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The 10 best spotting scopes in 2020: spotting scopes for birds, planes and stars

best spotting scopes
(Image credit: Alamy)

Why choose the best spotting scopes? Hugely portable and powerful magnification devices, spotting scopes are fantastic tools for bird-watching, wildlife-spotting, night-sky observation and more. Also known as fieldscopes or digiscopes, these useful tools come in many different varieties, suiting all different budgets. If you're looking to find the one for you, our guide will help.

Spotting scopes tend to be a step up from binoculars, designed for those who need
some serious magnification power. When you're selecting one, it's worth thinking about what you need it for and how much magnifying power you're likely to need. This will help you select the right scope for your budget, as they can run from reasonably affordable to very expensive. It's also worth bearing in mind that spotting scopes tend to be used with a tripod, so if you don't already have one then you'll have to factor that into the cost as well.

Spotting scopes can also have uses in photography. They can be used for what's called "digiscoping", which refers to the practice of taking an image with the camera hooked up to the spotting scope, in a similar manner to taking an astro image with a telescope. If this is something that interests you, you'll need to make sure the scope you select is compatible, and factor in the cost of any adapters that might be required.

Speaking of astro, if this is something that interests you then you'll have to choose between a spotting scope or one of the best telescopes. Telescopes are not really designed for seeing things on land, so are not useful if you also want to use your 'scope for bird-watching. They're also bulkier and harder to transport.

Straight or angled?

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.

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. 

Ultimately, when it comes to scopes, there’s plenty of, er, ‘scope’. So, to help narrow things down, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best spotting scopes to suit a variety of pursuits and budgets…

The 10 best spotting scopes in 2020

Best spotting scope - Bushnell Sentry 18-36x50 (Image credit: Praktica)

1. Bushnell Sentry 18-36x50

The best sub-$200 / £200 spotting scope:

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

Good value
Fully waterproofed
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 Hummingbird 9-27x56 ED  (Image credit: Celestron)

2. Celestron Hummingbird 9-27x56 ED

This travel-friendly spotting scope is great for bird watching

Magnification: 9-27x | Objective diameter: 56mm | Field of view at 1000m: 73-32m / 663-297ft | Closest focusing distance: 3m (10ft) | Eye relief: 15mm | Weight: 590g | Dimensions: 208x127x68mm

Perfect for travel
Doesn't fog
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 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)

3. Pentax PF-80 EDA 80mm

A great all-round spotting scope

Magnification: n/a | Objective diameter: 80mm | Field of view at 1000m: Not given / 131ft to 68ft | Closest focusing distance: 5.8m (19ft) | Eye relief: n/a | Weight: 1.6kg | Dimensions: 17.6x7.4x5.8-inches

Good all rounder
Waterproofed construction
Large objective lens
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 - Celestron Regal M2 65 ED (Image credit: Celestron)

4. Celestron Regal M2 65ED

Great all-round scope for bird watchers, nature lovers and even stargazers

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

Dual-focus mechanism
Fully waterproof
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. Celestron 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 swifter. 

Factor in premium features such as Extra Low Dispersion (ED) glass found in the best camera lenses, and this is a key contender for your cash. What’s more, a camera can be attached to the Regal using an included T-adapter ring for DSLRs; a scope with plenty of scope, this one.

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

5. Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85

The best all-round spotting scope for bird watchers

Magnification: 30-60x | Objective diameter: 85mm | Field of view at 1000m: 33-23m (108-75ft) | Closest focusing distance: 3.3m (10.8ft) | Eye relief: Not given | Weight: 1.7kg | Dimensions: 396mm in length

Delivers shedloads of detail
Wide-angle field of view
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.

(Image credit: Nikon)

6. Nikon Fieldscope ED50

The best spotting scope for digiscoping

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

Lightweight waterproofed scope
Nikon's history of optical excellence
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 those inclement seasons, along with a multilayered lens coating to ensure superb light transmission and, ultimately, high-resolution images.

best spotting scopes

(Image credit: Vortex)

7. Vortex Viper HD 20-60x85

A luxury telescope and a sensible 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

HD glass elements 
‘AmorTek’ coating
Expensive
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 a purchase, despite the not inexpensive asking price. 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: Kowa)

8. Kowa TSN-501

The best spotting scope for kids

Magnification: 20-40x | Objective diameter: 50mm | Field of view at 1000m: Not given | Closest focusing distance: 2.5m (8ft) | Eye relief: Not given | Weight: 400g | Dimensions: 239x125x72mm

Lightweight and waterproof
Compact dimensions
Limited focal range
Magnification could have more 'poke'

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 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, it 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.

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

9. 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

Decent magnification range 
All-weather operation
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)

10. Hawke Vantage 24-72x70

The best spotting scope for astronomy and stargazing

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

Better magnification than most
Large objective lens
Angled scope setup

When it comes to gazing wistfully at the heavens, a dedicated telescope is best, though are plenty of general-purpose spotting scopes that will act as a stand in, or 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?

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