the amount of light that reaches your eye.

Q: What is ED glass, and why is it beneficial in spotting scopes?

A: Extra-low dispersion (ED) glass is used in some spotting scopes to reduce chromatic aberrations, which can cause color fringing in images. ED glass provides superior color accuracy and improved image clarity.

Q: What is eye relief, and why is it important?

A: Eye relief is the distance between your eye and the eyepiece at which you can see the entire field of view. It’s crucial for comfortable viewing, especially for eyeglass wearers. Longer eye relief is generally more comfortable.

Q: Can I use a spotting scope for astronomical viewing?

A: Yes, spotting scopes can be used for astronomical observations, especially when equipped with appropriate eyepieces. While they may not offer the same field of view as dedicated astronomical telescopes, they can provide excellent views of the moon, planets, and some deep-sky objects.

Q: Are spotting scopes waterproof and fog-proof?

A: Many spotting scopes are designed to be waterproof and fog-proof. They are sealed to prevent moisture from entering and are filled with nitrogen or argon gas to prevent internal fogging. This makes them suitable for various weather conditions.

Q: Can I attach a spotting scope to a camera or smartphone for digiscoping?

A: Yes, many spotting scopes are compatible with digiscoping adapters, allowing you to attach a camera or smartphone to capture images or videos through the scope. This is a popular choice for wildlife photographers.

Q: What is the ideal spotting scope magnification for birdwatching?

A: The ideal magnification range for birdwatching typically falls between 20x and 60x. This range offers a balance between detailed observations and a wider field of view, making it suitable for birdwatching in various environments.

Q: Who makes Cabela’s spotting scopes?

A: Cabela’s spotting scopes are made by various manufacturers, which can vary by the model and production time. Common partners include Vortex, Leupold, Nikon, and others.

Q: How to spot a fake Leupold scope?

A: To spot a fake Leupold scope, check the price, examine the logo and branding for inconsistencies, verify the serial number with Leupold, purchase from reputable retailers, ensure high-quality packaging and documentation, and pay attention to image quality and build.

looking at sea spotting scopes

Conclusion: Embrace the World of Spotting Scopes

In closing, spotting scopes are the bridge between you and the natural world, enabling you to explore the finest details of distant landscapes and wildlife with unmatched clarity. This guide has equipped you with the knowledge to choose the perfect spotting scope for your adventures, considering your preferences, activities, and budget. Whether you’re an experienced birdwatcher, wildlife lover, or just someone yearning to connect with nature, a spotting scope can be your key to unforgettable outdoor experiences. So, step into the world of spotting scopes, observe, appreciate, and immerse yourself in the beauty that surrounds us. Your next breathtaking encounter with the natural world is just a new spotting scope away.