Best Spotting Scopes

Updated December 2019
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

11 Models Considered
5 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
253 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Shopping guide for best spotting scopes

Last Updated December 2019

You might assume spotting scopes are used exclusively by hunters, but in reality, they’re one of the most practical and well-rounded tools on the market. These small, portable telescopes magnify distant objects and can be used for bird-watching, stargazing, concerts, sports, and even surveillance.

Why choose a spotting scope over a pair of binoculars? Aside from being smaller and more portable, spotting scopes typically provide more magnification than binoculars do, and they can easily be mounted on a tripod for enhanced stability. A standard spotting scope consists of a main objective lens, an internal focusing lens, a prism or other reversal system to flip the image, an eyepiece, and adjustment knobs. However, there are several features and quality levels to consider outside of that as well, such as magnification and field of view.

To learn more about spotting scopes, keep reading our comprehensive buying guide. When you’re ready to buy, take a look at our top picks.

Spotting scopes can be fixed or feature zoom magnification. A magnification of 30x is common with fixed units, and zoom scopes are usually in the range of 15x to 60x. Some even offer magnifications of up to 100x.

Key considerations

Magnification

When shopping for spotting scopes, two figures in the product description tell you almost everything you need to know. For instance, you might see a combination of numbers, such as 20–60x80. The “20–60” would refer to the magnification range while the “80” would refer to the diameter of the lens in millimeters. These numbers are the main elements that determine the “range” of the scope. Keep in mind that some scopes are fixed, however, and will only have one number in the first half of the equation.

What does “20-60” mean exactly? Well, an object viewed at 20x will appear to be 20 times closer than one viewed with the naked eye. In other words, if you look at an object that’s 20 meters away with 20x magnification, it will appear as if it were one meter away. Standard zoom magnifications vary from 15–60X, with some having a narrower range than others.

While higher magnification expands a spotting scopes’ capabilities, a 40–100 model is likely overkill if you’re doing close-range birdwatching or hunting. Also, consider that more magnification will eventually bring down the image quality and a smaller field of view.

Field of view

While magnification refers to the range of a monocular telescope range, the field of view determines how wide the image is. Consider what activities you’ll use the scope for before you buy. If you’re hunting, will you use the optics to spot targets from a distance? If so, more magnification and a smaller field of view may be best. If you’re birding or hiking, though, less magnification is required and a wide field of view could be helpful. Field of view is commonly listed in degrees or as a unit of measurement at a certain distance (for example, 39 meters wide at 1,000 meters away). 

Build quality

Unlike astronomical telescopes, spotting scopes are meant for field use. They get dropped, tumble about in cars, and are exposed to elements like rain, fog, and mud. This makes the sturdiness of the case, lens, lens cap, and weather seals a vital consideration.

Here are some signs that a spotting scope is built to last:

  • O-ring seals to prevent fogging and water penetration
  • Rubber armor
  • Argon gas-filled internals
  • Strip-resistant threads on the adjustment knobs

 

DID YOU KNOW?

A classic use for a spotting scope is to observe birds on large bodies of water. This is because their combination of high magnification and small field of view is ideal for tracking small, slow-moving objects, such as floating ducks, geese, and other waterfowl.

Features

Tripods

Spotting scopes are powerful magnifiers and that means the tiniest shakes and tremors can completely blur your view. Tripods grant much-needed stability in the field, and you can choose from ball-head mounted or pan/tilt head-mounted variants. Ball-head versions are very easy to use and adjust, but they’re less precise and sturdy than pan-head tripods, which help you scan and move your scope with unmatched smoothness.

Consider your applications before buying, and keep in mind that tripods with adjustable legs help you get a level view on uneven terrain. Tripods can be made from wood, aluminum, and expensive-but-lightweight carbon fiber.

Digiscoping attachments

If you want to document what you see through your scope, consider digiscoping. Digiscoping is the act of attaching a digital camera to your scope to record your findings, and the quality may surprise you. You will need an adapter to do this, but many scopes offer them as accessories.

Carrying cases

Spotting scopes are built to last, but a little extra insurance never hurt. Safeguard your lenses, tripods, attachments, and cleaning materials with a hard or soft carrying case.

Spotting scope prices

Inexpensive: Top-flight spotting scopes can cost thousands of dollars. But believe it or not, you can get your hands on a quality unit for the same price as a gourmet pizza. At $30 to $50, you’ll find spotting scopes with static magnification ratings between 6x and 12x. These provide clear, bright images at wide angles and are best suited for live sports, hiking, and close-range birding. Attach a digiscoping adapter to record your findings.

Mid-range: A medium-quality scope usually costs between $120 and $200 and will offer variable magnification to observe things at several distances. The build quality, lens quality, and adjustability of these products is much higher than entry-level products, and it’s at this price point you’ll start to see angled scopes and clever glass coatings.

Expensive: If you want a top-of-the-line scope, expect to pay several hundred if not thousands of dollars. Designed with experts in mind, these units provide crisp images at 1,000 meters and beyond while still being versatile enough to close focus at 15 to 20 feet. Military-grade optics are commonplace here as are weatherproof and armored coatings that can stand up to anything you throw at them.

Spotting scopes allow their users to see objects at up to 1,000 meters away, which makes them perfect for observing rare or dangerous animals. Not only does this prevent wildlife disturbance, it keeps the viewer safe from attack.

Tips

  • Тhe best way to locate targets with your spotting scope is to start with the lowest magnification first. This will present you with the largest field of view. Then, once you’ve found what you’re looking for, increase the power range and zoom in for more detail.
  • This may sound obvious, but never, ever look at the sun through any type of scope without the proper filtration. Looking at the sun without a scope is dangerous enough on its own, but considering the magnification involved, doing so with a spotting scope can cause serious, permanent damage.
  • Just like camera and bifocal lenses, spotting scope glass should be cleaned with dedicated lens brushes and super soft microfiber cloths. Many products include their own kits. Gently dust any particles off from the center of the lens outward, taking care to not touch it with your fingers. Apply cleaning solution if necessary.
EXPERT TIP

The term “eye relief” refers to the distance your eye can be from the eyepiece while still seeing the entire field of view. This is important to keep in mind if you wear glasses. If you do, you will likely need at least 14 millimeters of eye relief.


Staff  | BestReviews

Other products we considered

One impressive scope that just missed our list is the Kaiyu Monocular Telescope. Despite its affordable price, the scope boasts 12x static magnification, a built-in compass, and a convenient smartphone adapter. We were also impressed by Vortex Optics’ Razor HD Scope, which is available in both straight and angled varieties. It features extremely high-end optical technology, like a triplet apochromatic lens, extra-low dispersion glass, and XR Plus anti-reflective coating, but it’s only viable for serious spotters with significant budgets.

The clarity of your image largely depends on the quality of your scope, but weather conditions play a huge role, too. On humid, hot, or dusty days, or on those with large amounts of reflective glare, it will be harder to see fine details at great distances.

FAQ

Q. How much magnification do I need?
A.
Spotting scopes offer a variety of magnification ratings, with the most common falling between 8x and 60x. A “low-power” unit, for example, may have 8x–24x magnification. These can be used for close-range hunting, air rifles, or situations where you need a large field of view. A 20x–40x scope is effective at 100 meters or more and features an excellent magnification-to-field-of-view ratio for birdwatching or short/medium-range hunting. For long-range scoping, hunting, and surveillance, a 20x–60x model is probably your best choice.

Q. Should I use a straight spotting scope or an angled spotting scope?
A.
The debate of straight vs. angled spotting scopes is largely a matter of preference, but there are clear pros and cons to each. Straight spotting scopes are intuitive, feature more eyepiece protection in harsh weather, and are excellent for hunting situations where you need to move and react quickly. If tripods are used, however, they need to be raised to meet eye level. This can make it uncomfortable to achieve certain angles.

Angled spotting scopes, on the other hand, are easier to share and are better optimized for tripods, as people of different heights can use them without raising or lowering the unit. That being said, angled scopes are generally more expensive and require a bit more experience to use. 

Q. What do the abbreviations “HD” and “ED” mean?
A.
The terms HD and ED refer to high-definition and extra-low dispersion, respectively, and encompass a range of high-end glass technologies. High-quality spotting scopes, particularly those with extreme zooms, often feature special materials such as low-dispersion fluoride glass with unique coatings and refractive properties. HD and ED scopes often include materials like these and are generally much more expensive than their alternatives.

Q. What differentiates a refractor scope from a catadioptric scope?
A.
Refractor telescopes and spotting scopes are the most common varieties of optical instruments and consist of a tube with an objective lens on the end. Light passes through that lens, through the tube, then into a prism that flips the image before it enters the eyepiece at the opposite end. Catadioptric scopes, by contrast, use an array of lenses and mirrors to “fold” the light path and generally have larger lenses suited for astronomy. On the whole, refractors are typically more compact, durable, and portable, which is why you see this design on spotting scopes often.

The team that worked on this review
  • Andrew
    Andrew
    Writer
  • Angela
    Angela
    Editor
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer

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