Spotting scope buyer's guide

Men using spotting scopes in NZ

Our spotting scope buyer's guide provides you with information to help you choose a spotting scope and help you understand spotting scope specifications. 

The information below will explore the difference between spotting scopes, monoculars, and binoculars and help you choose the perfect scope to suit your needs. We'll also guide you through the technical information about spotting scopes to help you choose the best spotting scope specification for you. 

Why choose a spotting scope?

Spotting scopes are widely known as the top of the range type of scope due to their high magnification power. They can be best described as a cross between a small telescope; which has been modified for day time, terrestrial use, and a large and very powerful monocular. Spotting scopes are similar in design to monoculars, as both products are comprised of one scope which can be used to view images through either eye. The two types of scope simply differ in size and power; monoculars that have larger lenses, more powerful magnification, and wider views are called spotting scopes.

Spotting scopes are:

  • made up of only one viewing scope

  • the most powerful scope to be used for land viewing, providing a magnification which often ranges from 20-60x that of the unassisted eye

  • often used for bird watching, hunting, surveillance, plane spotting and ship spotting.

  • available in a range of sizes

  • larger and heavier than binoculars and monoculars so typically require tripods for effective use and are less portable

  • often more durable than monoculars and binoculars

  • often more comfortable to use for extended viewing activities as they allow eye pieces to be changed for different applications

  • unable to provide the same close focus ability as binoculars.

Still unsure which scope will best suit you? Let’s take a look at the key differences between spotting scopes, monoculars and binoculars.

Spotting scope vs binoculars and monoculars

The most significant functional difference between spotting scopes, binoculars and monoculars is their magnification power. With a magnification power of 20x that of the unassisted eye or higher, spotting scopes are much more powerful than both monoculars and binoculars. A second major difference is lens size, something which often results in spotting scopes being much larger and less portable than other land viewing scopes. We’ll talk more about magnification and lens size later.

Choosing the right spotting scope for you

Understanding the numbers

Now that you have considered the pros and cons of spotting scopes, it’s time to take a closer look at the specification of spotting scope that you require.

The specification of a spotting scope is indicated by two numbers. The first number is the magnification power of the spotting scope; the second is the diameter of the spotting scopes objective, or front lens. These two elements effect how the spotting scope will perform in different circumstances and also the size of the spotting scope.

We’ve provided an example below to help you understand how this works.

Example: A spotting scope with a specification of 20-60 x 70mm

Magnification power

This spotting scope will have a magnification power that ranges between 20 and 60, meaning that an object will appear between 20 and 60 times closer than it would to your unassisted eye, depending on the magnification range that you have set. For example, if you view a buck that stands  100 metres away from you through a 20-60 x 70mm spotting scope that is set at a magnification of 60, it will appear as though it were only 1.6 meters away (100 divided by 60). Spotting scopes with higher magnification will allow you to see further and in more detail.

Note: It is important to remember that the higher the magnification of your spotting scope, the more prone the image you see is to being effected by movements of your hands. Due to this, high-magnification spotting scopes usually require a tripod as otherwise, movements make the image wobble too much to view it clearly.

Objective lens diameter

The second number used in spotting scope identification refers to the spotting scopes objective lens diameter. The objective lens is the lens at the front of the spotting scope, furthest away from your eyes, and closest to what you are looking at. The objective lens diameter of the example spotting scope is 70mm. 

Most spotting scopes feature an objective lens with a diameter of between 50 to 100 mm. The diameter of the objective lens largely determines how much light your spotting scope can gather. The larger the objective lens diameter, the more light that the spotting scope will capture. More light means a brighter view, particularly in low-light conditions. A larger lens will also provide you with a wider field of view meaning that you'll be able to see more of the landscape or subject that you're looking at. The downside is that the bigger the lens is, the heavier and bulkier your spotting scope will be.

What features do I need?

When it comes to choosing a spotting scope there's a whole range of features that you'll need to consider. You'll need to decide what type of glass you need, whether you need a waterproof spotting scope, where you want an angled or straight scope, whether you want a fixed or zoom eyepiece and much more. Below we'll break down each of the features and ask you some questions to help you narrow down which features you need.

Type of glass

Like all optics, spotting scopes can be built with a range of different types of glass. The lens material will ultimately effect the price of the optics, and you'll have to decide how much you want to spend on your scope.

Most low to mid priced scopes will be built with BaK 4 or occasionally BaK 7 glass. If you're looking in this price range, opt for BaK 4 glass where possible as these are offer the highest quality images. 

High end scopes are often constructed with some sort of extra low dispersion glass which is designed to limit the amount of light that is dispersed when it passes through the lens to your eyes. The dispersion of light into different wavelengths when passing through your spotting scope causes minor distortions to the image that you see. This distortion is known as chromatic aberration, and is something that optics manufacturers are always trying to limit by utilising extra low dispersion (ED) glass alongside other techniques. There's numerous ED spotting scope models on the market, with most of our brands offering their own version (look out for ED, XD, HD models). We always advise our customers to opt for a scope with ED glass if they have the money available.

When it comes to lenses, you can't get any better than those made from fluorite crystal. With quality comes cost, and due to this, there's only a very limited number of FC spotting scopes models on the market. If you want unprecedented clarity with the lowest rate of chromatic aberration available, then look no further than fluorite crystal and checkout our only FC spotting scope models which are available from Kowa. 

Lens coating

Where possible, choose optics that have fully multicoated lenses as they allow the highest level of light transmission with limited internal light scattering and reflectivity. This results in brighter, sharper and higher contrast images than coated or multicoated binoculars. Fully multicoated optics are more expensive to manufacture and are often only incorporated into higher-end binoculars, so your choice may depend on budget.

Waterproof

The majority of spotting scopes are built with some sort of waterproof resistance. If you're planning on using your scope for hunting or nature or bird watching outdoors, then we would strongly advise choosing a scope that is fully waterproof to protect it against damage in damp or raining conditions. A full waterproof coating is less important for spotting scopes that will be used indoors, however we'd always advise choosing a scope that's nitrogen purged to prevent its lenses from fogging internally in damp conditions or when there's a significant change in temperature. 

Weight

Spotting scopes vary in weight depending on the size of their objective lens and also the quality of their construction. If you're only planning on using your spotting scope indoors on a permanently located tripod, and won't need to move it too often, then weight isn't too much of an important factor, however if you'll be carrying your scope for long distances on hunts of whilst trekking, then be sure to keep an eye on how much it weighs.
 

Tripod

For optimal viewing, you'll need a sturdy tripod to mount your spotting scope on. Some scopes come with a table top tripod, whereas others will require the purchase of an additional tripod. Be sure to read the product description for each spotting scope carefully so that you know what the scope comes with, and if you need to buy an additional tripod, then take a look at our tripod buying guide to ensure that you choose the right tripod for the job. 

Recommended spotting scopes

Why not take a look at our recommended spotting scopes, or browse our full range of spotting scopes.