Spotting Scopes and Binoculars – what’s the difference?

Most people are familiar with binoculars.  You might have even used a pair at the footy or cricket,  to watch  some of our wonderful native Australian birds and wildlife or even stare up the  night sky.

We get many questions about when you should be using a spotting scope compared to binoculars. There’s no simple black and white answer, but here’s some ideas to help you select the best optics for your interests and activities.

Binoculars come in different sizes and optical qualities. BINTEL have binoculars ranging in price from under $200 to well over $4000.

Nikon Monarch Binoculars at BINTEL

That’s a wide price range BUT – they all have some things in common.

They’re designed to be handheld.  (With optional tripods attachments as option on many models.)

They offer a wide field of view compared to most small refracting telescopes. This is the view from side to side compared to the centre of what you’re looking at.  A wide field of view lets you quickly move to find what you want to see. General purpose binoculars also offer magnification up to about 16 times. Magnification over this causes handshakes and wobbles that will become more  and more noticeable while you hold the to the point of making such binoculars hard to use for long periods.

Sometimes you need to either observe objects that are even further away or need to see even more detail compated to what you’re seeing with binoculars. In these cases, people will often use a small portable telescope called a spotting scope.

A Meade Wilderness Spotting Scope at BINTEL

A spotting scope looks a bit like one half of a pair of binoculars and that’s not far off what they are!

They use similar optics with a few differences that gives them some advantages over binoculars.

First of all, they have higher a magnification.  Whereas binoculars have magnifications that start off at approx. 8 times and go up to around 16 times as mentioned, spotting scopes will normally start in the low 20 times and often range up to over 60.  To get around the problems with obtaining a steady view at higher powers, they have some kind of tripod attachment as a standard feature. If you have a standard photographic tripod with a head that can move around it will likely suit your spotting scope. If not, BINTEL can help you select a good tripod option for your spotting scope.

Nikon Spotting Scope at BINTEL showing the 45 degree angled eyepiece and tripod attachment

Spotting scopes often have zoom eyepieces as standard. You can quickly change the magnification from a low power once you’ve located what you what to see to a higher magnification and “zoom” in.  (Some binoculars also have zoom eyepieces, but due to technical issues with the two barrels, they’re not common.)

They’re also available with larger main front lenses than binoculars.  Even with the same magnification, a larger lens or larger “aperture” has some advantages. It collects more light meaning views when light is low such as dusk or dawn. More light means more information about the same view and greater detail.  The downside of larger optics is of course cost and weight.

With most spotting scopes attaching a camera, especially a DSLR, is a straightforward task. Photography of nature or scenery through a spotting scope is often called “digiscoping”. Definitely something to look up on YouTube if that sounds like something you’d be interested in.  Plus spotting scopes are often offered with a 45 degree angled eyepiece for viewing comfort over long periods.

What’s all this boil down to? Here’s some  points for choosing binoculars:

  • Viewing objects at close to medium ranges. Examples could be birdwatching, sports and whale watching from a boat.
  • What you want to view is moving quickly
  • Needs to be lightweight and very portable

For spotting scopes:

  • Objects are further away, or you want get up close with medium range objects. Whale watching from the shore.  Scenery or landscape viewing.
  • What you want to view is moving more slowly and further away
  • Used for long periods of time
  • Watch to attach a DSLR camera

If you’d like more information, drop into to BINTEL for a chat or contact us to find out more.



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