Beginner's Guide to Spotting Scopes

Beginner’s Guide to Spotting Scopes (when ordering online)

The range of spotting scopes available can make choosing the perfect scope for you an almost impossible task. Plus if you’re new to the world of spotting scopes there are so many terms and phrases to get to understand. But don’t worry, we have all the information you need to guide you to your perfect spotting scope.

What Is A Spotting Scope?

The best way to describe a spotting scope is a portable telescope designed for use on land or at sea. Spotting scopes allow you to see over large distances and see detail binoculars could never reveal. With that said, binoculars have their place, unlike a spotting scope a pair of binoculars are lighter, easier to carry, easier to use, and cost less to buy.

But a spotting scope has a far greater range of magnification and because of the large objective lens diameter, a scope shows brighter images than a standard pair of binoculars. A decent spotting scope can see objects up to 50 miles away.

What Do The Numbers Mean On A Spotting Scope?

Stamped onto the spotting scope you’ll notice a series of numbers separated by the letter X. These numbers tell us the size of the spotting scope.


From these numbers we can tell the spotting scope has a starting magnification of 20x with a zoom feature up to 60x and an objective lens diameter of 60 millimeters. This means as you look through the scope, the image you can see will be 20 times larger than with the naked eye. With the option to increase the magnification to 60 times and the size of the objective lens diameter is 60mm. This allows a lot of light to enter the objective lens to illuminate the image being viewed through the lens.


These numbers indicate the scope has a fixed magnification of 4 times with no zoom and an objective lens diameter of 25mm.

Objective Lens

The main thing to remember about the objective lens of a spotting scope is the larger it is, the brighter the image will appear through the lens. Also, the larger the objective lens, the heavier the scope will be too. The objective lens size determines;

  • The Brightness Of The Image
    The objective lens is the only way light can enter the scope to illuminate the image shown through the lens.
  • The Width Of The Field Of View
    This is the width of the image you can see through the lens from left to right while looking straight ahead.
  • The Weight Of The Scope
    The glass used to make the lens gets heavier as the lens size increases.
  • The Size Of The Scope
    The scope’s tube needs to be bigger to accommodate the extra size of the lens.

What’s Best Straight Or Angled Spotting Scope?

There are two options when it comes to spotting scopes, straight or angled. It’s a personal preference which to choose because they both do the same job but from different angles.

A straight scope is used exactly like a telescope, you hold your eye to the lens and look straight through to the object you’re trained onto in the distance.

An angled scope sits on the tripod and you look down into it to still see straight ahead. We find angled scopes more convenient to use because;

  • They’re easier To Use Over Long Periods
  • It’s Easier To Look Up Into A Tree Or At The Sky Or Straight Ahead
  • Make Sharing A Particular View With Someone Else Simple (without having to move the scope).
  • Easier To Attach A Camera To An Angled Scope (Digiscoping).

Straight scopes have their place if, for instance, you were hunting game whilst laying flat on the ground.

Other Features To Consider

Whatever the weather is like when you set out in the morning, the chances are it will rain or at the very least turn damp before the day ends. Not only do we live in the United Kingdom where it rains nearly every day, but we live on a planet that’s 75% water. So the upshot of all this is, you should choose a waterproof spotting scope. There are various levels of waterproofing available all set out in an industry wide code. 

It can be slightly confusing but suffice it to say, any spotting scope with an IPX6 code will be sufficient to keep any moisture out. 

Fog Proof Scope

There’s nothing worse than seeing a rare bird through binoculars and then reaching for the scope, looking through the lens only to find it’s all fogged up. To prevent this from happening the manufacturers remove all of the air from the scope and replace it with a gas like nitrogen or argon. These gasses contain no moisture  and so cannot react to changes in temperature.

Eye Piece

Many spotting scopes come with fixed eyepieces, which means the magnification is set and cannot be changed. Many can be swapped for stronger eyepieces with higher magnification levels. Others come with zoom lenses which allow you to change the magnification without having to change the lens.

Plus you don’t need to lug extra lenses around with you and possibly miss whatever you’re trying to see because you have to change the eyepiece. A good point to start is 20-60 magnification. This starts at 20 times and zooms to 60 times giving you an increase in magnification of 40 times.

Close Focus

This is the nearest distance you can see an object clearly. It’s not usually a big factor when it comes to scopes but anything with a close focus of less than 3.5 m is considered good.

Eye Relief

There is a sweet spot where your eye is positioned at a certain distance from the lens to see the full image without any dark rings or loss of image. That sweet spot is known as eye relief. It’s usually not that important unless you wear glasses full time. This is because they will need to be taken into consideration when it comes to the distance between the eye and the eyepiece.

If you do need to wear glasses look for long eye relief as this will accommodate the size of the glasses and your eyes and the eyepiece.

Eye Cup

The soft plastic or rubber edge surrounding the eyepiece is designed to keep your eye in the correct position in comfort. They can be adjusted either by twisting or folding up or down.

Does A Spotting Scope Need A Tripod?

Due to the high magnification level and the overall weight of a spotting scope, it will need to be supported by a tripod. Any image over 10x magnification will magnify the natural shake we all have when holding any object for any length of time. As scopes tend to start at 15x that shake is magnified at least 15 times. A tripod prevents any movement keeping the image crisp, slear and sharp.

Better Images Through Better Light Transmission

There is no point using a spotting scope if you can’t see the image clearly. To this end you need to look for the best light transmission possible. Light transmission begins with the quality of the glass used to create the prisms. 

BAK-4 Glass

This is the top quality, high precision optical glass used to create the prisms in both spotting scopes and binoculars. BAK-4 glass has the least imperfections of any optical glass which means better light transmission.

BK-7 Glass

This is the next grade of glass used for prism making, it’s still precision optical glass but has slightly more imperfections than BAK-4 glass.

Glass Lenses

Next comes the glass used to make the lenses, this should be either E D (extra-low Dispersion glass or H D high density glass. Both of these improve light transmission and reduce colour fringing and haloing.

Lens Coatings

To improve light transmission even more, the lenses are coated which also reduces glare too. Look for FMC or fully multi-coated lenses as these have multiple layers of coatings applied to every surface.

Prism Types

There are two types of prisms used to manufacture spotting scopes Porro prisms and roof prisms. There are a number of differences but to keep things simple, porro prisms are heavier, larger, more bulky, easier to damage, and more difficult to waterproof. Roof prisms are more robust, compact, weigh less, easier to waterproof, less likely to get damaged (prism alignment), slightly less clear image and more expensive.


A decent spotting scope is not a cheap purchase, it should be considered as an investment and as such, it should come with a decent warranty. The better companies have lifetime warranties on their scopes which means for as long as the original purchaser owns it, the scope will be repaired or replaced by the manufacturer in the event of accidental damage.

Ordering From Quality Manufacturers

When ordering a spotting scope online, it’s important to take a look into the manufacturer of the particular product, as going for unknown brands often results in a scope you’re not really going to enjoy using. 

As a general rule, we’d purchasing the following manufacturers of spotting scope:

  • Hawke
  • Leupold
  • SIG Sauer
  • Yukon Advanced Optics
  • Zeiss
  • Athlon
  • Bushnell
  • Delta Optical

This is not an exhaustive list, but you’re certainly going to get a great quality spotting scope when purchasing from any of those manufacturers. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What to look for when buying a spotting scope?

Look for an objective lens diameter of at least 60mm to allow lots of light to illuminate the image.

When should you use a spotting scope?

Whenever you need to see an image closer than you can through your binoculars it’s time to use the spotting scope. With at least twice the level of magnification a spotting scope will reveal far more detail than binoculars.

Are spotting scopes more powerful than binoculars?

Spotting scopes are in general far more powerful than binoculars.