How To Choose A Spotting Scope
Whether hunting, bird watching, or target shooting, a spotting scope is a powerful tool that will allow you to more clearly see your target. Spotting scopes are much larger investments than most binoculars, so it’s important to make an informed decision when shopping for a scope. You should consider viewing angle, lenses, magnification, and how you’ll be using the scope before making a purchase.
The Benefits of a Spotting Scope
A spotting scope is a must-have tool for any serious hunter, bird watcher, or target shooter.
The increased magnification offered by spotting scopes is immensely helpful when hunting in the open country. A spotting scope will allow you to see potential targets from much farther away. This ensures that you don’t spend time tracking an animal that you ultimately don’t want to take down.
If you’re nature watching, the increased magnification a scope offers is also beneficial. Spotting scopes allow you to examine the precise details of a bird’s plumage or an animal’s coat, so you can accurately identify what you’ve seen.
Straight or Angled?
Spotting scopes are available in two different configurations: straight and angled. In a straight scope, the eyepiece and the lens are parallel to one another. In an angled scope, the eyepiece is offset at either 45 or 90 degrees from the lens.
In general, it is easier to track a target with a straight scope, but an angled scope will provide a more comfortable viewing experience.
When viewing with other people, it is easier to use an angled scope. The added height of the eyepiece will allow users of different heights to comfortably use the spotting scope. Although angled scopes are not as intuitive to use, most people get comfortable with them after a week or two of experience.
Understand Magnification and Eyepieces
When using a spotting scope, the magnification comes from the eyepiece, not the objective lens. Because of this, a scope’s magnifying ability is expressed as two separate sets of numbers -- one set of numbers for the eyepiece, and one for the objective lens’ size.
For example, 20-60x60 is a popular magnification. The first two numbers represent the magnification range including the eyepiece’s zoom, so the scope would offer 20-60 times magnification.
The last number is the objective lens size in millimeters. In a 20-60x60, the lens size is 60mm.
More magnification is not always better. With a more powerful lens, you will be able to see every quiver and shake in your scope. This can make it harder to see clearly through your spotting scope, especially in windy or unstable conditions. In addition, the higher your magnification is, the more narrow your range of view will be. If you will be using your spotting scope to see wide landscapes, consider a less powerful magnification.
Fixed or Variable
Spotting scopes can either be fixed-power or variable-power. Fixed models are permanently set to a certain level of magnification and do not offer any further zoom capabilities. Variable power scopes can be adjusted within a range of magnifications.
Fixed-power scopes are sometimes enjoyed because of their simplicity. Nature watchers who enjoy broad landscapes may not need a powerful zoom capability.
However, variable-power scopes are generally more popular than fixed scopes. Variable-power scopes allow you to scan for your game, and then zoom in directly on your target. This is useful for hunters, target shooters, and animal watchers alike.
If you wear eyeglasses, the eye relief of a scope is going to be particularly important. Scopes with longer eye relief will direct the image’s focal point farther back from the eyepiece. This allows eyeglass wearers to clearly see the scope’s complete image. Some scope designs may also have folding or moveable rubber eyecups for added versatility.
Understand Lens Options and Construction
It is also important to consider the size and construction of the objective lens when purchasing a spotting scope. Larger lenses will deliver higher-quality images. Because larger lenses allow more light to come into the scope, your image will be brighter and clearer.
However, larger lenses make a scope heavier and bulkier to carry around. If you’re hunting or nature watching in the open country, a scope’s weight may be a consideration. When it comes to lens size, we suggest getting the largest lens that you are willing to carry.
In addition, you should consider what time of day you will be using your scope. Because larger lenses take in more light, they are well-suited for low-light conditions. Smaller lenses are ideal for bright conditions where visibility is not a problem.
The construction of a lens is just as important as the size. To reduce glare and improve image quality, special coatings are applied to the lenses of spotting scopes. As a general rule of thumb, the more coatings a lens has, the better it will perform. The most common coating options you will find on a spotting scope are:
- Coated - A single layer of coating on at least one lens.
- Fully-Coated - A single layer of coating on all air-to-glass surfaces of all lenses.
- Multi-Coated - Multiple layers of coating on at least one lens. All surfaces are coated at least once.
- Fully Multi-Coated - Multiple layers of coating on all air-to-glass surfaces.
Ordinary glass blocks certain types of light. This can create a lower-quality image and poor visibility when usd in a spotting scope.
The best spotting scopes are made with extra-low dispersion (ED), Fluorite (FL), or High Density (HD) glass. These types of glass make it possible for all the wavelengths of light to focus near a singular point. The result is a crisp, sharp image with fantastic detail. Some scopes may come with ED/FL/HD glass and non-ED/FL/HD glass options.
Spotting scopes will be significantly less expensive with standard glass, but most hunters and nature watchers agree that ED/FL/HD glass is worth the extra cost.
Consider Extra Features and Functionalities
Aside from magnification and lenses, many spotting scopes come with additional features, functions, and add-ons. It is important to consider these options before buying a spotting scope.
Many newer models of spotting scopes are designed with mounts that accept digital cameras. Some spotting scopes can even accept camera phones. This allows the user to take a photograph of the exact image that the scope is seeing. If you are nature watching rather than hunting, this can be a very useful feature.
Before buying a scope, make sure to look at the tripods available. Spotting scopes can be very heavy, and it will be almost impossible to hold one steady without a tripod. Be sure that the scope’s tripod will provide sturdy support, especially if you are using the scope in windy conditions. Additionally, the spotting scope should be at a comfortable viewing level when mounted to the tripod.
Focusing Knobs and Close Focusing
Most spotting scopes will have one or two focusing rings on the barrel of the scope. On single ring scopes, moving the focusing ring will adjust internal mechanisms to create a clearer picture. On those with two-step focusing, one knob will shift the focus, and the other will make ultra-fine adjustments for an even clearer picture. Neither types are objectively better -- this is simply a matter of personal preference.
Close-focusing is also an important aspect of a spotting scope. Instead of seeing images that are far away, you may want to focus on an animal within a short-range. This is especially important for nature watchers who may need to discern subtle details of a nearby bird’s plumage.