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Spotting Scope vs Binoculars - What Should You Use?

Plenty of activities require you to spot things from afar – and with the naked eye being limited in its abilities to detect small objects at a distance – some form of assistance is required. These days, two of the most essential long-range sighting instruments are spotting scopes and binoculars.

Carrying them around is a must for many professionals as well as hobbyists (snipers, forest rangers, bird watchers, hunters and so on), but a debate on spotting scopes vs binoculars constantly rages on among their users.

For those who are new to long range optics, choosing from a spotting scope or binoculars can be tough – if you’re in this dilemma, you’ll find this detailed comparison between the two sighting devices to be very helpful in making the right choice.

Basic definitions

Spotting scope

Originally utilized only by military sniper teams to call targets on the battlefield, the spotting scope is an optic for one eye, with a straight or angled eyepiece for viewing. It can be thought of as a very powerful mini telescope (can exceed 50x in magnification power!) that lets the user spot tiny details / objects from a long way out.

A spotting scope has to be fixed to a proper tripod to get the most out of it, because high power optics are very prone to wobble. These days, the use of spotting scopes has expanded beyond long range shooting to bird watching, stargazing and hunting.

Binoculars

Binoculars are a very popular sighting tool, meant to provide a larger image of reasonably distant objects: they utilize a separate optic for each eye, whose outputs are then combined to present the final picture. They are a favorite among outdoorsmen who prioritize simplicity and portability in their sighting optics, but are somewhat restricted in their magnification power (rarely exceed 20x and are more commonly closer to 10x).

Spotting Scope versus Binoculars

Spotting Scope

Binocular

Huge, typically variable magnification range (20x – 60x)

Limited, typically static magnification power (10x, 15x, 20x)

Generally large objective lens diameter (60 mm+)

Generally smaller objective lens diameter (under 50mm)

Prone to wobble at higher magnifications

Can be used while in motion

Awkward to carry around

Can be easily ported

Offers decent low light performance

Not very useful in low light

Suitable for long range shooting, professional bird watching, passable stargazing

Suitable for medium range hunting, light bird watching, restricted stargazing

Range capabilities

A major difference between spotting scope and binoculars is the range up to which they can provide a clearer picture.

Spotting scopes normally incorporate a much larger magnification limit (as mentioned before), and also a far larger objective diameter (60 mm+), which enables them to yield crisp images of very distant objects (north of 500 yards). On the other hand, binoculars are somewhat limited in their zoom power (most are fixed at a specific zoom setting), and have a smaller objective diameter (typically at or under 50mm), so they can only let you see subtly camouflaged objects up to a certain range.

As an example, if you used a binocular with a 10x zoom and 42mm objective lens to look at black-and-white targets after you shot at them at 200 yards, you would not be able to confirm if your bullet had found its mark. However, if you repeated the same exercise with a standard 20-60x65mm spotting scope, confirming your shots (and even identifying the bullet marks) at this range would not be a problem.

In general: binoculars are good for spotting large targets e.g. for elk hunting, at moderately distant ranges, whereas spotting scopes allow you to pick out individual details in birds, rodents, flowers and so on at extended range.

Low light usage

Spotting scopes have a much larger aperture as compared to binoculars – a wider aperture means crisper, more detailed images in low light. Therefore, on an overcast day (or at sunrise/sunset), you will enjoy greater visual clarity with the former as compared to the latter.

Convenience

In this department, binoculars are the clear (no pun intended) winner: you can tie a cord and sling them across your neck for easy transportation (the smaller ones may even fit in regular coat pockets!). On the other hand, spotting scopes are bulkier and need to be carried in a larger rucksack pouch or cargo pocket. If it’s the latter case, you may find the scope’s weight a bit awkward after a while.

Binoculars, because of their lower fixed magnification, can be used while on the move or even when you’re standing. In contrast, spotting scopes are very sensitive to movement, and will require you to settle down and place them on a stationary rock / limb / tripodbefore being able to use them effectively.

Common applications

  • Ranged Shooting
  • Bird Watching
  • Astronomy

I’ll only recommend binoculars for rookie stargazers who are unsure about buying / using a proper scope. Granted that a binocular will greatly expand your ability to peer at constellations, you will still not be able to observe interesting astronomical objects such as planets, comets and asteroids satisfactorily (if at all), due to the limited magnification and aperture size.

Spotting scopes, with their significantly stronger long range optics, are a marked improvement over even the most advanced binoculars, allowing you to see star clusters, as well as planets (and even their moons in clear skies), with reasonable clarity. The fact that they are made to be mounted on tripods is an advantage in this particular application, because it doesn’t tax your arms as you’re waiting for a particular night sky object to show up!

Spotting scopes, with their significantly stronger long range optics, are a marked improvement over even the most advanced binoculars, allowing you to see star clusters, as well as planets (and even their moons in clear skies), with reasonable clarity. The fact that they are made to be mounted on tripods is an advantage in this particular application, because it doesn’t tax your arms as you’re waiting for a particular night sky object to show up!

Of course, neither a binocular nor a spotting scope can measure up against a professional telescope, but if it had to be a choice between the two – I’d go for the latter.

Conclusion

In summation – there is no clear winner in the spotting scopes vs binoculars contest: you will have realized by now that the unique properties of both sighting utilities lend them to different applications.

The ease of use, portability, and stability of binoculars makes them fit for medium range hunting, light bird watching and very limited stargazing. Conversely, having an extra-long sighting range and being tripod ready, makes spotting scopes ideal for long range sniping, serious bird watching, and passable viewing of astronomical bodies.

In order to make the right choice between the two, you need only to be clear about your intended usage, instead of following the rants of fanboys on either side of the debate. I hope you find this comparison helpful and enjoyable – if you’ve got any queries / suggestions, be sure to drop them in the comments section.

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