Spotting scopes have recently gained traction in the world of birdwatching as they are the tool that fills the gaps of modern-day binoculars and telescopes. Nowadays, almost every harbour, tall building or a national park have them for people to be able to observe the landscape better. Still, there is a group of people out there that has found a very specific use of those devices – those are the birdwatchers. Birdwatchers around the globe have always tried to get the best magnification combined with the best light-gathering capabilities. These particular requirements are precisely met by the spotting scope. Still, getting the best possible gear can often cost a lot. This is why we decided to go through some of the best budget spotting scopes for this year and see what are the various advantages and disadvantages or opting for a cheaper price tag.
Spotting scopes have a variety of features to them that can make all the difference in the world. When shopping for one, you should take into account aspects such as magnification, lens size and quality, viewing angle, materials, durability, and the accessories you will be getting with your model. If you want to take photos with your smartphone through the scope, consider additional items such as a tripod to stabilize the image and a “digiscoping” adapter.
In this guide we’ve reviewed some of the best models for 2019 and have also given you tons of tips and advice on how to pick the right model for you. Before we move on, let’s take a look at our comparison chart with all the models and their key features.
Spotting Scopes Comparison Chart
Top Spotting Scope Models
Best Under 100$ – Emarth Waterproof Angled Spotting Scope
Birding Rocks Rating:
The Emarth Waterproof Angled Spotting Scope is truly a one of a kind scope that easily takes the first place on our list. Not because it is the best at being a spotting scope but because it is such a good bargain and value for your money. It brings a lot of premium features to the table without bringing the premium price tag. Some of those features are a 20-60x magnification range, fully multi-coated lenses, a lifetime warranty, wide field of view, adjustable eye relief, and a ton of additional accessories including a tripod. For a sub-100 dollar scope, there is no better deal out there yet. If you want to learn more about it and its features, head over to our full review by clicking the button below!
Best Under 200$ – Landove Prism Spotting Scope
Birding Rocks Rating:
The Landove Prism Spotting Scope presents a slight improvement from our first place in terms of some of the specs but also has a higher price tag. In terms of magnification it clocks the same 20-60x range but it has the much bigger 80mm fully multi-coated objective lens. It delivers a crisp and bright image even at higher magnification and is a perfect tool not only for birding but for hunting, archery, observing, and other hobbies. Coming with loads of accessories, this Landove scope is also a great bargain. One new addition to it is the digiscoping adapter which allows you to take pictures with your smartphone while viewing your favorite bird. Find out more about this spotting scope on its full detailed review!
Best Value – Celestron 52248 Ultima Zoom Spotting Scope
Birding Rocks Rating:
Celestron is a well known brand in the optics world and their products are often exceptionally good. The Ultima Zoom line makes no exception to that with its 52248 model. It has a variety of viewing angles and objective lens diameters but the sweet spot is the 65mm model with a 45 degrees viewing angle. All of the lenses are multi-coated which is good but not quite up to par with some other models in this price bracket. Still, the image you will be getting is sharp, high in contrast, and naturally-looking when it comes to colors. This spotting scope also manages to capture light perfectly due to its high-end prism on the inside and is excellent for birdwatching. The materials feel premium and you are getting a few accessories additionally to your scope, which is always a nice thing. Click on the button below to learn more about this scope.
Top Rated – Gosky Porro Prism Spotting Scope
Birding Rocks Rating:
The Gosky Porro Prism might not be as famous as all other participants on this top 5 list but is surely up to the task when it comes to good birdwatching image quality. It is a 20-60x spotting scope with a big 80mm objective lens at the front that has excellent light-transmission properties. One key feature of this scope is that it is extremely durable both to impact and to different weather conditions. It is entirely waterproof and can take a beating if you drop it accidentally thanks to its rubber armour coating. The sun shade upfront is adjustable and can be moved even further to the front in case of a very brightly lit day. The objective which is at a 45 degrees viewing angle can also be turned sideways if you are sitting next to the scope and want to use the included digiscoping adapter for your smartphone. Be it birding, shooting, hunting, or other acitvities that require proper magnification, this Gosky spotting scope is going to impress you.
Best Under 500$ – Bushnell Trophy XLT Spotting Scope
Birding Rocks Rating:
Perhaps the most well-known brand when it comes to hunting and outdoors optics is Bushnell. Alongside few other companies, they have pioneer the world of scopes and hunting accessories. Now, they give us the Trophy XLT model which is remarkable for its image and build quality but has a major disadvantage in terms of its price. Everything this scope brings to the table is similar to what you’ve already seen in the other scopes but the quality is taken up a notch. The objective knobs, sun caps, body of the scope, and lenses all feel premium to the touch and are very sturdy. As we said, the only major disadvantage here is that you will have to pay a little extra for that very quality, and perhaps for the assurance of the brand name. Find out everything there is to know about the Trophy XLT on our full review about it!
Spotting Scopes Buyer’s Guide
Before we dive into the various features a spotting scope has, let’s answer the most important question here…
What Is A Spotting Scope?
Until the arrival of those specific scopes, there were binoculars and telescopes. Binoculars were practical and easy to carry around while still offering decent magnification, while telescopes were a bit bulkier and more robust but offered excellent magnification. Still, none of those two offered any sort of flexibility when it comes to different light conditions. Due to their small lenses the binoculars and telescopes can’t really gather a lot of light for their prisms and therefore result in a natural image which will only be good if the outdoor conditions are equally good.
Spotting scopes, on the other hand, have huge lenses and allow a lot of light-gathering to happen. This results in a brighter image at low-light conditions. Their somewhat long bodies also allow them to have high amounts of magnification ultimately creating the perfect device for observing distant objects at any time of the day. In other words, they are the perfect middle ground device for birdwatchers.
When shopping for your first spotting scope, there are a number of features that you will have to take into account. Those are:
- The Type
- Lens Diameter & Coating
- Glass Types
- Materials & Durability
- Extra Features
Each of those features is important and presents a unique trait to the scope that will influence its behaviour out in the field and its birdwatching capabilities. Let’s take a look at all of them individually now.
Types Of Spotting Scopes
Apart from the types of refractors inside the scope (prismatic, catadioptric, Newtonian), spotting scopes can be put into two groups – angled and straight. Both of those kinds have their own pros and cons compared to the other.
Angled Spotting Scopes
One of the most significant advantages of an angled spotting scope is the fact that it can easily be shared by a group of people without worrying about the eye level of the scope. It is perfect for families with kids, as everyone will be able to just look down in the scope instead of bending or reaching for the eyepiece. That, of course, is valid if the scope is mounted on a tripod, which those are in most cases.
These kinds of scopes are also far easier to use when you are observing a bird flying above or you are sitting down. The 45 degrees angle removes the straining of your neck in order to see something above your line of sight. For bird watching groups or people who like to sit down while observing, this is a good option.
Straight Spotting Scopes
The main advantage of the straight scopes is that you can easily locate a bird which is in your line of sight. Apart from being easy to aim, these scopes also don’t gather as much dust or water in their eyepieces as the angled ones. They are also easier to use from hidden spots. The biggest disadvantages (if you are travelling in groups) is that the eye level of the scope will always have to be set to the level of the shortest member of your group. Still, for individual use, the straight spotting scope presents itself as a slightly better option.
Eyepieces determine the amount of magnification a scope will possess. There are fixed and zoom eyepieces which do basically what their names tell. Fixed eyepieces have a fixed amount of magnification to them and are good if you are observing a single spot on a regular basis.
Zoom eyepieces have a variable zooming range and are great for people who are birdwatching at different places and ranges.
Most eyepieces are removable, and you can therefore swap between zoom and fixed ones if you are observing different birds at different locations and ranges. Still, some scopes come with fixed eyepieces which in almost all cases are zoom ones and have various magnification ranges.
Most modern-day spotting scopes have a maximum magnification of anywhere between 10x and 25x. It depends on the type of eyepiece as we already discussed. Logically, the more will mean the better as you will be able to closely observe birds that are further away from you. Still, as we will find out in a moment, magnification isn’t everything when it comes to birdwatching.
Lens Diameter & Coating
The lens at the front of your spotting scope is known as an objective lens. Its most important feature is the diameter (which in spotting scopes is the same as aperture) and it is given in millimetres (mm). The bigger the objective lens the more light will enter your scope and the brighter and clearer the image will be, even in low-light conditions. This is where spotting scopes truly shine as out of all magnification devices out there, they have the biggest objective lenses.
Opt for the widest possible lens that is still in your price range and you are okay to carry around. With the larger lens, the whole body of the scope becomes bigger so keep its dimensions in mind. Birdwatching often consists of going through trails all day long, and having lightweight gear is more important than you think.
You might have seen that there are certain coatings to some scopes’ lenses. Those are chemical procedures done to the lens surface in order to maximize light transmission and reduce glare. There are four coating options on the market currently:
- Fully multi-coated
Coated lenses have one layer of coating applied to one of the lens’ surfaces. Fully-coated ones have a layer of coating on all the lens’ surfaces in contact with air. Multi-coated models have multiple layers applied to a single lens, and fully multi-coated, as you might have guessed, have multiple layers done to all the lens’ surfaces.
Try choosing a scope that is fully multi-coated, as that will improve significantly the quality of the scope’s image.
Lenses are made out of glass and there are certain types of glass that all have different properties. There is Extra-low dispersion glass (ED), High-density glass (HD), and Fluorite glass (FL). They all have different light-gathering capabilities and can focus the light at different distances better. For instance, if you are going to observe birds or use your scope for magnifications greater than 30-35x, then you will highly benefit from any of those three types of glasses. For users that use the lower magnification ranges, those glasses aren’t a good investment as they will only marginally improve the quality of the image but will greatly bulk up the price.
There are three main types of focusing mechanisms found across all spotting scope models. Those are:
- Collar/Helical system
The single knob focusing mechanism consists of a knob that is usually located near the eyepiece of your scope. Upon turning it you can change the focus but that is often done very slowly (different models have different torque to their single knob).
To tackle that issue, brands like Leica have developed their own focusing mechanism – the double knob. It consists of two knobs on top of each other. The first (bigger) one is used for fast focusing and turning it will get you through the whole magnification range pretty quickly. The second (smaller) knob is for the more precise focusing which is done after you are almost at the precise focus point.
The third type of focusing mechanisms is the helical one. It is found mostly in Canon and Swarovski scope models and it is in the form of a collar around the whole body of the model. It is fairly quick and easy to use with your free hand.
None of those methods is inferior or superior to the others but in terms of sheer precision, the double-knob mechanism is slightly edging the other two thanks to its smaller focus knob.
Materials & Durability
In terms of materials, there isn’t as much variety in the world of spotting scopes. Most of them are made out of a kind of plastic that is very rigid and durable – thermoplastic. Some more expensive models have a rubberized coating which on top of adding good grip to your scope also add shock protection.
Spotting scopes are often waterproof and dustproof as well, as their bodies are sealed shut and filled with nitrogen in most cases. Still, having lens caps and a case to put your scope in is never a bad investment, assuming the scope doesn’t come with those items in the first place.
There are a lot of extra features that you can keep your eyes open for. Some of those are:
- A “digiscoping” phone adapter
- Carrying case
- Lens and Eyepiece protection covers
- Cleaning cloths
- Neck/shoulder straps
Phone adapters are trending more and more each year, as phone’s cameras are getting better and people want to easily take pictures of their favorite birds without having to bring a DSLR camera with them. Now, with the help of a single adapter you can take high resolution photos at any magnification your scope supports.
Carrying cases are a must for travellers, especially the hard-case models. Airplane companies don’t always treat your luggage well and it is a good idea to have a case that will protect your scope from potential damage.
Lens and eyepiece covers are a standard in the industry and are primarily focused on keeping dust and water away from your lenses. That way, whenever you are ready to use your scope, you won’t have to start cleaning the lenses. Still, having an extra pair of cleaning cloth will never hurt.
Neck straps are great if you move around a lot in your birdwatching area. They are particularly handy for people who use angled scopes.
Lastly, tripods are the single most useful accessory when it comes to spotting scopes. They allow you to put your scope at any location and eliminate the shakiness of your hands when observing through it. They come with a handle to smoothly move the scope around and can be adjustable in height making them an ideal addition to a scope which is used by a group of people.
Some other things to consider are warranty and customer service. There are a lot of scopes out there that are nicely priced and have a lifetime warranty to them, even some with a lifetime money back guarantee, as the Emarth Angled scope we reviewed here. Customer service is also a nice addition to your purchase as you will be able to always contact them when in need of assistance.
Last but not least is the price. There is practically a scope for every man’s purse and pocket but in terms of sheer practicality and functionality there are scopes in the 100-200$ range which will do an excellent job for 99% of the birdwatchers. Our 5 budget picks range from sub-100 models to sub-500 ones which are all excellent in their properties and provide a valid birdwatching option for anyone.
Knowing which are the best budget spotting scopes is definitely going to pay up since there are a lot of products on today’s market which are equally good as the premium ones but don’t have that same premium price tag. Keep in mind features like magnification, lens sizes and coatings, the type of the scope, and what accessories you are getting with it when shopping for your first spotting scope. If the abundance of models overwhelms you, you can always rely on our top 5 picks for this year as they are some of the most well-rounded options currently.