Binoculars vs Spotting Scopes – Which Device is Better? [by Brett Grant]

Many of our readers ask us about binoculars and spotting scopes. Some of our newest readers are very new to the community. Naturally, they’re not going to know the real difference between a spotting scope and binoculars.

In this article, we’re going to discuss the main difference between binoculars and spotting scopes. While also discussing their uses, backgrounds, and advantages/disadvantages in comparison.

When it comes to certain outside activities or outdoor hobbies, many of these things involve wanting to see the world in a bigger picture. Our eyes are their own definition of powerful viewing mechanisms, but sometimes we just want to have the ability to get into the nitty-gritty details of certain aspects. This is where the aid of long-distance viewing devices come into play. Binoculars vs spotting scopes are the commonly used long-distance viewing mechanisms in this specific niche. 

Spotting scopes and binoculars both service their users to be able to do similar visually and magnify the quality of what’s out there, so it can be hard to figure out which tool will be more worthwhile for your specific needs. The thing is, both tools excel more in different areas, so have an open mind in selecting the right device for your specialized area of interest. 

Below, we cover many of the typical scenarios for the binocular v spotting scope debate. With these descriptions in mind, hopefully, as the buyer, you can find the one that best fits your situation and use this guide to help you think through your purchase.

Newer outdoorsmen or beginning hobbyists tend to confuse the two devices or think of them synonymously to each other. While they both have similar functions and are used by the same specified niche, the two devices couldn’t be more different from their exterior to their interior. It’s best to educate yourself on the ways in which these two devices can be used for different purposes. 

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What is a Spotting Scope?

A spotting scope is at its core, a small telescope that has been modified for daytime use. A spotting scope differs from an astronomical telescope in several ways, one example being that a spotting scope always creates an upright image, whereas a telescope, typically used in astronomy, may produce a reversed image or even an upside-down image. As telescopes are used in the celestial realm where the majority of space objects follow no specific structure for viewing; after all, a star or nebula generally looks the same regardless of its rotated position.

A spotting scope is much smaller, size-wise than your average telescope. This size difference is mainly for the sake of portability as many carry around their spotting scopes in backpacks or specialized carrying cases. Spotting scopes also tend to have a lower magnification than a telescope, since the general atmosphere by day doesn’t need the extreme magnifications as you would expect to use in astronomy. Spotting scopes can be easily mounted onto a typical photo tripod, but a telescope for astronomy requires a specialized mounting device which often many users find unsuitable for daytime use. 

Some general uses for spotting scopes is anytime when the user needs a higher magnification than a binocular would provide. Spotting scopes are widely used for:

  • birding
  • surveillance of property
  • hunting
  • landscape, wildlife
  • sports events held at a distance 
  • ships
  • viewing any other distant object
  • scoring targets on rifle, pistol, or archery ranges
  • compatible with DSLR and other cameras to help take photos

Knowing your Spotting Scope

Most spotting scopes are labeled with three numbers. The first two numbers tell you the scopes magnification range, and the last number is the size of the front lens. For example, using a 15-45×60 model, you would have a spotting scope with a zoom magnification range of 15-45x with a front lens with a 60mm diameter.

Sometimes, a binocular can’t get you close enough to the desired object to show you the detail you need. A spotting scope gets you closer and with more detail, to the subject so you can tell what kind of bird something is, or when used in surveillance, what creature is hiding around the edge of your property. 

What are Binoculars?

Binoculars are the combination of two weaker spotting scopes for viewing an image with the help of both eyes. Because they are designed for an object to be seen using both eyes, beginners can find themselves being able to view objects more comfortably than with a single eye for a spotting scope. Binoculars fall under the overarching branch of telescopes. 

Types of Binoculars

If we think of this as a family tree with the telescopes being the overarching mother, she would have two sons: astronomical or terrestrial.

Binoculars fall under the category of a terrestrial telescope. These use a prism between the objective and eyepiece lenses to increase the size of the image. It is convenient to observe upright and distant images of landscapes and objects.

Galilean Binoculars

Galilean binoculars are named for the shared feature of the same general structure as used in the instrument by the Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei.  These binoculars sport convex lenses instead of objectives, and concave lenses for eyepieces. Like a typical binocular, these will result in producing erect images.

Without the use of a prism in place, binoculars can be made out to be more compact and lightweight. Unfortunately, this also lowers the intensity, in which maximum magnification is up to about 4x. The field of view is not very wide either, and peripheral areas are likely to be out of focus. 

Prism Binoculars

Convex lenses in prism binoculars are used for both as the objective lenses and the eyepieces. In comparison to Galilean binoculars, users are able to experience a wider field of view and high magnification can be attained. 

There are two types of prism binoculars: Roof (Dach) prism type and Porro prism type.

Roof (Dach) Prism Binoculars

“Dach” means roof in German, with this type of prism binoculars featuring a roof-shaped surface. The optical viewing path through the lenses is virtually straight, making it possible for the binoculars to be hearty and well constructed, as well as lightweight. However, manufacturing and adjusting the prism requires very advanced technologies. Consumer demand for this type of binocular is expected to grow, as more customers flock to it for its slim, modern design.

Porro Prism Binoculars

Porro prism binoculars create an erect image with two prisms on each side, creating four prisms total on the binoculars. This type of binocular was invented by Ignazio Porro in Italy, with the longest history among prism binoculars.

Can You Use Binoculars as a Spotting Scope?

Spotting scopes and binoculars share many of the same functions, so it can be hard to figure out which device will be more useful for your needs. Below, there are many of the common scenarios in which you would use either a pair of binoculars or the spotting scope. Going to an in-depth analysis will assist in finding the one that best matches your situation.

The major difference between the two is that spotting scopes have a single lens and single eyepiece, whereas binoculars make use of two separate lenses and eyepieces. Size-wise, Spotting scopes tend to be longer than binoculars, taller, and sometimes wider. Binoculars are going to be more compact in most situations making them generally shorter in length.

When it comes to magnification, binoculars cover the lower end of the spectrum. High-end spotting scopes have the best magnification. The magnification of a Spotting scope is so high that it’s usually hard to use them without being on a tripod or other stabilization device. Even minute changes in position if it was in your hands, could lead the image you see to be jerked around wildly.

Consequently, if you need extremely long-distance viewing, you’re definitely going to be better served from using a spotting scope. Binoculars are most efficient when examining objects up close and into the medium distances.

Do you Need a Spotting Scope or Binoculars for Target Shooting?

Target shooting is an outdoor activity that involves shooting at designated, non-living targets, such as cardboard or paper targets or clay pigeons. This outdoor activity is done for fun, or it can provide us with practice time in the event of using these same weapons in a tactical or hunting scenario.

What makes this activity different from traditional hunting is that it is typically done from a stationary position. This makes it an automatic yes for being an activity that uses a tripod with either binoculars or spotting scope.

Binoculars won’t get you the magnification range that a spotting scope will, but if you plan on shooting for hours upon hours at a time, they’ll be more forgiving on the eyes. If you want to see every detail possible on your target, a spotting scope is for you. Whichever option you go with, be sure to have a stabilizing tripod.

Which is Best for Target Shooting?

Whether target shooting is being done for fun with a group or solitary, this is a great training exercise for hunting. As mentioned before, target shooting takes place from a stationary position, making it a candidate for using a spotting scope. It all depends on the distances at which you’ll be shooting at, but eventually, more experienced shooters will have their targets out to the point where a higher magnification device is needed to view the bullet holes out clearly.  

At which point, you’ll still need to use the tripod, but the spotting scope having a higher magnification would be more efficient in the long run. Something to keep in mind when using either a high-end pair of binoculars or a normal to a high range spotting scope.

Which is Best for Hunting?

Hunters also face a similar decision when choosing between binoculars vs spotting scopes. It’s easy to figure out to use binoculars or spotting scope for hunting. If you’re going to be standing in the relatively same area all day, there’s little reason not to go with a spotting scope as your first choice. Setting up a basic camera tripod is no big deal, as it’s portable and more lightweight. Hunters will also be able to zone in on the animals that are further away than you would be able to with a pair of binoculars. Most hunters generally want to hit their target from a further distance, as the least amount of movement as possible is essential to maintaining the element of surprise.

Of course, hunters still need to take caution when using a spotting scope. Using a device with a higher magnification range can give people the feeling that they can hit targets from further distances than they’re skilled to do. In this scenario, either has an excellent scope on your gun and know your capabilities at shooting at great distances. Like always, those who hunt need to be sure that they’re in the know-how of all laws concerning the responsible and safe shooting.

As a hunter on the move, you probably don’t want to be carrying the additional bulk of a tripod and spotting scope. Furthermore, it can be hard to find a spot in which to stabilize the tripod. Setting up and unfolding and extending the parts of a tripod can create unwanted noise of the tripod against the ground. If you’re trying to quickly assess an area for fast-moving animals, you probably won’t be able to move the spotting scope around fast enough and maintain that detailed focus. In this situation, binoculars will be a better option.

Which is Best for Wildlife and Astronomy Viewing?

Wildlife viewers can benefit more visually when using a spotting scope over a pair of binoculars for several reasons.

Wildlife viewers especially encompass the hobby of going bird watching or even when going outside for a hike through the forest or up the mountainside. Even these wildlife or astronomy viewers don’t generally move as much as those who hunt do. Besides hiking, the average birdwatcher will select a stationary spot in their environment and take in whatever species come their way.

Spotting scopes can provide their owners with clear viewing and detailed precision, allowing wildlife viewers to take the visual aspects of their subject matter. For astronomy, the subject matter is often slow-moving, if not stationary, stars and planets. The higher movement of birds if flying around could be better for a handheld pair of binoculars. In this scenario, depending on distance and visual quality would be the make or break between the two.

Which is Best for Spectator Sports Viewing?

Year-round, millions of people flock out the stands, ready to watch and cheer on their favorite teams. Regardless of the activity at hand, getting up close isn’t exactly the easiest possibility. Fortunately, the distances from the field or arena aren’t nearly as tremendous as nature watching ensues. That being said, there isn’t much confusion as to which optic device best fits the outdoor spectator sports niche best.

While a spotting scope may seem beneficial thanks to their long-distance viewing capability, they don’t make much sense for spectator sports viewing as the distances from gameplay aren’t notoriously far, nor is athletics by any means a relatively stationary sport. Viewing constant movement through a single lens can lead to headaches, not to mention handheld binoculars are more common and would be more well-received than a spotting scope. 

For the average spectator, a quality pair of binoculars provide the viewer with enough detail to see the players and their constant movement. The amount of details isn’t as needed, plus sport designed binoculars have a wide range of magnifications and fields of view, with Permafocus being an option for centralizing the movement of the players, not focusing on them individually.

Conclusion

 As you may already have gathered, one of the biggest factors in whether you should get a spotting scope or a pair of binoculars is the amount of movement that you as the user will be doing or the amount of movement that the intended focus will be on. 

To sum it up, binoculars are your go-to for a portable and lighter viewing experience. Spotting scopes exceed expectations visually in more stationary situations where you can remain in the same spot for extended amounts of time. 

The amount of magnification you’ll need in order for the most visually appealing appearance is the next best thing. Binoculars vs spotting scopes will generally have a wide field of view, letting you examine a larger area at once, but spotting scopes will have better magnification for the price. The amount of details they contract allows the viewing of distinct features. Having discussed many of the events in which these are used, hopefully, there has been more light shed on the buying experience of binoculars or a spotting scope. 

In this article, we’re going to discuss the main difference between binoculars and spotting scopes. While also discussing their uses, backgrounds, and advantages/disadvantages in comparison.