Spotting Scopes vs. Telescopes for Beginner Astronomers

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Spotting Scopes vs. Telescopes for Beginner Astronomers

A few times over the past year, I have met people who, when they had a youngster express interest in astronomy, rushed out to B&H Photo to purchase the family a telescope. In a few of these anecdotes, the telescope saw limited initial use and then it was simply incorporated into the home’s décor—gathering dust in a corner. It became obvious to me that what the family could have benefited from more would have been a spotting scope. And, in all of the cases, the spotting scope wasn’t even on the purchase radar. By default, everyone thinks the telescope is the best way to explore the heavens and it truly is, but the spotting scope presents a great and versatile alternative. Let’s look at the buying choices between spotting scopes and telescopes so that, if you are in the market for yourself, the family, or a space-exploring enthusiastic youngster, you can get something that everyone will enjoy and something from which all will enjoy a great deal of use.

Before we dive in: if you arrived here knowing you want a telescope, but are unsure what type to get, click on over to our telescope buying guide and enjoy the view!

TL;DR

Spotting scopes offer unmatched versatility and durability for primarily terrestrial viewing (think birding) and some astronomical viewing. Telescopes give you a superior view of the heavens, but are less portable, less durable, and slightly more difficult to use than a spotting scope.

Want to know more? Let us look at the pros and cons of the telescope versus the spotting scope…

The Upside-Down

When you look through a telescope, the image is inverted. Spotting scopes, like binoculars, have prisms that flip the image before it reaches your eye so that up is up and down is down. When looking at deep sky objects, the moon, sun, and stars, this reversal is insignificant or a non-issue. When looking at the upside-down bird in the upside-down tree across the upside-down street, it is a bit strange. You can add an erecting diagonal prism to your telescope to “correct” this, but they can degrade the image quality a bit. Spotting scopes, with the built-in prism, do not have this issue.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Durability

Many spotting scopes, like their binocular cousins, are waterproof and fog proof and can also tolerate a bit of shock. They are designed to be taken into the field by hunters, birders, and wildlife watchers. Telescopes, especially larger scopes, are precision devices that are not designed for moving around much, getting bumped, or getting rained on.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Portability

While there are certainly small and portable telescopes, the spotting scope is relatively lightweight and designed for use in the field. Many come with “C-thru” cases (or they are available separately) that protect the scope’s body from wear and scratches while allowing you to use the scope. Larger telescopes can be boxed up and taken out into a dark sky area—often the big telescopes will be transported in two or three separate boxes—they are definitely not designed around portability in the same way a spotting scope is designed.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Configuration

Many spotting scopes are available in two configurations: straight or angled viewing. For birders and casual users, the most popular is, by far, the angled view. Some hunters and shooters prefer the straight view because they are often lying prone on the ground when using the scope. Also, straight viewing makes it easier to find your target and track moving subjects—critical for those terrestrial uses. Telescopes, depending on the type, might have a right-angle viewing option, but some are designed to allow viewing when the scope is pointed skyward—not at terrestrial targets. To emphasize this difference in the two types of scopes, the Dobsonian-type telescope (in the photo below) cannot be used for terrestrial viewing at all.

Advantage: Tie

Ease of Use

Neither the telescope nor the spotting scope, in their basic forms, are difficult to use. One advantage that the spotting scope has is that many come with zoom eyepieces that allow you to zoom in on a distant object once you have the target sighted. Most telescopes change magnification through the use of different eyepieces that need to be switched out. This is not a difficult task, but it means you are carrying multiple items out into the field with your telescope, whereas the spotting scope is pretty much one piece of kit. By the way, you’ll be using a tripod for both types of scopes. While camera tripods will work fine with a spotting scope, larger telescopes will require specialized tripods.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Magnification

There are exceptions, but many spotting scopes max out, with their zoom eyepieces, at 60x magnification. For the photographers, this is basically the equivalent of a 3000mm lens. Larger telescopes are designed for viewing deep sky objects far away in the cosmos. Because of this, they are capable of much larger powers of magnification—more than double the spotting scope. With greater magnification comes more difficulty in targeting—you are pointing a smaller and smaller soda straw at a distant object—and many telescopes come with a finder scope to help with aiming—something I sometimes wish I had on my spotting scope. Spotting scopes sometimes have sight lines to assist (much better for terrestrial viewing), but a finder scope is always a pleasure to use. Also, it is good to note that there are some spotting scopes that accept standard telescope eyepieces for greater magnification capabilities.

Advantage: Telescope

Close Focus

Telescopes are designed to look at objects anywhere from hundreds of thousands of miles away to millions of light years away. Because of this, they do not have admirable close-focusing capabilities. The spotting scope, however, is designed for terrestrial use and can usually focus very close—you can use a spotting scope to get a close-up view of hummingbirds on a feeder or butterflies on a flower from just a few feet away. This is one more thing that adds to the spotting scope’s versatility.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Light Gathering

In an effort to be portable and relatively lightweight, many spotting scopes do not have the light-gathering power of telescopes with their larger diameter optical tube assemblies (OTA). Even the diameter of the largest spotting scopes pales in comparison to the larger home reflector telescopes. The more light that the scope can collect, the brighter the image and the more you will be able to see in the night sky.

Advantage: Telescope

Price

Like everything else in the photography/optics world, you can get in for a little or get in for a lot. Some telescopes and spotting scopes cost less than a nice dinner for two in Manhattan—with cocktails. Some cost more than an automobile. And, here is where it gets wonky in this debate: you can probably get an entry-level telescope for less than an entry-level spotting scope, but a mid-range spotting scope is probably a better value than a mid-range telescope and, at the second mortgage end of things, the big pro telescopes cost much more than a high-end spotting scope. So, you can get started into telescopes for less, but I still think the value lies in the versatility of the spotting scope.

Advantage: Tie

Digiscoping

With the ease of digital photography, lots of folks have the desire to photograph and share what they see through a telescope or spotting scopes. This is called: digiscoping. Most telescopes and spotting scopes can be configured to adapt cameras and/or smartphones with which you can take photos of what is shining through the scope. Depending on your scope and camera, this can be an easy process or a complicated one because some newer scopes are designed for digiscoping compatibility and others require adapters and accessories.

Advantage: Tie

Versatility

While you can certainly use a telescope for terrestrial viewing, they aren’t specifically designed for that task. Conversely, the spotting scope wasn’t designed to look at the moon and planets, but it does a pretty good job of that when needed. Circling back to the budding astronomer who may or may not be in an “it’s just a space-phase” of childhood, the spotting scope can look at the moon, planets, and some deep sky stuff, but it also can look at birds, wildlife, and more without missing a beat. Your family member’s interest in the stars may fade, but almost everyone loves watching birds, mammals, and other creatures up close.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

My $0.02

Based on tales relayed to me about kids temporarily interested in astronomy, I have been recommending that people start their astronomical viewing with a spotting scope. The spotting scope is amazing for studying the moon, seeing the four Jovian moons orbit Jupiter, and for seeing the rings of Saturn. You can also see some deep-sky stuff with this device but, if interest wanes, or clouds are overhead, the versatility, size, and durability of the spotting scope make it a great choice to have around the house or in the field because the entire family can get shared enjoyment out of it without too much hassle or fuss. If interest persists, you can always add a telescope to the family down the road and still have a spotting scope for daily use with birds and other wildlife.

On the other hand, if you, or the intended recipient is super-serious about the stars, then feel free to forgo my advice and head straight for a serious telescope.

10 Comments

So, I just bought a one generation back Vortex Razor HD 20-60x spotting scope with their pro GT tripod for $800 used (retails from 1,400-1,600). I am a birder who is also into astronomy. It was late in the day when I got back and my first viewing with the scope was Jupiter, the moon, and Saturn which were all in a small clump together. I also own two decent reflector telescopes that were given to me by someone who was inheriting some better ones and knew I was into astronomy. Here is my two cents: The advice given in this article is excellent and on-point. You could take this spotting scope backpacking without noticing much extra weight or space taken up in your pack. It is easier to store. The view of Saturn was so sharp it was better than I remembered seeing it in any of the personal telescopes I’ve seen it in. The moon was stunning, and Jupiter as well. I have not used it to look at deep space objects yet. The sky by my house is heavily light polluted, and right now smoke polluted magnifying the light pollution, so we’ll see how that goes—but this spotting scope has a ton of potential. I will probably do more astronomical viewing now because it is so much quicker and easy to set up. HERE’S THE BAD: with the spotting scope mounted on the tripod (it is an angled scope) it is very difficult to get it pointed up at things directly overhead or even remotely overhead. Even zoomed out all the way to 20x it is difficult to search the area you are looking in when you are looking up. It also puts you in a very awkward physical position. I am assuming there are solutions to this as I have not done much research yet. A finder sight for the spotting scope would also be a fantastic thing. But yes, overall great advice especially if you are going for the mid-range price point. 

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for the kind words, affirmation, and thanks for reading!

Just last night a friend told me about buying a telescope for her daughter only to eventually, literally, throw it away, because it did not work as well as they had hoped and was a pain in their arses. Would a spotting scope have saved the day? Maybe!

Yes, there are challenges to viewing into the vertical with a spotting scope (less so with angled scopes)—most telescopes view at right angles to the scope—but that is a small price to pay for the pluses!

Thanks again!

Best,

Todd

Well, I'm an advanced amateur astronomer with two "Dobs" (Newtonain reflectors on alt-azimuth, cannon-like mounts), one 12.5-inch and one 16-inch, as well as two triplet apo refractors, one 80 mm and one 130 mm. Again, both of these are on alt-azimuth mounts (which in turn are set on tripods). I can reliably find and track objects manually without any fuss.

I just bought a new spotting scope from B&H, primarily for astronomical observation. It's highly portable and can be set up and ready to use in literally a minute or two. I put it on an Acratech GP ball head, which has a "gimbal" position, and the head is mounted on a substantial Benro TMA48CL carbon-fiber tripod (again, both acquired from B&H, but long before the spotting scope as I also use the setup for my DSLRs and telephoto lenses). It provides smooth and simple, gimbal-like alt-azimuth movement.

The spotting scope is a Kowa TSN-883 88 mm angled apo spotting scope. It has a triplet objective with a fluorite element and is optically superb and quite suitable for astronomical viewing. I bought the standard 25 to 60x zoom eyepiece, which works well, and the 1.6x extender, which turns the eyepiece into a 40 to 96x zoom (you can see some fine detail on Jupiter with it at 96x). Astronomers would call the extender a "Barlow" and photographers would call it a "teleconverter," and for this scope, the effective focal length is extended from 500 to 800 mm. Kowa also sells an adapter for using standard 1.25-inch astronomical eyepieces. I bought a third-party adapter from B&H (it's the well-known Baader Planetarium brand) and based on limited trials so far, the adapter and astronomical eyepieces work well too. Undoubtedly, I'm not the first one to realize this can be a great little astronomical scope.

Unfortunately, this setup would likely be way too expensive for the vast majority of beginners, but it definitely contradicts the concept that a spotting scope is necessarily the wrong tool for astronomy. Actually, no single type of telescope does all things well astronomically, which is why most advanced amateurs have multiple scopes of different types and sizes.

I would fully agree with the article's premise that a spotting scope, like binoculars, is a good starting point for astronomy, and it offers a viable alternative afterlife if the interest in astronomy wanes. Perhaps an important caveat is that one needs to get one with decent optical quality and a sturdy mount. Many cheap astronomical scopes are deficient in those two respects and are so frustrating to use that they could easily disillusion anyone from pursuing observational astronomy. I often see them at public astronomy events -- someone brings one along and asks why they can't see anything with their [cheap] scope. I try to find a delicate way to tell them it's a piece of junk.

Hey Joe,

First, thank you for shopping at B&H!

Awesome stuff! It is nice that an advanced astronomer agrees with the goal of the article. I appreciate that!

Your point about cheap astronomical telescopes is a good one, and I might have mentioned that in the piece. To add to the discussion, based on what I have seen at the store, and used in the field, it is much more difficult to get a sub-par cheap spotting scope than it is to get a sub-par cheap telescope. Even the low-end spotting scopes can be really good compared to the low-end telescopes. I think this would help bolster the spotting scope argument made above.

I wish my spotter had an astro-eyepiece adapter! Nice choice on the Kowa, by the way...and your support and head are awesome, too!

Thanks for sharing your experience, reading Explora, and shopping at B&H!

Great article. ANY telescope improves one's appreciation of the night sky. The spotting scope (like binoculars) are a good choice because both provide utility night and day. A (admittedly long) comment about "brightness": 50mm wide scopes work well for terrestrial use because (compared to astro work) there is lots of light. With increased magnification, the brightness of a larger objective helps. The view really does appear to be "brighter". But with astronomy, describing a telescope or scope's view as "bright" can be misleading. With the moon and planets as an exception (for some, a big exception), nothing in the night sky is bright. A larger scope lets you see dimmer and dimmer stars. But for large diffuse astro objects like galaxies, the "brightness" of the dim image is effectively limited by your pupil's diameter and how low a magnification you choose. If you want to see all of the Andromeda galaxy or the Triangulum galaxy, you often have to reduce the magnification of the scope (with a longer focal length eyepiece) to fit them into the view. At the low magnifications needed for these large objects, the view from a very large scope is no brighter than that of a spotting scope. Maybe it's sharper--but not brighter. Your pupil's small diameter (even if fully dark-adapted) effectively "dims" the view. When viewing stars, the common term is "limiting magnitude". The larger the scope, the MORE stars you can see. That is, dimmer and dimmer stars become visible. But astronomers typically don't describe this higher magnification view as "brighter". It just lets you see more stars against a (one hopes) black background. In practice, the term "bright" is more often used to describe light pollution, where the background around the stars isn't black. This bright background effectively washes out seeing dim stars at all.  

Hey Fred,

Thank you for the kind words and for the no-too-long comment on brightness. Very very good stuff. I appreciate the explanation and I am sure other readers will, too!

Thanks for reading and taking the time to educate both me and other Explora fans!

Horrible advise, a spotting scope is the wrong tool for astronomy and you will quickly become "disillusioned" with the hobby because you are trying to see things that are constantly moving (telescope mounts track the night sky, tripods do not) and are limited in what you can see because of the often small optics and more basic coatings of spotting scopes because they are ultimately designed to see bright static objects (like a bird sitting on a branch).

Hi Graeme,

Thank you for your comment. You make a very good point regarding tracking telescope mounts and spotting scope coatings. However, when most people begin their astronomy adventures with a telescope, they do not invest in a tracking mount for their first scope so that advantage is not realized until later on. Regarding coatings, you are correct, but, for the eyes of the novice, the subtleties of different coatings will be likely lost. It is rare that a beginning astronomer or someone getting a gift for another person interested in astronomy spends enough money out of the gate to ensure a phenomenal viewing experience.

I will stand by my advice as I think that the spotting scope is a much better value for the consumer that is starting out with astronomy. I personally know several folks who invested in large and complex telescopes that now collect dust in their living rooms where, had they had a spotting scope, they could enjoy both terrestrial and celestial viewing for the whole family.

Thanks for reading Explora and stopping by!

Hi Graeme and Todd.

Just saw your posts and thought I may add some additional info. I use several scopes ranging from SCT through ED Refractors and more recently purchased a Celestron Regal 100ED spotting Scope from B&H.

All scopes have their uses and my recent experiments with the Regal 100 ED have proven very fruitful when I go prime focus and use a small QHY5 mono eyepiece camera (1.25"). Weather permitting I get excellent results for astrophotography work, albeit using my tracking mount. This just makes it very easy to move the scope to and from the mount. It is effectively a 540mm FL and when I replace the eyepiece mono camera with a 10mm eyepiece I have a relatively bright telescope at f/5.4 and around 54 mag easily enough to get nice visual detail on Jupiter. One tip I discovered for a rigid set up is to use a video head and a two point fitting to the scope base using a special vixen style plate I machined myself to fit the video head to the EQ mount. This seems to work real well as the scope has two 1/4 x 20 female mounting points on the base plate and this setup is just a breeze to track with after I centralize onto a target.

Hi David,

Thanks for stopping by! That Celestron Regal 100ED is a great scope and I have always been jealous in the fact that you can use astronomy eyepieces on some of the Celestron spotting scopes—that makes them supremely versatile!

Good stuff!

Best,

Todd

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