The best spotting scopes are ideal tools for bird-watching, wildlife spotting or even stargazing. They come in a range of sizes, and you'll sometimes see them referred to as fieldscopes or digiscopes, but it all pretty much means the same thing. In this guide, we'll run you through the best spotting scopes you can buy right now.
For those who aren't sure, a spotting scope is a type of outdoor optic, used for magnifying a distant subject; essentially, it's a mini telescope. The advantage a spotting scope has over binoculars and monoculars is its magnification. Most monoculars and binoculars won't exceed a magnification of about 10x, and if they do, will be extremely heavy due to the serious optics crammed inside.
Spotting scopes are slim, portable and capable of powerful magnification. Some have variable zooms that allow you to change the magnification based on the situation. They're available at all different price points, and in this guide we've included spotting scopes for all budgets, from affordable entry-level scopes to high-end optical marvels like the Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85. Indeed, if you are in the market for a premium scope, you may also want to check out the Leica APO-Televid 82. Both of these scopes are superb, but do come with price tags that reflect it.
Spotting scopes can even be used for photography if you hook a camera up to one, a practice known as 'digiscoping'. Whether you want to do this or not, it's still worth thinking about getting a tripod to use with it, as a steady hand is vital for use at high magnifications. When you're zoomed in that far, even the slightest tremor of the fingers will be greatly exaggerated.
We have a guide to the best tripods if you're looking for a support for your spotting scope. And for more scoping options, check out our guides for the best binoculars and best monoculars available right now.
The best spotting scopes in 2021
This sleek-looking spotting scope solution comes with a straight eyepiece and won’t break the bank. Despite the budget price, the Bushnell Sentry 18-36x50 is also impressively waterproof, with proper O-ring sealed optics so the internal workings stay fully dry, even when the Bushnell is submerged in water. In terms of the optical performance, multi coatings help ensure reflections are avoided and all ‘air to glass’ surfaces deliver bright, high-contrast images. The porro prism system also features twist-up eyecups and a comfortable 16mm eye relief. Weighing 877g despite the moisture-sealed build, this is still a relatively manageable and portable spotting scope.
Sure, plane spotters are just slightly above train spotters when it comes to being the butt of good-natured jokes, but there’s nothing funny about the waterproof Ultima 80 from industry stalwart Celestron, which offers a 20x to 60x magnification range, wedded to a large and bright 80mm objective lens. Offering a comfortable 45-degree viewing angle, a closest focusing distance of eight metres is acceptable too, when your quarry is an aircraft, not a rare butterfly on a bush. Likewise, a weight of 1,616g is – while not the most portable option out there – again perfectly reasonable given the feature set and bang for your buck. What’s more, this particular model can be adapted for use with a camera, so you can capture a pictorial record of a 747 landing – before you stash the scope in hand luggage and jet off yourself.
One of Hawke's relatively new spotting scopes, the Hawke Sport Optics 9-27x56 Nature-Trek is super-light and easy to carry around with you. It's on the lower end of magnification compared to the other scopes on this list, but if you can live without a little extra distance then you get a lot back in return, not least of which is a lower asking price.
Tremendously light and easy to carry, this is an angled spotting scope that's well equipped for inclement weather. Its internals are nitrogen-purged to prevent fogging, and the outer casing is weatherproof. The specially coated optics also provide excellent clarity and light transmission, reducing eye fatigue and making the scope more pleasant to use, even for long periods.
Bitten by the spotting scope bug? Then this high-end ‘Viper’ scope option from the Vortex brand, offering up to 60x magnification plus a large and bright 85mm objective lens, may tempt you. It's not cheap, but this sleekly designed 45° angled scope part justifies the outlay by offering HD glass elements that promise knockout color fidelity, superb light transmission and edge-to-edge sharpness. Fog proof and waterproof with it, rubber armor aids grip, while fast and precise adjustments can be made via the cleverly dual geared focus system. This is a sophisticated option, and, given the asking price, we’re pleased to see additional peace of mind provided via an unlimited life warranty.
The Celestron Regal M2 65ED is a premium spotting scope that is nevertheless fair value in its price range, offering suitability for everything from bird watching in the day to watching the heavens at night. Celestrons claim that this second-generation unit has reduced the overall weight of the spotting scope by more than 14 per cent, while still providing a rugged magnesium alloy body. Further advantages include the fact that it has an upgraded dual-focus mechanism, which enables users to bring their subject into focus two times faster. You can factor in premium features such as Extra Low Dispersion (ED) glass found in the best camera lenses, and a camera can be attached to the Regal using an included T-adapter ring for DSLRs, so it's a scope with plenty of, er, scope.
This is a great mid-priced model for wildife watchers - and comes kitted up with its own travel tripod, and a mount for using the scope from your car. The 20-60x range gives it versatility for use with different animal and bird species, with a decent 65mm aperture that is more than satisfactory for daylight viewing. The Bushnell Prime 20-60x65 spotting scope offers IPX7 level waterproof construction with O-ring sealed optics ensuring everything stays reassuringly dry in all weather conditions.
It’s no surprise that camera and optical manufacturer Nikon produces scopes with the ability to attach a camera and enjoy the art of digiscoping. Indeed, Nikon has its own digiscoping system. There’s a lot of choice in this field, but the Nikon Fieldscope ED50 offers a 50mm objective lens (to which a 55mm filter can be attached if desired) and is both relatively compact and lightweight with it. It also ticks the boxes for the regular must haves, such as a fog-banishing nitrogen-filled construction and built-in waterproofing (it can even be submerged up to a metre for five minutes) for all those times when the weather doesn't play ball, along with a multilayered lens coating to ensure superb light transmission and, ultimately, high-resolution images.
See full Nikon Fieldscope ED50 review
Like the Hummingbird it takes its name from, the Celestron Hummingbird 9-27x56 ED spotting scope is small and mobile, with a very manageable weight of 590g. That means it’s also ideally suited to taking on your travels. It will fit into a roomy jacket pocket, a rucksack or shoulder bag, and can be stashed in carry-on luggage. At its lowest 9x magnification level, it can even substitute for a binocular – giving you, in effect, two products in one. What’s more, the device is waterproof and nitrogen filled to prevent fogging. Although it is small enough to be comfortably held in the hand, this model is also tripod, monopod and window-mount adaptable, giving it an extra degree of versatility. In summary, if you’re looking for a more portable alternative to a full-sized spotting scope, this ‘bird is hard to beat. What’s more, it’s also camera-adaptable for those into digiscoping.
Spotting scopes are outdoor devices, so it's always welcome to see one that's been built with the outdoors in mind. The Pentax PF-80 EDA 80mm, much like Pentax's DSLRs, is made with a durable, well-armoured body that's rainproof and provides a secure grip, making it perfect for roughing it in the countryside. It's no slouch internally either, with a large objective lens ensuring the resulting image is bright and crystal clear. The inner elements have been "nitrogen purged", a process designed to prevent them from fogging up by removing even the tiniest traces of moisture. It's relatively expensive even before you add on the cost of the required eyepiece, but if it fits into your budget, the Pentax PF-80 EDA 80mm is an excellent spotting scope.
Any photographer will recognise the name Zeiss as being the bee’s knees for optical quality, so selecting a Zeiss scope for wildlife and nature photography has got to be a sensible decision. Of course, Zeiss don’t come cheap, but the Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85 is versatile due to a rapid focus mechanism and a close near-focus setting, so even observing smaller objects or wildlife is claimed to be easier than ever. Of course, you only have to look at the name of the product to see one great advantage – namely a whopping 85mm-diameter objective lens, useful for low-light observation. Couple this with a zoom-magnification range up to 60x and a fogproof, nitrogen-filled construction, and you’ve really got something.
Read more: Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85 review
Straight or angled body?
When you pick a spotting scope, you can choose from either a straight or an angled body. With straight scopes, the body and eyepiece lie on the same optical plane, which allows you to look straight through the eyepiece at your intended subject. In an angled-body spotting scope, however, the eyepiece is situated at 45 degrees to the body, meaning your line of sight is also at an angle. This enables more comfortable use when lying down or sitting, and saves having to crane your neck, no matter what height you are.
Spotting scope magnification range
Spotting scopes typically have specifications that comprise three numbers: the first two indicating magnification range, and the third the size of the front lens. For example, 14-45x60 would indicate that the front lens has a diameter 60mm, and has a magnification range going from 14x up to 45x.
A larger lens will, broadly speaking, provide a better, more detailed image, while a higher magnification range will enable you to use the scope for a broader range of subjects.
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