What Is A Spotting Scope Used For?

When it comes to magnification and viewing objects at long distances, there is probably nothing more ubiquitous than the spotting scope. Most individuals nowadays probably have used spotting scopes at some point, even if they weren’t aware of it. For example, in the form of small handheld monoculars, these are nothing more than spotting scopes in a mini version.

In fact, some of the most common uses for spotting scopes today are in activities such as hunting, birdwatching, stargazing, camping, and surveillance.

Advancements in lens technology have allowed for the creation of more advanced and high-tech scopes that can present images of the highest quality while being extremely lightweight and portable at the same time. But with so many different kinds of scopes available on the market today, how can we choose which one is the best for our needs?

In the article below, we explore what is a spotting scope used for, their history, and everything else you need to know about spotting scopes. First, let’s start with the question: “What are spotting scopes?”

What Are Spotting Scopes?

A spotting scope is an optical telescope specially designed for earth observation. In contrast to the astronomical telescope of the Kepler design, spotting scopes produce upright, laterally correct images.

Spotting scopes provide the user an enlarged image of a distant object or area while viewing it through a single lens from a long-distance away. They are monoculars, which means that they are only used with one eye at a time (it doesn’t matter which eye is used) – unlike binoculars, which create a magnified image that can be seen through both eyes at once.

Spotting scopes come in all sizes. For example, if you were to scale down a gigantic astronomer’s telescope to a size that fits in your pocket, you would practically have a spotting scope. In general, the bigger diameter of the scope, the fainter, and further may the objects be that you are able to see through the lens.

Who Invented The Spotting Scope?

The 16th-century spectacle-maker Hans Lippershey invented the first kind of simple refractor telescope which magnified distant objects and so they could be seen in more detail. It was the great Galileo Galilei who improved Lippersheys telescope and first aimed it at the sky and gave birth to modern astronomy. Johannes Kepler continued to improve the telescope.

However, it was the Italian Ignazio Porro who experimented with glass and patented the Porro prism named after him in 1854. Installed in a Kepler telescope, it produces upright sides correct images. Ignazio Porro may be considered the inventor of the spotting scope.

Binoculars vs spotting scopes

As mentioned above, spotting scopes are different from binoculars in more ways than one. Let’s look at these differences in more detail.

Magnification

Due to the fact that regular binoculars are designed to be portable and for handheld use, they can only be build to a certain manageable size in terms of weight and size. This also limits the magnification power of handheld binoculars.

Spotting scopes come with magnifications of 20x to 80 times or even more, which is beyond what can be achieved with handheld binoculars. Such high power makes it possible to view objects from a much greater distance, but in greater detail, as compared to using a pair of binoculars. More magnification requires larger optics, the reason why high-powered spotting scopes are larger in size than regular binoculars.

Stability

One of the biggest limitations of using a spotting scope is the fact that a bulky spotting scope is usually required to be mounted on a tripod or a stand-in order to get a stable image of the object or area to be magnified.

This means that there is less flexibility when it comes to viewing moving targets, such as active birds for birdwatchers, or deer and other prey for hunters. A pair of binoculars is a lot more portable, and can be slung around the neck, and can be pointed to a particular target easily. 

Portability

Both spotting scopes and binoculars are considered to be portable pieces of gear and can be easily carried from place to place. However, one of the biggest factors when using a spotting scope is that you actually always need a tripod to use the device properly. The use of a tripod or stand will affect the setup and break down time of using a spotting scope, while a pair of binoculars can be simply stashed away in a bag or around the neck when not in use. 

Eye fatigue

When using a spotting scope, you are generally more prone to eye fatigue, simply because of the way that it is used. Scopes can only be viewed one eye at a time, and this increases the level of focus that is required from the eye that is looking through the scope, resulting in an unbalanced and unnatural way of seeing the world in front of you.

Binoculars are easier on the eyes because the entire image can be viewed with both eyes, making it more natural for the brain to understand the current field of vision. 

Pros and cons of spotting scopes

A spotting scope is a high-powered piece of equipment that allows the viewer to see objects in clear detail from a couple of hundred yards away (and sometimes, much more). But with all its pros, it doesn’t come without its cons as well. Here they are listed below:

Pros

  • Compact and can be used without hands (with tripod/stand)
  • Can be zoomed to high magnification levels (as compared to binoculars)
  • Larger aperture lenses collect more light for better image quality
  • Prime optical glass create a higher detailed and clear picture
  • Can observe faraway objects from a much safer, undetected distance

Cons

  • Maybe cumbersome to set up with a tripod
  • Time-consuming
  • Higher price point based on tripod, accessories, and carry cases
  • May produce unstable images at higher magnification levels

using a spotting scope

Who uses spotting scopes?

Spotting scopes are most commonly found in the professional birdwatcher’s toolbox, but there are a wide array of other uses that spotting scopes are good for. Here they are listed below:

Hunters

Hunters need to always maintain their advantage when it comes to stalking their prey. And that advantage usually comes with being able to see their every move without them noticing and being spooked. A spotting scope cannot replace good hunting binoculars but is a good addition to the hunter’s equipment. Spotting scopes are particularly helpful to monitor the movements of game over a very long distance.

Surveillance

Surveillance is also another popular use when it comes to spotting scopes. In lieu of a pair of binoculars, the spotting scope allows the user to conduct surveillance of targets that are at a very far distance. This is often found in military applications where stealth is key and the high magnification levels of the spotting scope come in handy. 

Landscape viewing

Adventurers who want to witness the great outdoors from a distance use spotting scopes to allow them to see the glory of mother nature’s landscapes through the magnifying lenses, allowing them to see natural objects or phenomena that otherwise cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Wildlife viewing

Birdwatchers are one of the most common users of spotting scopes, but when it comes to using spotting scopes, all kinds of wildlife can be viewed from a distance. This allows the wildlife enthusiast to view all kinds of creatures in their natural habitat without coming too close to them and spooking them out or causing stress to them. 

Wildlife scientists are avid users of spotting scopes, so they can sit in their hide and observe the natural behavior of the animals from a great distance.

ship viewing with a spotting scope

Ship viewing

Ships, especially big ones, usually dock close to the open sea, away from the shallow waters near the shoreline. Ship enthusiasts use spotting scopes to view these ships in all their magnified glory and detail from the comfort of being on solid ground. 

Digiscoping

Digiscoping is also known as the art of taking hyper-long distance shots using specialized high-zoom cameras. A spotting scope is essential in the digiscope photographer’s toolkit, as it allows him or her to survey their subjects intensively and make all the necessary adjustments on their camera equipment in order to get the perfect shot. 

Astronomy

Spotting scopes are also used in some astronomy, although the more specialized tool to use would be the telescope, which is much higher in power and is built to allow the maximum amount of light into the lens due to the nature of its use (in the night time).

Why do birdwatchers like spotting scopes?

The thing about birds is that they are very cautious creatures – the second they sense that they are in danger, they can immediately go away to another area and can very easily do so because of their ability to fly. Birdwatchers use spotting scopes because of the high magnification power that it provides. This means that a birdwatcher can view their favorite birds from a very far distance – far enough that the birds will not even notice them there.

They are also portable, albeit bulky and slow to set up and tear down. But once they are set up on the stand or tripod, they are pretty easy to maneuver and can be used for birdwatching all through the day.

Because birders don’t really have to move as much as hunters do, they can easily set up their spotting scopes at one location, and keep viewing through it without having to shift or move around. Coupled with the excellent precision, aperture, and magnification level of the spotting scopes, birdwatchers can have an enjoyable birdwatching session and ensure that every tiny detail of their subject matter can be viewed at the highest quality.

Spotting Scope vs Telescope

Can a telescope be used as a spotting scope?

If you ever find yourself in a bird-watching scenario and you only have a telescope in your hands – you’ll probably ask yourself this question. Well, luckily for you, the answer is – yes, you can use a telescope as a spotting scope.

However, if you’re lugging a huge astronomy telescope out into the field to view birds – you’re probably going to put yourself through a lot more trouble than it is worth.

Also, one of the biggest differences that separate a spotting scope and a telescope is the fact that an astronomical telescope will give you an upside-down image through the looking glass. This may not be an issue if you’re looking up at the stars, but it may make for a pretty unsatisfying bird-watching session when that falcon you’re viewing is upside down.

Straight scopes or angled scopes?

There are two types of spotting scopes commonly found – straight scopes and angled scopes. Straight scopes are basically a spotting scope in which you view the lens straight from eye level. Angled scopes, on the other hand, are viewed from the top at a slight angle, much like how you would look into a medium-format camera viewfinder.

When choosing between the two, it is worth noting that angled scopes make it easier to view if you’re in a group of people with varying heights. This means that there is no need to adjust the tripod and scope height every time someone else goes up to the spotting scope to view. Straight scopes don’t afford this luxury and have to be adjusted up to the different eye levels of the members in your party, making for a pretty tiring viewing session.

Conclusion

Spotting scopes are highly powerful pieces of equipment and require some preparation before using them. For example, you’ll need to ensure that the scope is stabilized with proper support, otherwise, you’ll end up with a really blurry image from even the tiniest shakes of the scope.

This is accomplished via the use of pan heads, which are attached to the tripod and allows you to scan the landscape in front of you easily, ensuring you always spot the birds you’re looking for. Another thing to note is to ensure that your tripods have adjustable legs, which makes it so much easier for you to get a level view that is straight, even if you’re placing the scope on uneven terrain.

If you’re choosing between using a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, a good place to start is to consider these factors:

  • How much magnification do you need?
  • How much movement are you doing?
  • How heavy is your gear?

If you need high magnification, a spotting scope can do the job easily. However, because they have to be set up on a tripod, they are more cumbersome than a pair of handheld binoculars. Additionally, the many, as well as the larger lenses on spotting scopes, make them notably heavier than binoculars, which can be an issue if you’re lugging around loads of other heavy gear with you as you travel.

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