spotting scope v telescope

When deciding between a spotting scope or a telescope there is a lot to consider. How portable does our scope need to be? Will we be walking through rough, rugged terrain? What distance do we need to view objects? Let’s dive into these questions, and more, to help us decide.

What's The Difference Between Spotting Scopes and Telescopes

The thought of a telescope might evoke the image of an astronomer looking at celestial bodies far off in space, and that’s fairly accurate. While telescopes and spotting scopes are both high-quality optical instruments, but with very different purposes.

Telescopes: Bringing the Outsdie In

A telescope is an optical device used to gaze at objects very far away from earth. telescope v spotting scopeThey are not designed for terrestrial viewing. Sure, you can bird-watch with a telescope, but that doesn’t mean you should.

Telescopes come in two flavors: refractive and reflective. A refractive scope is a long tube with a lens on one end and an eye-piece on the other. Reflective telescopes primarly use mirrors to redirect light to the eye-pieces.
Where refractive telescopes cannot separate the wavelengths of light, reflective telescopes can. This allows you to focus with greater precision, and see with greater clarity.

So, if you’re looking at something big, like the Moon or Jupiter, a refractive telescope is fine. If you want to focus on something very small, like one of Saturn’s moons, or Pluto, you’ll need a reflective telescope.
That’s all well and good for star-gazing, but what about landing that perfect shot after days of hiking through the woods? Can you do that with a long, cumbersome telescope? Again, the difference is can and should.

Spotting Scopes: Coming Down to Earth

spotting scope v telescopesA spotting scope is designed from the ground up for daytime viewing of terrestiral objects; be they boats, birds, or bucks. Usually made with a rigid exterior, and a rubber shell, they’re made to handle some knocks.

Spotting scopes also orient the object your looking at right way up. Telescopes reverse or flip an image. Again, fine for Jupiter, but terrible for hunting.

In a contest of greatest magnification, telescopes would win. But that’s not always a great thing. If you’re searching the horizon for your target, the 300x magnification of a telescope might be a bit much.

Spotting scopes typically have a range of 20x to 60x magnification, and you can even get some with zoom features. Two things to consider here: Greater magnification gives better detail, but also enhances distortion such as shaking and heat-waves.

A Scope in the Hand

Portability is key if you’re treking through the wilderness, but less of a consideration when you’re looking up at the sky. Most telescopes are meant to be mounted on a tripod and left alone.

While it is advisable to have a spotting scope on a tripod, or at least a monopod, you can just as easily rest them against a rock or a tree to steady them for viewing.

This is also a good place to mention the portability of most spotting scopes. While you can find scopes with 80mm lenses, giving you a decent range, they are also going to be much heavier.

While you might lose some range with a smaller scope, you’re also going to save several ounces, or even pounds of weight in your backpack. That might be an important considearation if you plan on long hikes.

The Importance of a Bright Image

Remember when we were talking about refractive telescopes and how they can’t separeate color wavelengths as well as reflective? Well, all spotting scopes are refractive, but in this case that’s a benefit.

Since you aren’t looking for very small objects that are very far away, the design of the spotting scope gives you a big, bright image to clearly see what you’re looking at.

The apeture – or opening – of the lens for most spotting scopes are very big. This is great for low light and for isolating an object in a busy environment.

Finding a Good Angle

One key feature of most spotting scopes is their angled design. You can find straight scopes as well. While telescopes are always straight, the reflective variety may use angled mirrors to redirect light.

The angle of the scope gives you more flexibility in height variation for your tripod, allows you see up inclines without contorting yourself, and may be a better ergonomic solution for you.

This video helps explain the difference between angled and straight scopes, as well as some other features we’ve discussed so far.

No Need for Fair-Weather Friends

Another key difference between spotting scopes and telescopes are the types of environment they are meant to be used. A telescope isn’t going to do you a lot of good on an overcast night, where you can’t even see the moon.

A spotting scope, in contrast, is often meant to be used in very difficult weather conditions. Features such as water-proofing are standard. Be careful! Do some research and make sure the scope you want is actually water-proof and not just water-resistant.

Where telescopes are made to be used in ideal conditions, you can carry a spotting scope into just about any kind of weather you want and it will perform as expected.

Let's Talk Tripods

If you are going to spend the money on a nice optical device, don’t put it on a cheap tripod. One strong gust of wind or poorly locked leg can send your expensive equipment crashing down onto the rocks.

As stated before, you don’t necissarily need a tripod for spotting scopes, but they do help. Even a small Gorillapod type is a better solution than the fatigue of trying to handhold it during your entire trip.

If you’re by yourself, you will definitely want one so you can mount it next to you, and not have to put down your bow or rifle to try and find the target through the scope.

The Right Tool for the Job

Telescopes do one thing, and they do it well. If you’re looking at the craters of the Moon, or searching for life on Mars, a telescope is your best bet.

Sporting scopes are more versatile for long- or medium-distance viewing, bird-watching, and hunting.

So, Which to Choose?

If you are looking to hike through the woods in search of the perfect trophy, a telescope is going to be cumbersome, awkward, and far too expensive. A good quality spotting scope can not only help you land the perfect shot, you can still use it for basic star-gazing later.


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