The Binocular Site
Up Close and Personal with Spotting Scopes
Spotting scopes offer a compromise between binoculars and telescopes, as they offer the higher power of a telescope with a more compact size that you would associate with binoculars.
Although their magnifications will be higher than binoculars, they usually have tripods of only 12” to 18” high that can be placed on a table if needed. They are naturally smaller, lighter, and less expensive than full-sized telescopes but maintain high optical quality through the use of glass, coatings, eyepieces, and other elements.
Spotting scopes also produce an upright image, whereas larger astronomy telescopes will reverse the image seen. As you might expect, this is essential for scopes used for birdwatching and other terrestrial activities. While stars look the same upside down, no one wants to birds flying upside down for long.
Spotting scopes were originally used during target shooting competitions as shooters checked their distant target or where shots hit without leaving the shooting position. These scopes are used only for terrestrial viewing and are not appropriate for astronomy, and are often used by hunters, hikers, and other naturalists who want a mounted unit with great magnification to provide extra sharp, crisp images.Because spotting scopes are typically used only at ground-level and during the day, they often have smaller objective lens sizes then other binoculars and telescopes. This allows them to remain small, since large lenses can add so much size and weight to other sets.
These telescopes will also have a lower magnification then other models since the objective is to keep a wider field of view (FOV) for activities such as birdwatching, rather than a small FOV that might be acceptable while stargazing. Again, while following moving game or trying to spot that rare bird, you will appreciate the wider FOV offered by a spotting scope.
Spotting scopes can be found with straight-through or 45 degree angled barrels. Those with angled barrels can often be held more comfortably with more relaxed back, shoulders, and neck. However, straight-through barrels are easier when within a small space or following an object that moves quickly. Ultimately though personal preference is the best indicator as to which will work for you, so try a few different models out to see what you like.
How Spotting Scopes Compare To Regular Telescopes
Another thing that sets spotting scopes apart from regular telescopes is their exterior design. Typically spotters will have a more rugged construction with waterproofing, which allows them to be used in wetter environments and moved as needed.
This is once again optimal for those users who are on the move, whether hiking or seeking wildlife. Portability is imperative in spotting scopes. If you are only using your telescope for terrestrial use, spotting scopes are less expensive and more durable.
How Spotting Scopes Compare To Binoculars
While spotting scopes are used for many of the same activities as binoculars, they do offer some benefits borrowed from the telescoping world that make them a little stronger in some areas.
They can be more compact and easier to handle along with being particularly easy for children to use and handily kept in a purse or glove compartment. When observing from a vehicle or other small space, the advantage of a smaller size can be quite helpful.
One distinct advantage spotting scopes have over binoculars is that they borrow the use of interchangeable eyepieces as you’d find in regular telescopes. Though some models do have one set of built-in eyepieces, many others allow you to swap eyepieces in and out as needed.
Doing so can offer different magnifications, FOVs, exit pupils, and viewing angles. Some eyepieces also offer extra long eye relief, softer cups, or extended wings to maximize comfort. Others allow for zooming mechanisms, digital cameras, or special coatings to give you that little bit of edge.
Be sure to check the brightness offered by eyepieces and ensure they will work with your spotting scope to avoid disappointment. Also consider the added weight from using different eyepieces.
Digiscoping is the use of a camera and scope together to take long distance digital photos. Just like digital camera binoculars, there are digital camera scopes. However, built-in models offer the same hazards as found in digital camera binoculars – they are a newer technology, can increase the chance of damage or parts failing, and still need improvement.
Consider selecting mounting brackets that allow you to hold both the spotting scope and the digital camera comfortably. Some models allow you to swing in the digital camera behind the scope as needed, and then swing it back out when you don’t. This allows for sharp images without a lot of hassle.