Guide to Choosing a Spotting Scope

for Birding, Wildlife and Nature Lovers

On this page, I will explain in plain language what to look for when making your decision to buy a spotting scope.  I've done the work for you researching all the different scopes on the market. I chose my top 5 that I believe have the best features for the money, as well as the best reviews on Amazon. You can scroll to the bottom for my recommendations.

Spotting Scopes are a powerful way to see wildlife and nature, and used a lot by birders, naturalists and hunters. They are more powerful than regular binoculars, and less powerful than a telescope. If you are interested in watching birds and wildlife, a telescope will be too much. Binoculars may not be enough. A spotting scope is ideal for birding.

A spotting scope is something you might never have heard of, and didn't know you needed...until you got one,

Then you don't know how you lived without it! 

One of the best ways to see nature up close and personal is the use of a Spotting Scope. If you love the outdoors, nature and wildlife, the Great Smoky Mountains are the place to be. People come from all over the world to experience this wonderland of nature.  

 

In the past, bird watchers and hunters mainly used binoculars but now, they have something ever better, to help them see farther with more clarity.

 

Quality optics is where you will gain your most bang for your buck and be happy with your purchase. If you had to choose one feature for birding and wildlife viewing, it should be:

 

  • High quality lens optics

 

I will explain the other features here so you can choose the right scope for your own needs!

 

Once you get the basics, I will link you to some of the best scopes that take these features into consideration, and you can be out using your new scope in a very short time!

1.) LENS QUALITY 

The first and most important consideration.

2.) OBJECTIVE SIZE

The second most important consideration.

That being said, HIGH LENS QUALITY + LARGE OBJECTIVE size = BEST IMAGE

LENS QUALITY 

Always get the best quality lens you can afford. Don't mistake a larger, cheaper lens size for a better buy. Don't be fooled- a large lens of lesser quality won't make a better image because your image quality is only as good as your lens.  Especially in birding, and wildlife photography, when you want to see your image as clearly as possibe.  This is especially important for photographers who want to take take photos (digiscoping).

Lens Coatings

Lenses are coated in the following ways:

 

Fully coated - Good

⦁ Multi coated - Better

⦁ Fully Multi coated - Best

 

What are fully multi-coated optic layers?

When comparing 2 scopes, side by side, if all other things are equal, the lens coating can make a huge difference.  Good quality lens surfaces are coated multiple times for non-reflection, maximum brightness, sharp colors and image contrast- especially in low lighting. The special coatings get you true, vibrant colors.

 

You will find many different types of lens coatings in the scope descriptions. HD, FL or ED, APO glass coatings cut down on blue fringing around images and discoloration. These abbreviations mean a higher quality lens. FMC would mean "fully multi coated".

Flourite coated vs ED coated

I've seen a lot of scopes that say they are fluorite coated. It's not a bad thing, but you should know that ED coatings are a step up because ED will stand up to harsh or sudden temperature changes better than fluorite.  It's interesting to note that NASA uses only ED coated lenses in its space programs and will not use camera brands that use fluorite specifically due to this difference.  

While fluorite coating has been used in quality lenses for many years, you only need to consider ED if you will be using your scope in harsh or changing temperatures as they will crack less.

Watch the video below for a good explanation of lens coatings if you want more information:

If you are planning on taking photos with your scope, as in digiscoping, I can't emphasize  enough - how important fully, multi-coated lenses will be in order to take your best photos.

 

OBJECTIVE SIZE

Objective size- (Also known as aperature) is measured in "mm".

 

Good objective size for birding is 60mm-100mm which are considered larger.  The exception to "bigger is better" would be if intend to be on the move alot and don't want to carry the extra weight of the larger and heavier scopes. The larger the objective, the heavier the scope.

The objective lens is the lens furthest from your eye at the end of the scope. (Not the one you look into) Bigger is better. The bigger the diameter, the more light you are able to catch. 80 mm is good. The difference between a 60 and 80 mm scope can be big. For birding I'd recommend going as big as your budget allows.

 

This is not to say a 60 wont be fun. But an 80mm will be better! This lets as much light in as possible. More light = faster shutter speed with a camera (digiscoping) and sharper, clearer pic. The only drawback here is that they scope will be bigger and heavier than smaller objectives and more expensive.

OTHER FEATURES You Might Want to Consider

Magnification

Most spotting scopes will be in the range of 20-60 magnification, which is ideal for birding- This comes from the eyepiece.

Straight body vs Angled body

This depends on how you will use it and a matter of personal preference.  Think about where you want to take your scope to use it - will you be high up looking down, or will you be low down, looking up? An angled body scope is more comfort oriented for the user and are great for looking up at things. This is ideal for birding.  I'd recommend an angled scope for birding comfort. 

If you want to look up at a ledge, hill or mountain, you may want to choose the angled body. The angled scopes also usually have a "collar" that turns so you can adjust the eyepiece around for comfort, for example, if you are sitting next to it, you can angle it toward you at the side.

Angled is also a good choice for groups of people who are different heights and also do well on shorter tripods, which tend to be more stable. Angled scopes can be mounted lower in windy conditions which may help with stability.

A straight body scope is great if you are high up and want to view lower targets or straight ahead. For example, if you are up on a mountain and want to view a valley below you, a straight body might be more comfortable. Straight scopes can also track moving targets faster and are considered easier for beginner scope users, but are not always as comfortable to use as the angled. Comfort is traded for more intuitive use. 

Field of View

Field of view is how much you can actually see through the scope. When you zoom in, your field of view goes down because you are getting closer to the image. So for example, a field of view of 131- 68 feet at 1000 yards, means you can view 131 feet at normal distance, but when you zoom, you will see 68 feet across.

Eyepiece

Be sure to check to see if the eyepiece is included with your scope. In more expensive, higher grade scopes, many times the eyepiece is removable and allows for eyepiece options. The eyepiece determines your magnification.

A good quality eyepiece will have long/good eye relief and produce a good quality image. The eye relief length should be 14mm or more. 

Some scopes have interchangeable eyepieces, for more options, and some have fixed. Fixed eyepieces cannot be removed.

Dual Focus

Gives you more precision when changing magnifications and views. This is a great option to have for refining details of your target in view.

Smartphone or Camera/photo mounting adapters

This is for digiscoping if you want to take pics of your finds! The adapters should match the eyepiece you intend to use with the scope. This is a fun option for hunters, nature, wildlife, and birding photography.

digiscoping adapter for spottin scope, camera attached to spotting scope

Lens hood or Sun shade

This is a nice feature to have for blocking excessive sun glare.

Prisms

The glass inside the scope that you don't see. What is Bak4 ?- Bak4 refers to a generally preferred type of German designed glass prism inside your spotting scope. BK7 and BaK4 are used to identify the type of glass prisms inside, with the German manufactured Bak4 considered better than BK7 for optics quality for brighter and sharper images.

Water and Fog proof

Since you may not want to stop what you are doing just because of a few sprinkles or soggy weather conditions.

Eye Relief

This makes viewing more comfortable for people who wear glasses. It is the distance from your eye to the scope that's required to see clearly into the scope. For anyone wearing glasses, 14mm of eye relief on a spotting scope is the minimum recommended eye relief range. Generally, the "longer" the eye relief, the more comfortable.

Q & A

What do those numbers I keep seeing in the scope descriptions mean? 

Lets take an example of 20-60x -80 means the scope zooms (magnifies) images 20x-60x in distance. The 80 tells the diameter of the objective lens (the lens at the far end of the scope) It is is 80 mm. Common spotting scope objective diameters are 50mm to 80mm.  The larger that lens at the end of the scope is, the more light it gathers, and the better the view. (As long as you have a good quality lens).

What is nitrogen filled and nitrogen purged?

It means that the scope exterior is purged of air and filled with nitrogen gas instead (in both cases) to stop internal fogging up in weather conditions

What's the difference between a roof and porro prism and which is better?

Porro prisms capture and keep more light, and are less expensive to make. Generally speaking, a porro prism is better for birding purposes due to a slightly better clarity of images.  Roof prisms were invented after porro prisms. They have the advantage of being lighter and more portable. 

How far can you see with a spotting scope?

Well it depends on your lens quality and magnification power of the scope you buy. The better the lens, and the higher the magnification (zoom) the further you will see. Look In the description of any scope you are thinking about buying, and it will give you an idea of your field view at 1000 yards. 

Note - One Mile = 1760 yards.

 

Also, the weather and atmosphere conditions play a part in how far you can see. Notice before it rains vs after it rains. The sunlight, clouds, humidity, fog and pollution can cloud your view. My favorite time to view wildlife and nature is just after it rains, the atmosphere is more "clean" and clear.

 

What is the best eye relief to look for?  

Eye relief should be no less than 14mm. Usually, the longer the eye relief, the more comfortable it will be when wearing glasses.

 

 

A Few Tips

  • If you will be attaching a camera for digiscoping, consider the attachments that come with it. They should properly fit your camera.

  • Keep the sun at your back if possible.

  • The worst thing you can get is a flimsy tripod. The tripod should be solid with fewer adjustments so it is sturdy. Flip locks are also good. Be sure that if the tripod is included with your spotting scope, that it is of good quality and will not move during those important moments.

 

My Picks for the Best Spotting Scopes 2018

 

 

 

 

1.) Gosky 20-60x -80mm Waterproof Scope -  Great budget scope for birding. Excellent clarity reported at 200 yards.  

  • Fully Multi-coated lens

  • Waterproof 

  • Sun shield - none

  • Includes Tripod

  • Digiscope adapter

  • Rubber Armor coating for durability

  • Good eye relief

  • Field of View is 115.2 - 57.6 feet at 1000 yards 

  • Prism- Bak4

  • Weight - 2.7 lbs

  • Warranty - 365 day free exchange by contacting seller

              CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON 

2.) Celestron 52250 Ultima 26-60x - 80mm- Gets excellent reviews and an affordable scope

  • Multi-coated lens

  • Waterproof 

  • Sun shield - none

  • Tripod - sold separately

  • Digiscope adapter

  • Armor coating for durability

  • Good eye relief

  • Field of View is 105-52 feet at 1000 yards 

  • Prism- Bak4

  • Weight - 5.4 lbs

  • Warranty - Limited Lifetime

              CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

3.) Celestron Regal M2 -16-48x 65mm Swivel mount to rotate, good for colors- ideal for bird watching

  • Fully Multi coated with ED objective lens

  • Waterproof

  • Adjustable lens sun shade

  • Doesn't come with tripod but does come with rotating tripod mount

  • Digiscope adapter

  • Durable yet lightweight magnesium alloy body

  • Good eye relief

  • Field of View is 131- 68 feet at 1000 yards

  • Prism - Bak4

  • Weight - 4.5 lbs

  • Warranty - Manufacturer's warranty and good customer support

               CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

4.) Alpen 788 - 20-60x -80mm - (My personal favorite)- Premium lens for crisp clarity-adjustable angled eyepiece- Excellent warranty

  • Fully Multi coated 

  • Waterproof and Fogproof

  • Built in sun shade

  • Comes with tabletop tripod 

  • Digiscope adapter - none

  • Nitrogen purged, O-ring sealed, shock resistant housing

  • Good eye relief

  • Field of View - 113 - 55 feet at 1000 yards

  • Prism - Bak4

  • Weight - 5 lbs

  • Warranty - Excellent Lifetime Warranty no fault, no questions asked

                CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

5.) Vanguard Endeavor HD 82A - 20-60x 82mm- All around excellent quality scope

  • Fully Multi-coated lenses, ED glass

  • Waterproof and Fogproof

  • Sun shield - built in

  • Tripod not included

  • Digiscope adapter sold separately

  • Rubber Armor magnesium body

  • Good eye relief

  • Field of View is 330 - 156 feet at 1000 yards 

  • Prism- Bak4

  • Weight - 4 lbs

  • Warranty - No Questions Premium Lifetime

              CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON

Disclosure:
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
I also participate in other affiliate programs and accept commissions based on link performance.  I strive to only promote things that I believe have integrity, add value and positively affect my readers.
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