What Is A Spotting Scope

What Is A Spotting Scope?

A spotting scope is similar in design to a monocular but has a much higher magnification and weighs considerably less too. Plus some spotting scopes have a variable zoom to allow changes in magnification. Many spotting scope users also use a tripod because it’s almost impossible to stop shaking at high magnification. 

Many people describe spotting scopes as telescopes with higher magnification, others call them monoculars, but whilst they are similar to both, a spotting scope is in a class all of its own.

Why Do You Need A Spotting Scope?

In the first place, a spotting scope has a magnification value of between 20x and 80x, this is very much dependent on the eyepiece used. A spotting scope is ideal for spotting waterfowl on large bodies of water. Such as floating ducks, cormorants, geese, gulls and other diving birds. Due to the high magnification, the ability to see so much detail is incredible. The only limitation is the low field of vision due to the high magnification.

Compared to binoculars, spotting scopes give a much greater insight into bird life. With the added bonus that you will not be disturbing the birds because of the greater distance you are away from them (400 to 500 metres away). Imagine observing rare birds of prey, like peregrine falcons or golden eagles nesting in their nesting environment from around 1000 metres away without disturbing them at all. You’ll be able to watch their nesting habits, feeding habits and all their general daily comings and goings without them ever knowing you are there.

What Do The Numbers On The Spotting Scope Mean?

The numbers visible on the spotting scope are exactly the same as the numbers on a pair of binoculars, magnification and the lens diameter in millimetres. For instance something like 40×62  means you have a magnification of 40 times, with a lens diameter of 62 millimetres.

Just for clarification purposes, a magnification of 40 means that objects that are 40 yards away in the distance will look like they are 1 yard away through the lens. And the lens diameter of 62 means the field of vision is 62 millimeters. The magnification value of 40 is 30x(times) greater than standard binoculars.

What are Typical Magnifications For Spotting Scopes?

This very much depends on either fixed magnification or zoom magnification. Typically, fixed magnification values are around 30x, whereas zoom magnification tends to be somewhere within the range of 15x to 60x.

What Benefits Does Zoom Magnification On A Spotting Scope Have?

Locating an object is easier using low magnification whilst you can then zoom in for a much more detailed view at higher magnification.

What Price Will A Spotting Scope Cost?

This is much like any other sophisticated technical instrument,top quality commands a top price, somewhere within the region of between £1500.00 to around £2000’00. Those of you who are not sure if bird watching is really your thing, you can purchase a mid-range spotting scope for around £200.00 to £500.00. You really will do well to consider how often you intend using your scope, if you intend to use it regularly, then buying an expensive model makes good sense, whereas if it’s going to be an occasional thing a lower priced scope will suffice.

What To Look For When Buying A Spotting Scope

Spotting Scope

The main factor to consider when purchasing a spotting scope, is its ability to gather light. The main way to tell its light gathering power is the second number (the diameter of the lens). If you’re going to use your scope under various and changing lighting conditions then a lens diameter of at least 80 should be considered. Basically the larger the lens, the more light that will enter the lens. 

Other factors include, the glass quality, and the coating applied to the glass. But the main factor is the magnification. As you increase the magnification, the darker the object will appear. Magnification will cost you light. 

What Do The Letters HD And ED Indicate On Spotting Scopes?

Due to the various processes used to produce spotting scopes, various types of lenses, different coatings on the glass, the mounting process, even the fact that some top quality spotting scopes have fluoride to replace oxygen between the lenses to allow special refractive properties.  Even some of the more reasonably priced spotting scopes are using extra coatings etc. 

The abbreviations HD and ED are used to identify High Definition glass and Extra low Dispersion glass. Any optical equipment with either HD or ED are of a significantly superior quality, but that quality comes at a price.

What Is Digi-Scoping?

Digi-scoping uses a digital camera attached to a spotting scope to take the magnified images through the lens of the scope. Used primarily in bird watching circles, digi-scoping has been around since 1999. The French bird watcher Alain Fossé was the first to coin the phrase, but the original digi-scoper was Laurence Poh, a bird watcher from the Malaysian Nature Society. 

Digi-scoping is the latest in a long line of “afocal photography”, which is the practise of attaching the lens of a camera to the eyepiece of a microscope or similar. With the advent of digital cameras many new ways of taking otherwise unobtainable images were created with digi-scoping being one.

What Accessories Will You Need For Your Spotting Scope?

As spotting scopes have such powerful magnification rates, trying to hold them by hand whilst viewing is out of the question. So the question arises, which type of tripod do you need? The best answer is to try the various types out for yourself and see which type suits you best. The options are clearly going to be tripod mounted but then you still need to choose between one of the following 2 choices:

  1. The Ball-Head Mount
  2. Pan/Tilt Head Mount

Our advice would be to try out both systems and see which works best for you. Both systems have a locking feature which is very convenient if you want to lock onto a particular bird and show it to your fellow bird watcher.

Tripod Types And Costs

When buying a tripod for your spotting scope. You are almost spoilt for choice, with a perfectly adequate metal three-legged tripod starting at around the £50.00 mark. And whichever head type you choose either ball head or pan/ tilt head costing between £30.00 to £50.00.

Another factor that needs serious consideration is weight. Depending on the material used to make the tripod, they can add a significant weight to your total baggage. For rigidity, wooden tripods are probably the best, but they can also weigh the most. Whereas aluminium combines low weight with rigidity, but they are easy to damage (usually on erecting or dismantling). Carbon fibre tripods are the best, but that is reflected in the price.

 Another point worth noting is that many spotting scopes can fit onto standard camera tripods. So it is possible that you already own a camera tripod that you’re happy with, that might do the job and save you a few quid.

What Is A Spotting Scope Used For?


Whenever you find you need more magnification than is possible on your binoculars, it’s time to reach for the spotting scope. Spotting scopes are used for the following purposes:

  • Bird Watching
  • Hunting
  • Surveillance
  • Viewing Ships
  • Viewing Landscape
  • Watching Wildlife
  • Scoring Targets On Air rifles, Pistols, Archery Ranges
  • Astronomy
  • And Many More Long Range Viewing Activities

Spotting scopes can also be used to take long-range photos on a wide range of cameras.

Why Do Bird Watchers Use Both Spotters And Binoculars – Surely One Is Good Enough?

Not necessarily, spotting scopes and binoculars are used for different purposes. Binoculars have a larger field of view, so they’re handy for scanning the skies, or lakes to spot any interesting birds etc. If that object of interest is in a relatively close range, then the binoculars are the perfect tool for watching with.

But, however, if that object is farther away ( too far for the 10x of the binoculars to cope with), then it’s time to get the spotting scope out. With its up to 60x magnification, the watcher will enjoy a much closer look at the object in view.

If the birds start to fly away, the binoculars will take over again, although, with enough practise, it is possible to follow moving birds with a spotting scope but this does take considerable practise.

What Can Cause Problems When Viewing Through A Spotting Scope?

There are 2 main things that can affect the viewing capabilities of the spotting scope. They are either:

  1. The Atmosphere
    Things like wind, air currents, heat waves, dust, glare, and humidity will all affect the magnification. To cut a long story short, there will be times when anything higher than 30x magnification will look like a dust storm. And there will also be clear days that allow crystal clear vision at 60x magnification. The atmosphere can also make viewing in close detail almost impossible, for instance you might see a man at 600 yards, but not be able to make out his facial features due to dust etc.
  2. The Spotting Scopes Optical System
    The make and model are virtually irrelevant, there will always be some loss of image quality as magnification increases. Some blame for this must go to the design and the size of the scope, but mainly on the quality of the entire optical system. This really is a situation where you get what you pay for. Cheaper models will lose image quality as the magnification increases. But top grade models lose little of the image due to increased magnification. With that said most observing is done at around the 30x to 40 x and even the cheaper (not cheapest) models can cope with those kinds of magnifications.

Image Quality V Price

There is a wide gap between low quality or cheap models and top grade spotting scopes. The difference is as far apart as chalk and cheese.  There are many circumstances where a cheap and cheerful model will suffice but there are times when you need a top of the range quality. Unfortunately if you do need top of the range quality, then that’s exactly what you will need to buy.

For most hobbyists a medium priced model will be perfectly adequate to do exactly what is expected of it. By no means are we saying that the only models worth having are the top of the range models. Just steer clear of the bargain basement models, they are cheap for a reason, not always a good reason.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a spotting scope used for?

A spotting scope is used for seeing objects much closer than is possible with binoculars. They are popular with bird watchers, hunters, stargazers, and people doing surveillance.

Can you hold a spotting scope?

Due to their high-powered magnification it is almost impossible to hold a spotting scope without experiencing intense shaking, making it almost impossible to see the image. Spotting scopes are almost always used in conjunction with a stand.

Is angled or straight spotting scope better?

Using an angled spotting scope allows the use of a lower tripod height. Which allows better stability and is better for digi-scoping. But a straight scope is better for spotting a target or a bird etc.