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Understanding Spotting Scope Features

Discover how to transform your outdoor pursuits such as hunting, birdwatching and hiking with a high magnification spotting scope, and learn which features to look out for.

spotting scope on mini tripod

If you’re a fan of the outdoors life and love nothing more than to go fishing, hunting or hiking, you may well want to make sure you’ve got a good view of the surrounding landscape. A pair of binoculars or a monocular is one option, but if you want a powerful yet compact piece of equipment a spotting scope might suit you more.

Spotting scopes are popular with individuals who enjoy a wide range of hobbies including ship-watching, birding, birding, archery and sometimes even astronomy. But what exactly is a spotting scope and should you use it? Never fear, help is at hand to answer all these questions plus many more.

Without further ado, here’s our essential guide on spotting scope with everything you could possibly need to know about the features you might find.

spotting scope features explained

What is a Spotting Scope?

A spotting scope is a piece of equipment which is used to magnify objects which are at a distance, making them more clearly visible. Bridging the gap between binoculars and a telescope, a spotting scope has a single barrel and is generally compact enough to be carried around.

So, what is a spotting scope used for? If you’re only interested in casual birdwatching or catching a glimpse of wildlife while hiking, a pair of binoculars or a monocular that fits into your pocket will do the job. However, if you want a better look at the world around you, perhaps for hunting, birdwatching or even photography, a spotting scope will offer the magnification you need.

Magnification

A spotting scope is generally regarded as the next step up from binoculars, with the level of magnification starting from the point that most binoculars finish. This allows details to be viewed which wouldn’t otherwise be visible, bringing distant objects sharply into focus.

However, it’s not simply a matter of choosing a spotting scope with the highest level of magnification possible as there are other factors which affect the quality of the image. Atmospheric aspects all play a significant role in how well a spotting scope works, and whether there’s any interference. Dust, humidity, glare, air currents and heat waves can all impact the quality of the end image. The higher the magnification, the greater the impact will be.

Recommended Next: Don’t miss our guide to the top spotting scopes on the market right now!

In practical terms, this means that some days you might not find any use for magnification above x30 while on others, you’ll achieve crystal-clear images with a magnification of x60. As a general rule, even in the most favorable conditions, very little is usually achieved beyond 60-80x so spotting scope magnification rarely extends beyond 60x.

If you’re considering purchasing a spotting scope at the higher range of magnification, you might want to consider investing in a premium grade model. The quality of the images drops off quite sharply after around 30-40x, and the difference will be markedly poorer. Premium scopes retain the quality of the image even when magnifying at 60x, but you’ll have to pay a hefty price for the privilege. For most people, a magnification of 30-40x is more than sufficient and this can be achieved for a competitive price.

girl using a spotting scope

Objective Lens

The objective lens is the one that’s the furthest distance from your eyes and the bit of the spotting scope that’s the nearest to what you’re viewing. Normally, the larger the objective lens is, the better you’ll be able to see the amplified image. This is particularly the case at higher magnifications. However, if the lens is of low quality, the end result will be dull and unclear, regardless of the size. Quality of the lens should therefore always be prioritized over sheer size.

It’s possible to get better performance by choosing specialized glass for the objective lens. Look for HD, ED, EPO or Fluorite glass for optimum results. These are more expensive options than standard glass but can deliver quality images commensurate with even the largest objective lens.

Of course, if you really want the absolute best, you can’t beat a large objective lens made from one of these specialized glasses.

Birdwatching spotting scope at marsh

Close Focus

This is an area that not everyone thinks about when they’re purchasing a spotting scope. You may well be able to zoom in on distant objects but what about those that are a lot closer but still out of your normal visual range?

A spotting scope which offers a close focus of less than 20’ can be extremely useful in many circumstances, particularly if you plan on using it to aid photography.

Lens Coatings

The transmission of light is absolutely vital in order to preserve the quality of images when viewed through a spotting scope. Without sufficient light, the image can appear dull, blurry and lacking sharpness.

There are a variety of options that manufacturers can utilize when creating a spotting scope, and much depends on the overall budget. At the lower end of the market, fully coated lens are available which then increases to multi-coated, before the optimum of fully multi-coated.

All premium spotting scopes will be fully multi-coated, with all the advantages of special chemical formulas designed to maximize the transmission of light. These can vary significantly from one manufacturer to another so you should never assume that two spotting scopes of a similar price will perform identically.

Girl using a spotting scope

Image Quality

Ultimately, all anyone wants is a spotting scope that offers sharp and clear images – but it’s essential that you’re realistic about what you’re buying. There are some fabulous budget models but make no mistake, they won’t offer the same high performance as premium grades.

What you buy depends on the intended use, and for many people, a low to midrange model provides a performance which far exceeds their needs. However, if you need your spotting scope to deliver in demanding circumstances and with an optimum result, you’ll have to pay out the big bucks for a top of the range model. Budget scopes do a great job but when you need really precise results, the difference in quality is very obvious.

spotting scope used by hunter

Spotting Scope vs Telescope

On first glance, a spotting scope may well just seem like a smaller telescope but there are some very big differences between the two pieces of equipment. True, they are both used to amplify distant objects and make them easier to view but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

A telescope is primarily used for astronomy, which means that the orientation of the image is less important. With a telescope you might find the image is either upside down or reversed. This isn’t a problem if you’re gazing at a distant constellation but if you’re trying to focus on an archery board, it’s going to cause an issue. With a spotting scope, there’s no image flipping; everything is viewed in exactly the same orientation – it just appears a bit closer.

Gazing off into the sky means telescopes have to be an extremely powerful piece of kit, offering the ability to leap through miles of space without losing visual acuity. By contrast, although you may want a clear view of the stag in the woods ahead, you won’t need the same kind of power.

For this reason, telescopes tend to have much greater magnification than a spotting scope. The drawback of this is that they required a substantial mount in order to keep the image stable. If you’ve ever zoomed in accidentally while using binoculars, you’ll be only too aware of how wobbly things can look when you’re trying to keep your hand steady! Telescope stands are specialized for viewing the sky at night and not suitable for during the day.  You’ll still need a stand for a spotting scope but a regular photography tripod will suffice.

Before you start thinking about how great telescopes are compared to spotting scopes, it’s worth mentioning that the latter often have many additional features. As telescopes are intended for astronomical use, they don’t have the extras that a spotting scope might have. These could include anti-fog and waterproof lenses, extremely handy features for daytime use.

spotting scope in camouflage cover

What do the numbers mean on binoculars and spotting scopes?

If you’re new to binoculars and spotting scopes, the string of numbers may make you feel like giving up before you’ve even started! However, there’s good news – once you know the formula, you’ll be surprised at how simple it is to decipher.

Spotting scopes are nearly always given three numbers; the first two pair together and the third one is separate. These first two numbers refer to the range of magnification which is available while the third number refers to the size of the lens. As an example, 15-50×70 refers to a scope which has a magnification of 15-50x and a lens with a 70mm diameter.

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Now you know how to use a spotting scope and what each of the various features are for, it’s time to hit the stores. Consider factors such as size and weight as well as magnification and lens before making a purchase, and always opt for quality first. A useful piece of equipment, a spotting scope can transform your experiences of outdoor pursuits and offer a view of the world around you that you’d never otherwise have enjoyed.

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