Spotting Scopes: What Are They & Do You Need One

Spotting Scopes: What Are They & Do You Need One

Binoculars give a great close-up while watching woodland creatures and are helpful in giving a glimpse at birds that are far away. When you have a spotting scope, however, you will be amazed at the difference it makes when viewing those distant birds. A spotting scope enables you to find more birds, and allows a user to distinguish field marks on distant shorebirds, waterfowls, and hawks, which are almost impossible to see when using binoculars. It is easier to admire intricate plumage details which you may have never seen before. And with a smartphone and a digital camera, you will be able to enjoy Digiscoping.

Just as with binoculars, there are a number of spotting scope uses and features that you should keep in mind when considering buying one. A basic tip is to not try using an astronomy telescope as a spotting scope. They are hard to see through, their magnification is usually too high, and often they are not weatherproofed. Below are several important aspects to keep in mind when buying a spotting scope in order to make the best informed choice possible.

Important Spotting Scope Uses and Features:


1. Magnification powerSpotting scope uses and features - magnification

A spotting scope is usually a medium range telescope and they have a magnification power of 15x and 60x. Spotting scopes have either interchangeable fixed-length eyepieces or a single zoom eyepiece to help change their magnifying power. Starting with a low power eyepiece is recommended when scanning an area, or otherwise starting with the lowest setting on a zoom eyepiece (i.e. In a 20x to 30x range). Once you have located the subject that you want to examine closely you can switch to a higher power.

2. Zoom lenses

Zoom lenses are capable of changing magnification power from 20x to as high as 60x by just a single and simple adjustment. The zoom lenses give an advantage for bird watching since they allow convenient scanning at low power and make a quick shift to a higher power for looking at details. Recently there has been advancements in the types of zoom lenses available. It is possible to get mid-priced scopes that have excellent zoom lenses. High quality zooms are able to give image sharpness just the same way when the spotting scope is at low magnification. It is advisable to buy a high quality spotting scope for the best performance.

3. Glass quality

Top spotting scope lenses are made of fluorite-coated, high density, or extra-low dispersion glass. The difference in brightness and image clarity between the high quality scopes and those made using standard glass is noticeable in low-light viewing conditions such as late evenings and at high power. Going for high quality and priced glass should be based on the decision of the kind of animal spotting that you plan to do. Early-morning or late-night birding, for example, would require higher quality glass for optimal viewing.

4. Light-gathering capacity

The size of the objective lens of a spotting scope indicates the light gathering capacity. The objective lens is the one farthest from your eye (and closest to your target). The value is typically between 50mm and 100mm depending on the scope model. Brighter images are given by larger objective lenses, but they make the spotting scope heavier and difficult to pack in luggage.

5. Eyepiece placementBundesarchiv B 145 Bild-P014590, Rossitten, Vogelwarte; Spotting scope uses and features - eyepiece placement

Different spotting scope models have a different eyepiece placement. Some have eyepieces configured for straight-through viewing, hence making it quick and easy to locate and follow a subject. These seem like a natural design, but there are those that have a 45-degree angled eyepiece. It makes viewing above the horizon easier and works with shorter tripods which tend to be stable. This type also gives convenient birding when working with a group of people with different heights.

6. Eye relief

This is particularly for those with eye problems and/or eyeglass wearers. For longer eye relief, the optics direct the focal point farther back behind the eyepiece and the eyeglass wearer is able to see a complete field of view. The technical specifications give eye relief in millimeters. Eye relief of 12-15mm is adequate for eyeglass wearers. Some spotting scopes have moveable or folding rubber eye-cups to accommodate those that don’t wear glasses.

7. Focusing mechanism

There are two different ways of focusing in spotting scopes. With a focusing collar, the image is made sharper by knurling and rubberizing the whole barrel of the scope and twisting the whole barrel. The second design has a smaller focus knob that is mounted on the spotting scope near the eyepiece. This design gives precise focusing but is slower to use. The size of your hand and agility play a role in this and therefor it is advisable to try each style so as to find your preference.

8. Optical CoatingsOptical coating - Thin film coating - Stripe Filter - CILAS; Spotting scope uses and features - coatings

Spotting scopes need to have good anti-reflection coatings for that optimal performance. Magnesium fluoride coatings increase light transmission by about 85% and those that have multi-coated lenses transmit up to 98% per surface.

Shopping tips

When looking for a fixed eyepiece look for one that is between 20x and 30x for general purpose uses. Beware of fixed focal length eyepiece that is larger than 45x due to the effect of heat distortion and loss of light; that is unless they are top quality.

Versatility of zoom lenses is what many people look for. Avoid buying low-priced zoom lenses that are lower weight and give poor viewing when the scope has middle or high magnification. Go for mid-priced scopes which have excellent zoom lenses.

Objective lens of at least 60 mm provide brighter images. In the case of digiscoping, you will want bright images delivered to your camera. An objective lens of 85 mm is recommended.

A good tripod stand will come in handy for that spotting scope. Consider the head, legs and shoe when buying a tripod for your spotting scope. A flimsy tripod will lead to poor images even if the spotting scope is the best quality. A tripod that is rigid, sturdy and with few leg adjustments as possible will work well. Locks on the legs are a quick way to extend and retract the tripod to help adjust for uneven ground.

Cheap spotting scopes are most likely to give a poor level of performance and can also lead to splitting headaches. Go for the more expensive or mid-grade models, which will give you higher value for your money.

Most of all, when purchasing a spotting scope, make sure the spotting scope uses and features match your specific needs. You might also find a rangefinder or a set of binoculars could better suit you.

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