Binoculars and spotting scopes are wonderful tools for birders. They both allow the user to find birds that would otherwise be difficult to see like soaring raptors or birds across an impassible habitat, high in a tree or out on the water.
Both binoculars and spotting scopes show clear details and colors, allowing bird watchers to get a closer look at birds that are hard to identify.
There are some key differences in these two pieces of equipment that every birder should be aware of. These differences include how they work, their strengths and weaknesses, and what type of birds they are best for viewing.
Binoculars are good for general birding and when you are looking for birds in trees. A spotting scope is an invaluable tool for long-distance viewing, especially when you are watching birds that are sitting still.
The question of whether a spotting scope vs binoculars is better for bird watching is a difficult question to answer because it really depends on what you require. We’ll break down the finer points of both binoculars and scopes to help you decide which one is right for you.
What’s the difference between a scope and a binocular?
There are some things that binoculars and spotting scopes have in common. Many of the features that standard binoculars offer are common to spotting scopes as well.
Terms describing the quality of the glass, the coatings on the glass, and the waterproofing will be familiar.
As a general rule, the main differences between binoculars and a spotting scope are magnification power, the size of the field of view, and stability. Let’s take a look at these in more detail.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: magnification power
Binoculars typically offer magnification ranges of 8x to 10x. If someone goes for a more high-powered binocular, they could reach up to 12x magnification.
The greater magnification offered by a spotting scope is significantly more, from 20x to 60x. This can be increased even further with the addition of a zoom eyepiece.
Fixed magnification binoculars are the norm for birdwatchers. Binoculars with zoom capability are rarely recommended and only a limited range is available. Discover why here >>> Are zoom binoculars good for bird watching?
The spotting scope is a telescope specifically designed for use from a distance. Spotting scopes are used to look at objects that are far away and they let you see more detail.
Birders find them especially useful when they want to get an up-close look at birds without having to get too close. Using a spotting scope for birding is a great way for people to get really close views of birds without scaring them away.
Many spotting scopes have a magnification of 60x. This means that the image you see is 60 times larger than what you would see just with your eyes.
When the magnification is more than 60x, it can be hard to see something clearly. There are many things that change the image. When you use it in the day, air currents, dust particles, and heat waves may blur what you see when you look through your scope.
Binoculars are fixed-power optics; they only offer one level of magnification.
A scope with a zoom eyepiece, on the other hand, is adjustable; it can zoom in and out to give you more or less of a close-up view. It is also possible to get spotting scopes with fixed magnification or wide angled eyepieces.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: field of view
A higher magnification power means a smaller field of view. A smaller field of view means, though you see the bird itself in more detail, you have a more limited view of its surroundings.
On many birding occasions, a wider field of view is more helpful. For instance, when a small bird takes off unexpectedly, it is easier to follow this quick-moving target or to spot its new location with a wider field of view.
Binoculars have a lesser magnification power than scopes. The wider field of view on binoculars makes it easier to follow moving objects and targets. Both scopes and binoculars can also be bought with wide-angle lenses for an even broader vista.
Spotting scopes also have a narrow field of view and therefore make it difficult to find birds in enclosed areas, like amongst trees.
Although spotting scopes offer superior magnification, they are excellent tools for watching birds that sit still. They are not so good for scanning out into the distance or searching around, which is what birders need to do when they first spot a rare bird.
The advantage of binoculars is that you are looking with two eyes, instead of having to close one. This is easier on your eye muscles and gives you a more natural 3D view, as with the naked eye.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: image stability
The more you magnify an image, the shakier that image becomes. This can make it hard to see anything clearly at very high magnifications.
If you have steady hands, binoculars of a 10x to 12x magnification might work for you. But if not, using binoculars with less magnification power or with something to rest on is best.
It is of course possible to use binoculars of a higher magnification and combine these with a tripod for a steadier image. Using a tripod with either type of optic will give you a stable image.
Spotting scopes are typically mounted on tripods for added stability. It’s a good idea to use tripod-mounted scopes, because any movement of the instrument can cause blurriness. But if you are weighing up this decision, this article may help you: Can I hand hold a spotting scope, without a tripod?
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: size of objective lens
The size of the objective lenses is indicated by the second number after the x. It is measured in millimeters.
For example, a pair of binoculars described as 8×42 has an objective lens diameter measuring 42mm.
The point of the objective lens is to let light into the binoculars. Simply put, the bigger they are, the more light comes into the tube. The more light that gets in, the clearer the image.
Spotting scopes usually have larger objective lenses than binoculars. A typical spotting scope will have an objective lens between 45 to 100mm, though the range between 60 and 80 is most common. An average binocular has a 25-42mm lens.
Because spotting scopes have a larger objective lens and gather in more light, their image will be brighter and clearer.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: low light conditions
With a larger lens that collects more light, spotting scopes perform better than binoculars in low light. At these times of the day or weather conditions, use the lowest power possible for the best images.
Scopes with high-quality glass and coatings will enhance light transmission so you can see clearer and brighter images for longer, earlier, and later in the day.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: portability
When looking at the pros and cons of binoculars, we must consider how easy they are to carry with you as opposed to spotting scopes.
If you use a strap or harness to attach them to your body, you can carry them without using your hands. Being wearable, binoculars are always ready to use because they do not need to be set up on a tripod.
Binoculars are not heavy in comparison to a scope plus tripod. Cumulatively, though, they might become too heavy for people with less arm strength to use them for long periods of time.
Spotting scopes tend to be not so easily portable and much heavier than binoculars to carry around. Optics manufacturers are making it easier to take your spotting scope with you. There are devices like shoulder straps to carry it around, and mount it quickly.
But you still need a tripod for the best results. If a birder needs to go some distance to watch the birds, like a hide, they will need to carry their scope plus the tripod. This can be hard because it is awkward and extra weight.
Spotting scopes require tripods
Birders who travel more extensively may find it a challenge to transport the scope and tripod safely without damage. There may be limits on what bags they can put in their car or how much room or weight they can spare with an airline’s luggage allowance.
However, you don’t normally need to hold up a scope to view birds. So in this sense using a tripod-mounted scope doesn’t strain your muscles as binoculars could.
They are heavier than binoculars, but offer higher magnification and better clarity for birders who want detailed views of birds.
There are smaller and more lightweight scopes available on the market, if your priority is to find one that is easier to take with you when you travel. These offer you the same high magnification as a normal spotting scope but in a more compact size. It’s possible to find a compact spotter suitable for handheld use.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: price
Clearly, they are different instruments so it is not entirely fair to compare prices. In general, binoculars are usually cheaper than spotting scopes. This is due to their lesser magnification power and smaller lenses.
For smaller budgets, it is better to spend on high-quality binoculars than on other types of optics. What you might pay for high-end binoculars can be equivalent to the cost of a lower-end spotting scope.
But if your budget allows it, a high-quality spotting scope can be worth the investment because they offer higher quality views than most other types of optical devices.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: close focus
Close focus is the minimum distance away from you an object can be for an optic to be able to focus on it. The term ‘near focus’ is also used. As magnification increases, the close focus point gets further away.
Binoculars tend to have a lower magnification level than spotting scopes, but they also have a nearer close-focus point. This gives you the option to look more closely at things nearby.
In the case of short-range viewing, binoculars would be more versatile. The magnification levels of spotting scopes mean they are more suited to long distances
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: viewing angle
You look straight into binoculars whereas most spotting scopes are angled. If you put a scope on a tripod, it is easier to look through the eyepiece when it is angled. You can bend down and not have to lower your whole body.
A 45-degree viewing angle also allows for more versatility because it is easier for users of differing heights to share optics. You can just set the tripod to the level of the shortest person and it’s still comfortable for taller people to look into it.
It is possible to find angled binoculars, but they are not as common.
Straight spotting scopes tend to be less popular than the angled ones and so there are fewer models on the market to choose from.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: versatility
Binoculars allow you to use both eyes. This can reduce eye fatigue during long sessions. It relieves the amount of strain on one side in particular, or your favored eye if you are viewing things for an extended period of time.
If you think you prefer binoculars, a good choice is a high-quality pair with powerful magnification. They should be durable without being heavy or difficult to carry.
A 10×42 pair of birding binoculars could be a sound choice as this size is both powerful and portable. There are also options with more power.
In wide-open areas, a spotter scope is a good way to see things in detail from a long distance.
In terms of different configurations, upgrades, and variations on usage, the wide range of binoculars probably has the edge on scopes. There is also a great number of scopes, though, boasting many of the same features as binoculars.
Spotting scopes vs binoculars: digiscoping and photography
Digiscoping is taking photos through an optical magnifying device, like binoculars or a spotting scope. If you are planning on doing digiscoping or photography while you are birding, it is easier to find a spotting scope that will adapt than a binocular.
A long focal length will give a better image, though image shake is more of a challenge. Results also tend to be better when using a tripod-mounted device – the more stable the better.
Advantages and disadvantages of binoculars
Pros of binoculars
- easier to use
- wider field of view
- portability – more compact and easier to carry on your body
- more lightweight than a full-size spotting scope
- binocular vision – use two lenses means less likelihood of eye strain
- wide availability of different magnifications
Cons of binoculars
- limited magnification power, so less detailed image
- colors can lose brightness
- less stable because handheld
- difficult for people with less arm strength
Advantages and disadvantages of spotting scopes for birding
Pros of spotting scopes
- mounted on a tripod it is more stable
- more magnification capabilities so greater detail
- better for digiscoping
Cons of spotting scopes
- smaller field of view
- less easy comfortable to carry around
- less able to react to follow moving birds
- takes time to set up
- difficult to adjust quickly
Spotting scope vs binoculars combination
For some people, sacrificing some portability is worth it to carry both a spotting scope and a binocular.
Though it is more cumbersome to carry and adds weight, a spotting scope with high-quality glass provides such a clearer view and higher magnification levels that it justifies the inconvenience. Having both options available allows you get so much closer to your target without any compromise in viewing quality.
Pros of spotting scope vs binoculars combination
- Both high and low power
- Magnification range can be adjustable
- Option to see long range
Cons of spotting scope vs binoculars combination
- some blurring from atmospheric conditions
- eye fatigue from long use of the scope
- different terrains might not suit a spotting scope
Binoculars vs spotting scopes: where and when to use them
Where and when should I use binoculars?
Binoculars are invaluable tools, better for general birding. A good pair is compact and lightweight. They are well suited in a tough environment, where you are traveling over difficult terrain or in inclement weather.
Binoculars also have the advantage of a wide field of view, which is great for finding birds in the first place.
Because birds often move quickly, birders need to be able to follow them with their binoculars. With binoculars, it is easy to change position and refocus quickly.
Binoculars are easy to move around, so you follow the trajectory of birds in flight. This means they’re great for watching active birds.
Where and when should I use a spotting scope?
Spotting scopes should be used when you want to get a closer look at a specific bird or when you are in a stationary position and can set up your equipment on a tripod. You don’t need to try to get close to birds and risk scaring or stressing them.
Scopes are better for more stationary use. Spotting scopes can be mounted on sturdy tripods or placed on a flat surface.
Do I need a spotting scope or binoculars for bird watching?
They both have their pros and cons, but if you need unparalleled magnification power then a scope may be a better option.
When a spotting scope is best for birding
A spotting scope is perfect if all the details are what concern you. Its high power allows viewers to see things up close with amazing clarity.
If you watch birds from your home, or if you are in a stationary position for a long time, it may be helpful to use a spotting scope. Long-range birding is best experienced with a spotting scope.
For instance, for people who like to visit big areas and look at rivers, open vistas, and wide rivers or marshes, a spotting scope might be best.
When binoculars are best for birding
If you enjoy watching birds in your backyard, a local park, or a woodland trail, binoculars can be most useful. We discuss the merits of higher power binoculars in this article, focusing on whether 12x binoculars are good for birding.
If you travel often and want something that is easy to pack, then binoculars may be good for you because they are lighter than other types of optics. They are also the preferred way to avoid eye fatigue.
These two types of high-quality optics each have their own advantages and disadvantages when used for bird watching. We’ve evaluated the pros and cons of each option so you can make the best decision for your needs.
If you are still wondering whether to use a spotting scope instead of binoculars, there is no clear winner because which type of optics to choose really depends on the kind of birding you prefer. We also look at how effective it is to use telephoto lenses for bird watching.
If you’re a very keen birdwatcher, the choice between binoculars and spotting scopes may not apply. You might decide to benefit from having both binoculars and a spotting scope – the first, to scan the landscape and spot your target and the second to then hone in on it!
- 1 What’s the difference between a scope and a binocular?
- 2 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: magnification power
- 3 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: field of view
- 4 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: image stability
- 5 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: size of objective lens
- 6 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: low light conditions
- 7 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: portability
- 8 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: price
- 9 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: close focus
- 10 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: viewing angle
- 11 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: versatility
- 12 Spotting scopes vs binoculars: digiscoping and photography
- 13 Advantages and disadvantages of binoculars
- 14 Advantages and disadvantages of spotting scopes for birding
- 15 Spotting scope vs binoculars combination
- 16 Binoculars vs spotting scopes: where and when to use them
- 17 Do I need a spotting scope or binoculars for bird watching?