Spotting scope vs telescope: how to choose the right optic for your needs

If you are interested in viewing objects in the natural world, whether it is on land or in the night sky, you might be wondering what kind of optic you should get. Many optical devices are available to observe objects over long distances, but two of the most popular ones are spotting scopes and telescopes.

These are devices that use lenses and/or mirrors to view distant objects and make them appear closer and clearer. But how do they differ from each other, and which one is better for your needs?

By the end of this article, you will better understand spotting scopes vs telescopes and be able to make an informed decision on which one is right for you.

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Basic terminology for spotting scopes and telescopes

Before comparing spotting scopes vs telescopes, we need to understand some basic terms used to describe these optics. These terms will help us to evaluate their performance and quality, and to choose the right one for our needs. Some of the most important terms are:

Magnification. This is how much an optic makes an object appear bigger than it is with the naked eye. For example, if an optic has a magnification of 20x, it means that it makes an object look 20 times bigger than it is without the optic.

Magnification is usually expressed as a number followed by an x, such as 20x, 40x, or 60x. It also depends on the focal length of the optic, which is the distance from where the light forms a clear image to the camera sensor.

Aperture. This is the size of the opening that lets light into the optic.

The larger the aperture, the more light the optic can gather and the brighter the image will be.

The aperture is usually measured by the objective lens size in millimeters (mm), such as 50 mm, 80 mm, or 100 mm. This is also known as the large objective lens diameter.

Field of view. This is how much of the scene you can see through the optic at a given magnification level. The larger the field of view, the more you can see without moving the optic. Field of view is usually expressed as a number followed by a degree symbol (°), such as 2°, 3°, or 4°.

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Telescopes and spotting scopes: a brief overview

Now, let’s compare different devices that can help you observe the universe: telescopes and spotting scopes. Spotting scopes and telescopes have different optical qualities depending on their design and components.

Spotting scopes tend to have better optical quality for terrestrial viewing, while telescopes – for astronomical viewing. Each device has its pros and cons, depending on how it works and what you want to see.

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Telescopes are devices used to observe celestial bodies by collecting and focusing electromagnetic radiation from distant objects. Some of the telescopes’ advantages are their high magnification, large aperture, and ability to show deep sky objects.

Most telescopes are big, costly, and scientific. They are used by experts to study the universe. They are often far away or in space to avoid noise from the Earth. But there is one kind of astronomical telescope that you can buy: an optical telescope.

Types of telescopes: refractor vs reflector vs catadioptric

Optical telescopes have different ways to collect and focus light. Some use telescope lenses, some use mirrors, and some use both. These differences affect how the telescope performs and what it can show you.

Also, telescopes usually have interchangeable eyepieces that allow you to adjust the magnification and field of view according to your preference and target.

For example, you can use a low-power eyepiece for a wide and bright view of the night sky objects, or a high-power eyepiece for a close and detailed view of a planet.

The three main types of optical telescopes are refractor, reflector, and catadioptric. Let’s start with the refractor telescope.

Refracting telescopes

A refractor telescope uses lenses to bend light and form an image. It has a long tube with a large lens at one end and a smaller lens at the other end. The large lens is called the objective lens and the smaller lens is called the eyepiece lens.

The objective lens collects light from a distant object and forms an inverted image at the focal point. The eyepiece lens magnifies the image and makes it appear right-side up to the observer.

Reflecting telescopes

A reflector telescope uses mirrors to reflect light and form an image. It has a concave mirror at one end of the tube and a small flat mirror at the other end.

Catadioptric telescopes

A catadioptric telescope uses both lenses and mirrors to combine the advantages of refractors and reflectors.

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Spotting scopes

Spotting scopes are devices used to observe nearby objects by magnifying and enhancing their details.

They are similar to telescopes, but they have a lower magnification range and a wider field of view.

They are often used for activities such as birdwatching, wildlife observation, hunting, target shooting, or landscape photography. Some spotting scopes also have features (such as camera adapters or smartphone mounts), that allow you to capture images.

Types of spotting scopes: straight vs angled vs zoom

Spotting scopes come in different shapes and sizes, each with its advantages and disadvantages. One of the main differences is the angle between the body and the eyepiece of the scope.

This affects how you use and view the scope and how comfortable and stable it is. Also, unlike many telescopes, spotting scopes are suitable for daytime use.

There are three common types of spotting scopes that you may encounter: straight, angled, and zoomed. Each type has a unique design and function that suits different purposes and preferences. Let’s take a look at each type of spotting scope and what it can do for you.

Straight spotting scope

This spotting scope has a straight design that lets you look straight at your target. It is simple to use and good for tracking moving objects. But it can be tiring to use for a long time or high-angle viewing. It may also need a taller tripod and be less stable.

Angled spotting scope

This spotting scope has an angled eyepiece that lets you look through it at a comfortable angle. It is great for high-angle viewing and more stable than a straight scope, which means a more stable image. It can also be shared by different people without changing the tripod height. But it can be tricky to find your target and may need more space and a lower tripod.

Zoom spotting scope

This spotting scope has a variable zoom eyepiece that lets you change the magnification power to suit your needs. It is versatile and allows you to see more or less details depending on the situation.

It can also be used for different purposes without changing the eyepiece. But it can also have lower image quality, less light, and more color distortion at higher zooms. It may also be heavier and more costly than a fixed zoom scope.

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Spotting scope vs telescope in magnification, aperture, and field of view

The main differences between spotting scopes vs telescopes in terms of magnification, aperture, and field of view are:

Magnification. The telescope has more magnification power, but has narrower and dimmer views due to higher magnification. Most spotting scopes lack larger objective lens size, which means they can only see brighter and closer objects. With smaller objective lenses, they can show wider and brighter views but have overall worse image quality.

Aperture. A telescope can gather more light from the object, but even portable telescopes are more cumbersome than spotting scopes. A spotting scope is more portable and lighter, but can only see as much light, as their smaller apertures allow, which means you can only observe brighter and closer objects.

Field of view. The telescope can show a small portion of the night sky or landscape at a time but is harder to locate and track objects. Spotting scopes can show a larger area of the scene at a time, but are easier to find and follow objects.

Spotting scope vs telescope in portability, durability, and ease of use

The main differences between spotting scopes vs telescopes in terms of portability, durability, and ease of use are:

Portability. Compared to telescopes, spotting scopes are generally smaller, and less bulky. They can fit in a backpack, while telescopes may need a separate case or mount.

Durability. Spotting scopes are more resistant to water, fog, shock, and dust than telescopes.

They can withstand harsh environments and outdoor use, while telescopes require more care and maintenance.

Ease of use. Spotting scopes have right-side-up images, wider views, and simpler controls than telescopes. Telescopes have upside-down images, narrower views, and more technical settings.

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Will a spotting scope work as a telescope?

Yes, but only for basic astronomy. A spotting scope is technically a type of telescope, but it’s good mostly for terrestrial viewing, not for deep sky viewing. Therefore, a spotting scope can work as a small telescope for viewing the moon or some bright planets. However, a telescope is better for advanced astronomy or deep sky viewing.

Can you see planets with a spotting scope?

The answer is yes, but only some of them. Spotting scopes are good for viewing bright and close planets and some of their larger moons.

However, for viewing faint and distant planets and other objects, you need a telescope with a larger aperture and higher magnification. Spotting scopes has a smaller aperture and lower magnification, so they cannot show these planets well.

Can you see the rings of Saturn with a spotting scope?

The answer is yes, but only with a good spotting scope and a steady mount. Saturn’s rings are visible with any telescope that has a magnification of 30x or more. Spotting scopes can reach this magnification but may not show Saturn’s rings as clearly or distinctly as a decent telescope.

A spotting scope also has a smaller aperture than a telescope, which means it can’t collect maximum light and shows less detail. To see the rings of Saturn with a spotting scope, you need a clear night, a dark sky, and a stable tripod.

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Can you see deep sky objects with a spotting scope?

Not really, no. A spotting scope is good for viewing objects that are down here, on Earth, and basic astronomy, but not for deep sky viewing.

Deep sky objects are faint and distant celestial objects, such as nebulae, galaxies, or star clusters. Observing distant objects requires an astronomical telescope with a large aperture and high magnification level.

Spotting scopes lacks larger apertures and high magnification, so they can only see bright and close objects.

An astronomical telescope also has accessories that can help you see more details and colors of deep-sky objects. However, even the good quality spotting scope is not compatible with any of them.

How to choose between a spotting scope vs a telescope based on your viewing goals

The answer depends on your preferences and goals for observation. Spotting scopes are suitable for land-based viewing, such as during a hunting or hiking trip, or watching sports and other outdoor activities.

Spotting scopes’ advantages is that they have right-side-up images, wider views, and simpler controls. They are also smaller, lighter, and more durable than telescopes and suitable for daytime use.

Telescopes are good for astronomical viewing, such as stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies, or star clusters. They have upside-down images, narrower views, and more technical settings.

They are also larger, heavier, and less durable than spotting scopes. Spotting scopes can also be used for basic astronomy, but telescopes are better for deep-sky viewing or advanced astronomy.

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Conclusion: which is better spotting scope or telescope?

The answer depends on your viewing goals and preferences. In this article, I have explored the differences and similarities between spotting scopes vs telescopes.

For observing objects in nature and the cosmos, you can find a spotting scope vs telescope that can suit your needs and budget.

Spotting scope vs telescope is not a simple choice, but a matter of personal preference and purpose.

If you need to read about spotting scope vs telescope, please read our article.

Ida Stewart

I have had the incredible opportunity to work as a tour guide at the planetarium for over 5 years. Ever since I was a child, astronomy has held a special place in my heart, and I have nurtured a deep passion for exploring the wonders of the universe. Among all the celestial bodies, Mars has always fascinated me the most, captivating my imagination with its mysterious allure.

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