Our guide lists what we think are the best spotting scopes for bird-watching, stargazing or wildlife-spotting. Spotting scopes, also known as fieldscopes or digiscopes, come in a variety of forms for different budgets. But what exactly are they?
Spotting scopes are part of a group of outdoor optics for magnifying distant subjects. You might think binoculars are the thing to use here, but not always. Binoculars can be big and heavy, they don't always provide sufficient magnification, and not everyone can get along with dual eyepieces and binocular vision.
One alternative is a monocular. As the name suggests, this is effectively half a binocular, and designed for use with one eye not two. They solve the weight issue and are better for people who prefer to observe with one eye. If you would like to know more, we have separate guides for the best binoculars and best monoculars right now.
But binoculars and monoculars rarely exceed a magnification of 10x – and if they do, it comes with a substantial weight penalty, and it's very difficult to hold them steady enough to get the full benefit.
This is where spotting scopes come in. They offer much higher magnifications than monoculars (or binoculars) but are still portable enough to take out into the field. Some even have a variable zoom to change the magnification.
However, it's worth having a think about just how much magnifying power you need, as spotting scopes can be very expensive at the higher end. We've just reviewed the Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85 and the Leica APO-Televid 82, which are optically quite superb but costs about the same as a full frame mirrorless camera. Luckily you don't have to spend anything like that amount of money to get a decent spotting scope, and our guide has products for all budgets.
It's also worth remembering that to take full advantage of your spotting scope, you'll likely need a tripod. This isn't just to take the weight, but to give a steady image, which becomes ever more important at higher magnifications..
While you might only be interested in using a spotting scope for simply viewing faraway objects, you can actually use them for photography as well. This is called "digiscoping", which is the process of capturing a photo with a camera that's hooked up to a spotting scope.
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.
When it comes to gazing at the heavens, a dedicated telescope is best, though there are plenty of general-purpose spotting scopes that will act as an alternative. Enter the Hawke Vantage 24-72x70 from the Hawke brand, a multi-purpose spotting scope that has the distinct advantage of a an impressive 24-72x magnification range, as well as coming bundled with an adjustable mini tripod and integrated window mount. For those who want to take it out in the wild to avoid light pollution affecting the view of the sky at night, it also has the advantage of a tough rubber body coating plus a waterproof construction. Its maker further claims its porro prism design delivers intense colour and contrast. And did we mention the affordable price point?
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.
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
Why have we chosen the Kowa TSN-501 as an ideal candidate for kids? Well, not only is this polycarbonate constructed model compact and lightweight at 400g, so that little arms won’t get tired, but there is a separately available adapter ring for it that allows a smartphone to be attached, so youngsters can also explore the art of digiscoping for themselves. As well as being lightweight, the Kowa TSN-501 measures just 239mm in length, plus it's available in a choice of angled or straight models, adding versatility to the fact that it's suitable for all ages. Added to this, the scope is waterproof and nitrogen filled. The 20-40x zoom has a twist operation, furthering the simplicity and speed of this one’s operation. Actually, having noted all the above, we’ve realised that this is too good to be just for kids.
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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