Spotting Scopes for Birders
Spotting scopes are used by birders to take advantage of the powerful magnification capabilities. Spotting scopes generally operate in a range of 20x to 60X magnification. At 60x, an object looks 60 times closer than it does with the naked eye.
There are two basic designs for the viewing angle. There is no difference in the quality of image and the final choice is one of personal preference.
In some designs, the eyepiece and the barrel of the scope are in a straight line. This is a good choice if you do a lot of birding from the car, using a window mount. Image from Carl Zeiss Optical.
This eyepiece is at a 45 deg. angle to the barrel of the spotting scope. When mounted on a tripod, this design allows the tripod to be at a lower position, providing a more stable platform.
Image from Kowa Optimed, Inc.
The amount of magnification is based on the eyepiece. The range is usually from 20x up to 60x. In general, the higher the magnification, the lower the image quality. More expensive spotting scopes maintain high image quality at high magnifications. Top of the line spotting scopes can cost as much as $4000.
Some scopes are designed with replaceable eyepieces. A user may have a 20x, a 30x and a 40x eyepiece. The eyepieces are changed based on the viewing conditions. The individual eyepieces can be expensive.
Alert: Spotting scopes can be sold without an eyepiece. When purchasing, make sure the eyepiece is included with the purchase.
Some spotting scopes come with a zoom eyepiece, often in the range of 20x to 60x.
Some birders feel the fixed magnification eyepieces provide a slightly better image than a zoom eyepiece. Others prefer the convenience of the zoom.
If you are purchasing a top-of-the-line spotting scope from companies like Zeiss, Swarovski and Kowa, zoom eyepieces will deliver excellent image quality. Prices range from about $1500 to $4000 for these high-end units.
If you are considering a lower cost unit (as many of us do) with a zoom lens, try to test the unit before purchase to make sure the image quality is acceptable to you.
Eyeglass wearers – be sure to determine that the eyepiece selected is ‘eyeglass friendly.’ There are several designs available, including some very poor ones.
The eye relief is the distance a spotting scope can be held away from the eye and still provide a full field of view. In general, the longer the better, especially for eyeglass wearers. If you wear glasses see if you can try before you buy to make sure you are comfortable with the eye relieve and eye cups on the spotting scope.
Making the final choice
If your interest in birding has reached the point that you are interested in a spotting scope we recommend that you keep saving until you can purchase a top-of-the-line spotting scope. The gap between a top-of-the-line and mid-level spotting scope is much greater than the difference in a top-level and mid-level binocular. You can expect to use a top quality spotting scope for 20 years or more, so the long-term cost of ownership is not out of line.
Spotting scopes also require a tripod for use. Tripods can be expensive so be sure to include the price of a tripod in your budget plans. Visit the tripod section for additional information.