Skip to main content

The best spotting scopes in 2021: spotting scopes for birds, planes, stars and more

best spotting scopes
(Image credit: Alamy)

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

(Image credit: Bushnell)

1. Bushnell Sentry 18-36x50

The best value spotting scope for buyers on a budget

Magnification: 18-36x
Objective diameter: 50mm
Field of view at 1000m: 38-25m / 115-75ft
Closest focusing distance: 20m
Eye relief: 16mm
Weight: 877g
Dimensions: 373mm in length
Reasons to buy
+Good value+Fully waterproofed
Reasons to avoid
-Marginally weightier than others-Eye relief isn't great 

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.

Best spotting scope: Celestron Ultima 80 (Image credit: Celestron)

2. Celestron Ultima 80

The best spotting scope for airplanes and air displays

Magnification: 20-60x
Objective diameter: 80mm
Field of view at 1000m: 32-16.15m / 105-53ft
Closest focusing distance: 8m (26ft)
Eye relief: 18mm
Weight: 1,616g
Dimensions: 239x125x72mm
Reasons to buy
+Decent magnification range +All-weather operation
Reasons to avoid
-Heavier than rivals-Angled scope may not suit everyone

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.

(Image credit: Hawke)

3. Hawke Vantage 24-72x70

A great spotting scope for astronomy, stargazing and all round use

Magnification: 24-72x
Objective diameter: 70mm
Field of view at 1000m: 28-14m / 84-42ft
Closest focusing distance: 9m (29.5ft)
Eye relief: 18-13mm
Weight: 1,045g
Dimensions: 380mm in length
Reasons to buy
+Better magnification than most+Large objective lens
Reasons to avoid
-Angled scope setup

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?

(Image credit: Vortex)

4. Vortex Viper HD 20-60x85

A luxury spotting scope at a reasonable price

Magnification: 20-60x
Objective diameter: 85mm
Field of view at 1000m: 34m
Closest focusing distance: 12m (39ft)
Eye relief: 19.6-17.8mm
Weight: 2.2kg
Dimensions: 19.1x8.2x6.8-inches
Reasons to buy
+HD glass elements +‘AmorTek’ coating
Reasons to avoid
-Not cheap-Heavy and bulky

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.

(Image credit: Celestron)

5. Celestron Regal M2 65ED

Good quality glass and a DSLR T-adaptor included

Magnification: 16-48x
Objective diameter: 65mm
Field of view at 1000m: 43-23m / 131ft to 68ft
Closest focusing distance: 5m (16ft)
Eye relief: 20mm
Weight: 1327g
Dimensions: 208x127x68mm
Reasons to buy
+Dual-focus mechanism+Fully waterproof
Reasons to avoid
-Weighty at over 1kg-Cheaper alternatives

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.

(Image credit: Bushnell)

6. Bushnell 20-60x65 Prime

Comes with its own tripod and car window mount

Magnification: 20-60x
Objective diameter: 65mm
Field of view at 1000m: 50m at 20x, 17m at 60x
Closest focusing distance: 6.1 metres
Eye relief: 18mm
Weight: 1080g
Dimensions: 370mm in length
Reasons to buy
+Impressive build for the price+Travel tripod and bag included
Reasons to avoid
-Not as sharp as premium models

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.

(Image credit: Nikon)

7. Nikon Fieldscope ED50

A great spotting scope for digiscoping that can survive being submerged

Magnification: Not given
Objective diameter: 50mm
Field of view at 1000m: Not given
Closest focusing distance: 3m (10ft)
Eye relief: Not given
Weight: 455g
Dimensions: 209(l)x71(l)mm
Reasons to buy
+Lightweight waterproofed scope+Nikon's history of optical excellence
Reasons to avoid
-Smaller objective lens

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

(Image credit: Celestron)

8. Celestron Hummingbird 9-27x56 ED

A spotting scope light enough to be used as a monocular

Magnification: 9-27x
Objective diameter: 56mm
Field of view at 1000m: 73-32m
Closest focusing distance: 3m (10ft)
Eye relief: 15mm
Weight: 590g
Dimensions: 208x127x68mm
Reasons to buy
+Perfect for travel+Doesn't fog
Reasons to avoid
-Smaller magnification range-Smaller objective lens

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.

(Image credit: Pentax)

9. Pentax PF-80 EDA 80mm

A great all-round spotting scope built to survive outdoors

Magnification: n/a
Objective diameter: 80mm
Field of view at 1000yds: 131ft to 68ft
Closest focusing distance: 5.8m (19ft)
Eye relief: n/a
Weight: 1.6kg
Dimensions: 17.6x7.4x5.8-inches
Reasons to buy
+Good all rounder+Waterproofed construction+Large objective lens
Reasons to avoid
-Eyepiece required-Relatively expensive

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.

Best spotting scope - Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85 (Image credit: Zeiss)

10. Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85

A great spotting scope for birdwatchers, but quality doesn't come cheap!

Magnification: 30-60x
Objective diameter: 85mm
Field of view at 1000m: 33-23m
Closest focusing distance: 3.3m (10.8ft)
Eye relief: Not given
Weight: 1.7kg
Dimensions: 396mm in length
Reasons to buy
+Delivers shedloads of detail+Wide-angle field of view
Reasons to avoid
-Fairly weighty-Comparatively pricey

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. 

Read more

The best binoculars
10 best monoculars
Best night vision goggles and binoculars
The best lenses for bird photography
The best telescopes for astrophotography
Best camera for wildlife
The best portable hides for wildlife photography
Best trail cameras for wildlife photography and nature watching
The best tripods for travel
Astrophotography: everything you need to know

Gavin Stoker

Gavin has over 30 year experience of writing about photography and television. He is currently the editor of British Photographic Industry News, and previously served as editor of Which Digital Camera and deputy editor of Total Digital Photography

He has also written for a wide range of publications including T3, BBC Focus, Empire, NME, Radio Times, MacWorld, Computer Active, What Digital Camera and Rough Guide books.

With his wealth of knowledge he is well placed to recognise great camera deals and recommend the best products in Digital Camera World’s buying guides. He also writes on a number of specialist subjects including binoculars and monoculars, spotting scopes, microscopes, trail cameras, action cameras, body cameras, filters, cameras straps and more.