How to Choose a Spotting Scope: Learn The Essentials

how to choose a spotting scope

If you want to advance your bird-watching hobby, it might be time to invest in a spotting scope (we’ve reviewed the best spotting scopes for birding here). While most birdwatchers start out with a pair of binoculars, more advanced enthusiasts soon move on to the more spectacular views and intricate details that you can see with a spotting scope. So, how do you choose the perfect spotting scope?

There are a number of factors to consider when selecting a spotting scope. You need to think about magnification, whether it has good zoom lenses and the quality of the glass. Other considerations include the scope’s light-gathering capacity and whether to choose a straight or angled eyepiece placement. Then, of course, there’s also the focusing mechanism.

Let’s look at these features in more detail.

What Is The Magnification Power Of The Scope?

Most spotting scopes have a magnification range from 15x to 60x. Quite simply, the magnification power refers to the zoom potential of the lens.

You would assume that the higher the magnification power, the better. However, this is not always the case. This is because at higher magnifications, you may not be able to see everything clearly and you may be restricting your field of view.

Here’s a quick explanation:

  • At low magnification power you get a wider view of the area you’re looking at.
  • At high magnification power your viewing area is reduced in width and you get a more focused view.

To change magnification on a spotting scope, you either have to use a zoom lens or change to a fixed-length eyepiece that has a higher magnification.

How Zoom Lenses Aid In Magnification

Zoom lenses on a spotting scope work very similarly to the zoom lens on your smartphone. In other words, they increase the magnification of a certain area so that you can “get in closer”.

Zoom lenses are great when you’re out bird watching because all you have to do is turn a dial to zoom in on one particular area. However, there’s one disadvantage and that is that these lenses don’t allow as much light in as a detachable lens would. You’ll also find that with these zoom lenses, you’ll get more heat shimmer and vibrations at a higher magnification.

On the other hand, constantly changing lenses to get better magnification could be quite cumbersome. Therefore, you have to weigh up the pros and cons of each one.

Generally, though, a zoom lens is ideal for your first spotting scope and should give you enough magnification to get the details that you’re after.

How The Quality Of The Glass Can Make A Difference

Believe it or not, not all glass is the same. In fact, spotting scopes that have the best quality glass lenses will give you a much better view than those with ordinary glass lenses.

You see, ordinary glass will block a certain amount of light from passing through the lens. However, higher quality lenses have glass made from high density (LD) or extra-low dispersion (ED) glass that is fluorite coated.

These high-quality glass lenses let more light through and are particularly good if you’re out bird watching in low light conditions. You’ll also find that the image is sharper with these coated lenses because all the colors are focused on the same point.

Therefore, if it comes down to a choice between high-quality glass lenses or higher magnification, go for the better quality glass because the images will be so much sharper and clearer.

how to choose a spotting scope

What Is The Light-Gathering Capacity?

The light-gathering capacity is quite simply the amount of light that is capable of entering the lens. This capacity is usually measured in the millimeter size of the outer lens (objective lens). Most spotting scopes have outer lenses that are between 50mm to 100mm.

In general, a larger outer lens will let in more light than a smaller one. However, larger lenses also make the spotting scope heavier. Therefore, it can be a balancing act to choose between a heavier lens or a smaller one that doesn’t weigh as much.

Another thing to consider is that a smaller outer lens will also result in a smaller field of view and a slightly darker image than a large lens.

The Difference Between Straight And Angled Eyepiece Placement

A spotting scope with a straight eyepiece is easy to use and convenient for most people. You set it up on a tripod and adjust the settings to match your height and comfort level.

However, a spotting scope with an angled eyepiece is preferred by many bird watchers. It’s still mounted on a tripod but the eyepiece is at a 45-degree angle. This means you can set the tripod to a lower height which makes it more stable.

An angled eyepiece is also easier if you’re scanning birds flying overhead. Plus, it’s much more convenient if you’re out birding with a group of friends because you don’t have to constantly change the height of the tripod.

how to use a spotting scope for birding

The Importance Of Focusing

Of course, proper focusing is important when you’re trying to see some intricate details on a bird. All spotting scopes have some form of adjusting the focus. Some will have two different knobs or dials while in others you just have to turn the barrel to sharpen the focus.

When you’re looking at purchasing a spotting scope, you want to try out both kinds to see which one works better for you. Make sure though that you don’t look at an image too far away. Remember that the birds you may want to examine could just be a few feet away at your bird feeder.

Try to look for a scope that has the capacity to focus down to 20 feet or even closer.

What About Eye Relief?

The eye relief is the space between where your eye rests and the eyepiece lens. This is important to consider if you wear glasses. Scopes with longer eye relief direct the focal point farther back. This means that you can get a complete view of a wider area. People who wear glasses should select a scope that has an eye relief of around 12 to 15 mm.

Some spotting scopes also have rubber eyecups that can be removed or folded. These are ideal for people who don’t wear glasses and want a comfortable view.

Make Sure You Get A Sturdy Tripod

Once you’ve chosen your spotting scope, you want to purchase a good sturdy tripod to mount the scope on. Look for one that has flip locks on the legs so that you can lock them into place once you’ve set the tripod to the correct height.

Also, make sure that the legs are fully adjustable individually for when you’re birding on uneven ground. In addition, if you’ve chosen an angled scope, you can consider a more compact tripod as you have to bend down to look into the scope.

What About Digiscoping?

Digiscoping is the process of attaching your digital camera to the spotting scope so that you can take photos. In this case, all you have to do is hold the lens of the camera to the spotting scope’s eyepiece, line up the view by looking through your camera and snap away.

You can even do this with a smartphone. There are even spotting scopes on the market that come with digital camera eyepieces. These are more expensive but could be an option for nature photographers.

Top Selection Tips For Bird Watchers

Here are some tips to consider when selecting your spotting scope:

  • Consider a larger lens that lets more light in. This is because bird watching is often done in forests and you’ll need that extra light to see into the dark treetops. An 80 to 100 mm lens is ideal.
  • You should also consider getting a scope with a zoom lens between the range of 20 to 60x. This will allow you to see the finer details in the bird’s plumage for correct identification.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Is a straight or angled spotting scope better?

With an angled scope, you can use a tripod set at a lower height. This gives you better stability. However, a straight scope gives you the ability to set it to your needs and keep spotting all day long.

Are spotting scopes more powerful than binoculars?

Yes, spotting scopes are more powerful than binoculars because they allow for better magnification.

Can you take pictures with a spotting scope?

Yes, you can. You just have to place the lens of your digital camera to the eyepiece. This is referred to as digiscoping.

Final Thoughts

There are many things to consider when selecting a spotting scope, especially if you have a set budget. Obviously, you want to buy the best quality that you can afford but make sure you consider all the different features to find one that is going suit your needs perfectly.

When making your decision, think about the magnification, the type of glass that the lens has and what sort of zoom that the lens uses. You should also consider whether you want a straight or an angled lens. And, the final piece of equipment you should consider is a strong, sturdy tripod to mount your scope on.

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