This will be a journey of discovery. Let me guide you through the ultimate breakdown in spotting scopes. After you read this, frankly astounding, review you'll know exactly which model is perfect for you.
The Best Spotting Scopes For Birding
My name's Pete and I love birdwatching. It sounds like a confession and in some ways it is. Now I'm on a mission to spread the birding gospel and one of the ways is showcasing all the cool equipment that enhances the experience.
How birds interact with those of the same species, different species, and entirely different animals. Ahh, they're great. Some of them are silly and some of them are more intelligent than the average bed-bound teenager.
We agree on our mutual love of birds. That's good.
If you've done any research into spotting scopes before, you'll know that most review websites just copy the marketing jargon set out by the companies who make them. I decided to curate the essential specs of each of the best scopes around in the tables below. Then, I'm going to group them into categories and compare their performance against one another.
In this article, I'm writing about spotting scopes ranging in price from sub-$500 all the way above $1000.
What’s being measured?
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that spotting scopes are a lot larger than binoculars and they only have one lens. Spotting scopes need more glass, and glass is heavy which results in instruments about 3x the weight. Binoculars are typically around 20oz whereas spotting scopes are approximately 60oz.
There are scopes created specifically for birdwatching - don’t be fooled into thinking you’re going to have a better experience with an astronomy scope, that’s not the case. Too much magnification and you won’t be able to find your birds, then you’ll be devastated.
A larger scope means a heavier load and so you’ll need to mount your spotting scope on an ordinary camera tripod. There’s nothing stopping you taking your scope and tripod with you when you go hiking if you have a decent backpack but a lot of birders have theirs set up permanently in one location at home. Find or create an area with lots of feathery activity and excellent line of sight.
I’ve collected all of these scopes’ technical details and put them into easy to read tables. Then I’ll break down the features from the table into four categories: Optical Specification, Glass Quality, Comfort, and Portability.
Optical Specification is a grouping of magnification, objective lens diameter and both angular and linear field of view (FOV). This is the most important aspect of spotting scope equipment and is what everyone wants to know about. How well can you see your birds?
For Optical Specification, I’ll be on the lookout for the range of magnification and how powerful this magnification is. If you have a think about magnification, do you actually know what it is? It’s the ratio between the actual size of an object and its apparent size when seen through the viewfinder.
The objective lens diameter controls the amount of light capable of reaching your eye. The large it is, the more light gets through. The image you’ll see will be clearer and increase the detail. When you zoom in, however, this restricts the objective lens diameter and will naturally cause your images to be darker.
The wider the objective lens, the more glass needed to fill the space and the heavier the spotting scope. This can be an issue for some.
Both FOV measurements describe the same thing. One degree in the angular FOV equates to seeing 52.5 feet at 1000 yards, the method of describing linear field of view. If you only know the angular field of view then multiply it by 52.5 to get the linear FOV and divide the linear field of view by 52.5 to reach the angular FOV. Hopefully, that’s all the calculations out the way now.
I want my scopes to have powerful magnifications, wide objective lenses and a FOVs not for the faint-hearted.
Glass Quality describes the level of coating the lenses receive and the type of material making up the glass prism. This is important and an often overlooked aspect of optical tools. People don’t realize how dependent image clarity is on light transmission through the glass.
Coating the glassware reduces reflection and draws the light into the scope. There are various levels of coating application ranging from coated, fully coated, multi-coated, fully multi-coated.
The most basic level starts with a single coating applied to at least one surface of glass. This rises to fully coated (every piece of glass has at least one coating) and then multi-coated (multiple coatings on at least one surface), finally to fully multi-coated.
Fully multi-coated is the way to go for really any spotting scope or binocular glass but especially at this price range. If the execution of coating application isn’t up to standard then the coating itself is irrelevant but it’s safe to assume that the attention to detail expressed in bothering to go fully multi-coated means they’ll take care making sure it’s done right.
You can never guarantee the exquisite attention to detail you deserve but it at least suggests the company are attempting to make the effort. That’s all we can hope for as consumers. I’m expecting fully multi-coated glassware from our spotting scopes and it’ll count against them if this isn’t the case.
Note: A lot of brands create their own blend of coating they’ll ask you pay for and spread liberally.
High-end models usually have BaK4, BaritleichKron (German for Barium crown), glass prisms. It has a higher refractive index than the previously used BaK7, meaning more of the periphery of the image remains in focus. However, the resolution at the center of the image is no better or worse.
Comfort is clear. If you’ve ever had binoculars or spotting scopes held against your eyes for an extended period of time, you’ll be familiar with the tenderness around the eyes often associated with it. And it makes sense, right? The skin around your eyes is soft and thin, it’s not used to having metal or plastic resting against and pulling at it.
When I refer to comfort in this context, I mean the eyecup’s adjustment and eye relief. One person’s vision will differ from another’s and their eyes will need to be closer or farther from the ocular lens to generate the crispest image. This is where we need quick, easy eyecup adjustment. The definition of eye relief is how far from the eyecup can your eyes be whilst still seeing a full FOV. This is measured in millimeters. Examples of its importance are for those wearing glasses for their vision or if your eyes are starting to become sore.
Portability in spotting scopes can often be the deciding factor in buying one model over another. A birder could have arthritis or they could have a case of 'The Lazys' - it doesn’t actually matter. If you want an easy life, you want an easy life.
Our portability category is an overview of how maneuverable the scope is. It’s measured by comparing the weight, length and if the equipment is waterproof. It comes down to how you prefer your spotting scopes to feel but the consensus is typically lighter weight, smaller dimensions and, of course, you want it waterproof. Why wouldn’t you? They’re easier to transport and you can take them to harsher environments. We’ll go by these parameters.
This round’s curveball is whether the models are waterproof. Well made spotting scopes are manufactured with O-ring seals, preventing moisture from creeping in and fogging up the eyepiece. Before the seal is finalized, the glassware is pumped full of an inert gas such as nitrogen or argon at high pressure. This method prevents moisture and dust from entering the scope and ruining it.
So, those are the categories I’ll be comparing against. At the end of each category, one spotting scope is going to be declared a winner, the accumulation of which will decide the ultimate victor.
The best spotting scopes Under $500
In this section, we’re looking at the best spotting scopes under $500. The worthy contenders are the Vanguard Endeavor 20-60x82, the Vortex Diamondback 20-60x80 and the Celestron Regal 20-60x80 - so let’s compare them against one another to see who comes out on top. This is a prestigious prize and the winner gets you.
We're almost there, but before we start, here are the scopes in question.
Here's a table with a speedy summary of information.
|Specification||Vanguard Endeavour HD||Vortex Diamondback||Celestron Regal M280 ED|
|Objective Lens (mm)||82||80||80|
|Field of View (degrees)||2.1° - 1.0°||2° - 1.0°||2.1° - 1.0°|
|Field of View (feet at 1000yds)||110-52||105 - 51||110 - 52|
|Close Focus Distance (feet)||19.7||22||16.4|
|Lens Coating||Fully multi-coated||Fully multi-coated||Fully multi-coated|
|Eye Relief (mm)||19||20||20|
Let’s get into this then. The magnification. Across all of the best spotting scopes under $500, you’ll see each model shares a common magnification range - between 20-60x. The minimum view through the scopes will appear 20x closer and the maximum will appear 60x closer.
Here, you’ll see the Vanguard Endeavor has an objective lens diameter of 82mm, the Vortex Diamondback a diameter of 80mm, and the Celestron Regal also at 80mm. Whether you consider 82mm or 80mm as the advantage is subjective but I’ll make the case for more light and better quality images being edging this one, which goes to the Vanguard Endeavor.
Remember, we can group both measurements of the field of view together because they both describe the same thing. So, the larger either field of view measurement is, the wider the image of your scope will be. What’re our scopes looking like? The Vanguard Endeavor HD is still holding strong at 110 feet at 1000 yards 20x magnification and 52 feet at 1000 yards when 60x magnification. The exact same measurements are recorded for the Celestron Regal but lagging behind slightly is the Vortex Diamondback, which has 105 feet and 51 feet.
Now to close focus. How close can you get to a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and remain in focus? Smashing it out the park is the Celestron Regal with a minute close focus of 16.4 feet - exceptional. Next comes the Vanguard Endeavor at 19.7 feet, which isn’t bad, but unfortunately, bringing up the rear once again is the Vortex Diamondback at 22.0 feet. A poor show from them so far.
There was only one winner in this race.
Although technically a draw, I’m going to crown the Vanguard Endeavor the winner of the Optical Performance round. The mini-categories it leads in are more important to the average birder using a spotting scope.
Winner of Optical Performance - Vanguard Endeavor
As you can see from the table, each scope is fully multi-coated and it’s a draw across the board. This is going to help produce better images by absorbing more of the light into the spotting scope and eventually to your eye. Hopefully, our model’s prisms are made with BaK-4 glass and, as you can see from the table, indeed they.
I can conclude the glass quality round a draw.
Winners for Glass Quality - Vanguard Endeavor, Vortex Diamondback, and Celestron Regal
The Vortex Diamondback and Celestron Regal are joint leaders in eye relief at 20mm and the Vanguard Endeavor has a slight drop off at 19mm. Not terrible, but this is a competition of fine margins. If you’re a glasses wearer, you’ll have a more pleasurable experience with the Vortex Diamondback and the Celestron Regal.
Each spotting scope has a twist eyecup so their adjustments are made very fast and have great precision.
It’s tough to call this round because there’s no one really winning. The Vanguard Endeavors are marginal losers with a smaller eye relief but other than that, they’re all comparable.
Winners for Comfort - Vortex Diamondback and Celestron Regal
This round consists of the weight, length, and waterproofing. Granted, one of those is not like the other. Being waterproof determines what kind of weather you can take your spotting scope and, in my opinion, that’s related to how portable it is.
The Vortex Diamondback is a lot lighter than the other two scopes at 47.1oz, it wins this round hands down. The Vanguard Endeavor is next at 63.8oz and the Celestron Regal last at 72oz. Surprisingly, despite being 16.7oz heavier, the Vanguard Endeavor is only 4mm longer than the Vortex Diamondback. Perhaps the Celestron Regal can be forgiven for being 72oz as its extra length is another 40mm, 10x times extra.
Happily, I can let you know our three spotting scopes under review are confirmed as waterproof.
Winner for Portability - Vortex Diamondback
And here we are. We've reached the conclusion of our best spotting scope under $500 section extravaganza. Some quick adding up of the results shows us that the Vortex Diamondback is the winner.
winner of best spotting scope under $500 is the vortex diamondback
Spotting Scopes under $1000
Now it’s time to take a look at the mid-range scopes costing between $500 and $1000. I’ll be declaring my winner based on the same criteria as previously. In this section, I’ll be reviewing the Vortex Viper, Nikon Prostaff 5 and the Alpen Optics.
Here's the table with the goldmine of information.
|Specification||Vortex Viper||Nikon ProStaff||Alpen Optics|
|Objective Lens (mm)||80||82||80|
|Field of View (degrees)||2.1° - 1.0°||2° - N/A||2.1° - 1.0°|
|Field of View (feet at 1000yds)||110-50||104.8 - N/A||113 - 55|
|Close Focus Distance (feet)||22||20||20|
|Lens Coating||Fully multi-coated||Fully multi-coated||Fully multi-coated|
|Eye Relief (mm)||18||16.5||18|
All three of the best spotting scope under $1000 have a magnification of 20-60x. This means at their least powerful, the object you’re looking at will appear 20x closer than it is and at full magnification, it’ll appear 60x closer than it is. The closer you zoom and focus in on an object, the narrower the field of view becomes.
The Nikon Prostaff 5 has an objective lens of 82mm and, therefore, it wins on this feature. The Vortex Viper and Alpen both come a joint second with a diameter of 80mm. There isn’t much difference, granted, but as the price starts to increase, you want to squeeze every advantage from your scope as you can.
The field of view (FOV) is the observable image when looking through the scope. Spotting scopes or binoculars express this in the number of observable feet seen through the scope when standing 1000 yards away from a target.
Here's an image representing what we mean when we talk about FOV. It's the diameter in feet of an image when the target is 1000 yards away. I made it myself. Please, congratulate me later but right now, it’s time for battle.
The more magnification, the narrower the FOV. Because each of the scopes I'm reviewing have the same magnification, this cancels out its influence on the FOV.
The Alpen wins this round fair and square with a FOV ranging from 113-55 ft/1000 yards, second, comes the Vortex Viper at 110-50 ft/1000 yards. First place and runner-up specifications aren’t far off one another. The Nikon Prostaff 5 have only published one measurement for the Prostaff 5’s FOV at lowest magnification which is 104 ft/1000 yards. That’s not terrible by any means. No comparison can be made against the other models meaning it’s getting points deducted here.
Who’s winning the close focus? The Alpen and Nikon Prostaff 5 take joint first place. They both have a close focusing distance of 20 feet - imagine how amazing the Hyacinth Macaw would be at that distance. The Vortex Viper finishes in last place, 22 ft is 22 ft.
If I was scoring the winners of each category equally then we’d have a dead heat. I’m not going to be as boring as that.
As I wrote previously, the close focus isn’t as important a criterion as it likes to shout about. I would argue objective lens diameter and FOV are as important as one another. Of course, those features have different victors - the Nikon Prostaff takes the objective lens diameter and the Alpen snatches the FOV.
Having a smaller objective lens but a larger field of view means the Alpen takes this round.
Winner of the Optical Specifications - Alpen
Every scope is fully multi-coated for improved image quality and the prisms are made with BaK-4 glass to drag more of the peripheral view into focus. This is great for birding as what you’re viewing is often unpredictable.
Winners of Glass Quality - Vortex Viper, Nikon Prostaff 5 and Alpen
The table shows the Vortex Viper and the Alpen have an eye relief of 18mm, compared to the Nikon Prostaff 5 with an eye relief of 16.5mm. By my calculations that makes the winners the Vortex Viper and the Bushnell Elite. Someone get these scopes a rosette.
Eyecups prevent external light getting to your eyes from the surroundings. They’re usually rubber molds but metal eyecups aren’t unheard of either. If the rubber ones start to frustrate you then you’re free to fold them down. The power is within you.
Alter the position of the eyecups to suit your face or eyesight. Maybe you’ve got an oddly shaped head. I’m unsure but I know I don’t judge. All of these scopes have twisting eyecups which lock into place, a preferred method for many models of spotting scopes and binoculars. It’s a draw on this front.
Winners of the Comfort round - Vortex Viper and Alpen
To recap, in the portability section is included the weight, length, and waterproofing. Hiking is a tiring business and most birds don’t come to you so which scope will aid you as much as it can?
The lightest of our models is the Nikon Prostaff 5 at 33.5 oz, at a distant second is the Alpen at 56 oz. The scope with a bit of excess fat it could do with trimming is the Vortex Viper at 67 oz.
The winner for the shortest spotting scope has to go to the Nikon Prostaff 5 at 377 mm. Practically pocketable. Quite a lot longer are the Vortex Viper and Alpen with measurements of 415mm and 445mm respectively.
All of our scopes are waterproof. Therefore, no fogging and no dirt getting inside either. You can even take it underwater with you if you like.
Perhaps that’s bad advice.
Winner of Portability round - Nikon Prostaff 4
It’s time to break out the calculator again. The Alpen wins my breakdown for the best spotting scope under $1000 by winning coming first (or joint-first) in three of the four categories. The Vortex Viper and the Nikon Prostaff 5 take two.
winner of best spotting scope under $1000 is the alpen optics
best Spotting Scopes over $1000
It’s time to take a look at the Crème de la Crème of the spotting scope world. The daddies of them all. These are the models you want to buy if you’re looking for the best picture quality money can buy.
Let’s have a look at what we’re dealing with: we have the Vortex Razor, Bushnell Elite, and Swarovski ATS.
|Specification||Vortex Razor HD||Bushnell Elite||Swarofski ATS|
|Objective Lens (mm)||85||80||80|
|Field of View (degrees)||2.2° - 1.3°||1.8° - 0.8||2.1° - 1.1°|
|Field of View (feet at 1000yds)||117-68||98 - 50||108 - 60|
|Close Focus Distance (feet)||16.4||15||16|
|Lens Coating||Fully multi-coated||Fully multi-coated||Fully multi-coated|
|Eye Relief (mm)||17||18||17|
For the second section in a row I’m reviewing spotting scopes with different magnification power and objective lens diameter, tricky times lie ahead. Why do I call this tricky? Well to get the most consistent comparisons you need to isolate as many variables as possible. Alas, a workman can never blame his tools.
If we’re looking purely at the magnification of all three spotting scopes then the winner has to be the Vortex Razor here at 27-65x. The Bushnell Elite and the Swarovski ATS both have magnification capabilities between 20-60x.
The Vortex Razor can obviously make birds appear closer to you, but the cost is losing brightness as you zoom in closer and a degree of clarity of image. They aim to rectify this by opening up the objective lens diameter by 5 mm, the other two scopes have objective lenses of 80mm. Again, however, there are compromises. A larger objective lens means more glass and typically adds more weight to the scope. We won’t know whether this is true or not until we get to the bottom of this review (or just look at the table).
The Vortex Razor has the widest FOV across the spotting scopes we’re reviewing over $1000. If you were standing 1000 yards away from a wall, at its lowest magnification (27x) you’ll be able to see 117 feet across. At its highest magnification (65x) you’ll be able to see 68 feet across.
Compare this with second place, the Swarovski ATS. Standing 1000 yards away from the wall, you’ll be able to see 108 feet across at the lowest magnification (20x) and 60 feet across when viewed at the highest magnification.
Sadly, someone has to come last and in this instance, it’s the Bushnell Elite. This wall’s been a worthy adversary. I never said it was finished though. The Bushnell Elite would let you see 98 feet across at lowest magnification (20x) from 1000 yards and 50 feet when zoomed right in (60x).
The smaller the close focus, the closer you can get to a bird and still be able to see it with perfect clarity. The Bushnell Elite wins this one. You’ll be able to crawl up to with 15 feet of the Dickcissel without it batting an eyelid. The Swarovski ATS will allow you to sneak up 16 feet away from the Hoary Puffleg and you’ll be sitting only 16.4 feet away from the Kori Bustard with the Vortex Razor.
The Vortex Razor has the highest magnification and the widest FOV. Despite this (or perhaps due to this would be more apt) it has the farthest close focus distance. In my opinion, close focus isn’t as important as magnification and FOV, so the Vortex Razor wins the Optical Specifications round.
Winner of the Optical Specifications round - Vortex Razor
Analysing the glass quality is simple metric. As you’ve no doubt established now, it doesn’t provide a huge amount of insight into the quality of the product because, at this level of spotting scope, they’re all made in very similar ways.
Looking at our table, we can see all of the prisms are fully multi-coated and each prism material is BaK4 glass to reduce chromatic aberrations.
Therefore, it’s a draw across the board and we can swiftly move onto our next category.
Winners for Glass Quality - Vortex Razor, Bushnell Elite and Swarovski ATS
The eye relief will let you hold the spotting scope some distance away from your face and retain a full FOV at the same time. The larger the number, the farther you can be. At 18 mm, the Bushnell Elite has the largest eye relief. The other two models come in at 17 mm, not too much less.
All of these spotting scopes use a twist motion to adjust the eyecup incase you have an odd facial structure and want to make it more comfortable.
Winner for Comfort - Bushnell Elite
Spotting scopes can be broken down into the magnifying glass and the other bits. The glass makes up most of the spotting scope and adds the majority of the weight. A larger objective lens means more glass and a heavier instrument. There’s still an opportunity to save weight in other aspects, it’s just less likely.
For instance, there’s a clear correlation between the objective lens diameter and the weight of the Vortex Razor. It’s 12.6 oz heavier than the Bushnell Elite at 53 oz. There are those of you who find the heaviness a burden when tracking birds, there are many who don’t mind it. Figure out if it’s important to you before you purchase though, it’ll save you a lot of hassle in the long run. The Swarovski ATS is the lightest here at 47.6 oz and is the firm winner.
The Swarovski ATS (355 mm) and the Bushnell Elite (432 mm) have the same objective lens diameter and magnification range but the Swarovski is a lot more compact. Nearly 80 mm shorter. This will make manoeuvering to find birds easier. What’s really interesting is the relatively short length of the Vortex Razor (393 mm) - it really showcases how much of a difference the extra glass makes to the weight, remember it has a wider objective lens.
All of these models are waterproof and dust resistant. How could you expect anything less at this price?
Who wins this round then? It’s a hard one because of the slight difference in scope properties between the models. This is the portability round though. The rest is irrelevant when focusing on these characteristics alone.
We’re basing the winner on having a more compact design which is lighter and can be carried about with ease. Therefore, the winner must be the Swarovski ATS which comes out on top on both counts.
Winner of the Portability Round - Swarovski ATS
Unfortunately, the worst possible outcome has occurred. We’ve got a dead heat in the most prestigious section of our review. This is where I must accept the responsibility of my destiny as a reviewer. I will make the decision.
I’m a huge fan of Swarovski and most birders will vouch for their amazing quality when it comes to aiding your long distance sight. I’m going to have to give the trophy to them. If you decide to go for the others then I won’t blame you - you’ll still get a superb spotting scope.
It won’t be the Swarovski ATSs though.