A spotting scope is a great way to observe the birds in your area. The best way to get clear images through your scope is to use it mounted on a tripod.
If you are going to be using a tripod with your scope, then you will want to make sure that the one you choose suits both your spotting scope and your birding requirements. In this article we talk about how to choose a tripod for a spotting scope and which features are most important. These factors include adjustable legs, a moveable head and the material from which the tripod is made.
For most birders, the best tripod for a spotting scope is stable and portable. It will ensure steady views even if there are strong winds, without being too heavy or expensive. A good tripod can be adjusted to suit different terrains and to fit the height of the viewer so that it can be used comfortably without leaning or stretching.
Some manufacturers include a tripod with spotting scopes. If the one that is included is sturdy enough to support your scope, great! Sometimes it is possible just to use a standard camera tripod with your spotting scope.
So what are the most important factors to weigh up when choosing a tripod?
Stability is key not only for clear images, but for the safety of the spotting scope itself. The factors that contribute to a tripod’s stability are the design and the materials. Higher magnification spotting scopes, with objective lenses upwards of say 60mm, are typically larger. In this case, you may need an even more stable tripod.
The weight of the tripod itself is a key consideration for most people. How much weight does it add to the rest of your gear? And how far will you need to carry it all?
Most birders are likely to need to use their spotting scope in a variety of terrains. Some tripods can be adjusted for use at different heights, for use resting on tabletops or perched on the uneven sides of mountains.
When deciding on which height of tripod to buy, the primary factors to consider are your own height and the design of your spotting scope.
Is it a straight bodied scope or an angled scope?
An angled scope will be used at a lower height than a straight scope because you lean over and look down into the eyepiece. So you can get a shorter tripod.
With a straight scope, the eyepiece needs to be directly in line with the eye of the viewer. The best height is one that allows you to put your eye to the eyepiece without having to alter your natural body position. So you will be neither stretching nor stooping.
For viewing on level ground, the best height for a tripod with a straight spotting scope is eye level or higher.
For viewing an object that is at a higher elevation, uphill from where you are or in the sky, you will need a tripod to be even taller. It needs extra height for the straight scope to be angled up at the object while still allowing you to be able to get underneath the eyepiece to align your eye correctly.
Read all about the differences here….
Will you be birdwatching while sitting down or standing?
The tripod should be able to extend to the appropriate height for you to use for hours whilst maintaining its stability. Many tripods feature a center pole that extends further in addition to the three legs, giving the option for more height.
Using this does reduce the tripod’s overall stability, though, especially when it’s windy. Keeping the center column retracted reduces vibration and offers a less blurry image. This is an important point to bear in mind if you are tall and require a tripod to accommodate your height without any need to extend it further.
Some models of tripod have a center post that can be removed, making them easier to pack and transport.
How to calculate what height tripod to buy
Note these measurements:
The distance of your eyes from the top of your head
The distance of the scope’s eyepiece to the bottom of its mount plate
The height of the tripod head.
Add all these together.
Take the total away from your height.
The answer is how tall the tripod needs to be (without the head)
Say the first three measurements were each four inches.
4 inches x 3 = 12 inches
Then the tripod would need to be a foot shorter than you.
The three kinds of tripods for spotting scopes
Tabletop or shooter’s tripod
Tabletop tripods are about 8 to 18 inches tall, but do not tend to have extending legs. They are designed for use with a platform, like a table or shooting bench. Here are some examples: The best table-top tripods (great for travel or backyard birding!)
Compact tripods can be used sitting down. They are taller than tabletop tripods and not for use on a platform.
Their small proportions make them ideal for people who like to take their optics hiking and need a portable tripod to support them. These options are our contenders for The best lightweight compact tripod kits (top for travel)
The standard height of a full-size tripod is from 26 to 57 inches. Many can reach up to a height of 72 inches with the center pole extended. For tripods that can cope well in windy conditions, and provide extra stability, we suggest these: Best heavy duty tripod for extra stability (big scopes or windy conditions)
The types of tripod head
The ideal set-up is a tripod whose legs stay totally still, fitted with a moveable head. A moveable head enables you to angle the scope in whichever direction you want.
Tripod heads are available in different styles. We have detailed descriptions of each type of tripod head in our separate article here >>>
Tripods are available as single units or as separate pieces. So you could get the legs from one manufacturer and the head from another.
When it comes to connecting the legs and the head together, they generally have standardized mounting screws. If not, it is possible to use an adapter if there is a different sized bolt to attach the head.
For scopes sized up to 50mm, the single unit tripods are suitable. They will usually accommodate a lightweight 60mm scope too.
For scopes sized from 60mm, which will be heavier, the tripods with separate legs and head provide more stability. For tripod legs only, we recommend these options: The best tripod legs for birding spotting scopes
Tripod legs usually have three collapsible sections. Some tripods have four sections. Though the four-section tripods maintain stability, they can take a little more work to get set up.
One of the most important things to look for is that the legs of the tripod can be adjusted individually. Then you can set them to different heights and different angles if necessary, so that the tripod is stable on uneven terrain.
What material is best for a tripod?
The options are carbon fiber, aluminum or wood. Each has their pros and cons. Carbon fiber tripods are probably the front runner. They are a lightweight composite material, with numerous plus points.
Considerations when choosing which material is best for a tripod are:
- Strength and sturdiness
- Comfort in different temperatures
Carbon fiber tripods: advantages and disadvantages
- Portability – can be 30% lighter than the equivalent size and strength of aluminum
- Vibration absorption – better stiffness and damping suppresses
- Temperature tolerance – does not absorb heat or cold so more pleasant to handle in heat/cold
- Price – can cost more than double the price of aluminum (but if you intend to carry it a long way this can be worth paying)
- Less effective in wind
- Not as durable as aluminum – shatters under stress
If you’d like to compare specific weights of different carbon fiber tripods, we give some specific examples here >>> Which is the best carbon fiber tripod?
Aluminum tripods: advantages and disadvantages
- Price – significantly cheaper than carbon fiber
- Durability and resistance to damage – only bends under severe stress, rather than breaking like carbon fiber
- Weight – heavier than carbon fiber
- Discomfort in extreme temperatures – too cold/hot to handle (This problem can be solved by finding a tripod with insulated grips or by adding DIY insulation.)
For some practical measurements to understand size and weight comparisons, you may find value from this list of aluminum tripod kits >>> Aluminum tripods for birding: our top picks
Wooden tripods: advantages and disadvantages
- Temperature tolerant
- Weight – heavier than aluminum or carbon fiber
- Size – cannot be folded down
How do the legs lock?
The three locking mechanisms are:
These are the quickest to set up. All it takes is opening and closing the lever. The disadvantage is that the levers may lose their locking grip over time.
The twist locks take a little longer to assemble as they need to be twisted into place by hand.
These take the longest to assemble. They need to be locked and unlocked with a tool that fits onto one of the legs.
In addition to the tripod’s legs, it is a good idea to pay attention to its feet, which need to grip the ground as well as possible. You may see tripods with spiked feet, but the standard simple feet are adequate for most birders’ needs.
Maximum load weight
Each tripod and head is built to carry a maximum weight. This is specified in pounds or kilograms to state the maximum amount of weight that a tripod will support safely.
So you need to know the combined weight of the tripod head and the scope. And make sure that the maximum load of the tripod specified by the manufacturer can support this total weight.
A large maximum load weight is no guarantee of the stability of the tripod. This is determined by the design and engineering and is less easy to measure in numbers. The wobble factor of the tripod is something that you need to test yourself. The last thing you want is for your precious optics to take a tumble on uneven ground or in windy weather.
Frequently asked questions: Can I use a spotting scope without a tripod?
Spotting scopes are typically mounted on tripods for stability. Their high power allows viewers to see things up close with amazing clarity because of their high magnification.
But any movement of the instrument can cause blurriness of the image. This is called image shake. Image shake results from the small natural movement of your body. Breathing and heartbeats can be so inconvenient when you’re trying to hold your optics still!
No matter how hard we try to remain motionless, our bodies make very slight movements. These movements are accentuated by the magnification of your spotting scope.
It’s not something we are aware of with our ordinary vision, but the higher the magnification of the optics, the more you will notice the movement through the lens. This can make it hard to see anything clearly at a very high magnification unless the scope is totally still.
Is portability your priority?
But for birders who travel more extensively or people who hike a long way over difficult terrain, portability and compactness might be priorities. In this case, it could be worth considering one of the compact spotting scopes on the market.
Some of these models, especially those with lower power and premium optical components, have the potential to be hand held.
The design of an angled spotting scope means that it is more suitable for hand holding than a straight one. Its shorter body and straight viewing scope means the weight is centered better. This makes it easier to keep stable in the hands.
To use a spotting scope freehand without a tripod, look for things in the environment to stabilize it, like a branch, fence, wall, picnic table, car roof… Even balancing a scope on your pack is an option to make it easier to hold still.
To appreciate the full potential of a spotting scope, though, it’s a good idea to use a tripod. With a tripod it is easier to keep your scope aimed steadily at the same subject for a long period of time, or to share the view with fellow birders.
So whether you are going to share your scope or enjoy all the views yourself, read on to find out what to consider when choosing the best tripod for your spotting scope.
Frequently asked questions: Can I use a monopod instead of a tripod?
Advantages of a monopod
- Lighter weight
- More easily packable
- Versatile for hiking and trekking – and doubles as a walking stick
- Quicker and easier to set up and reposition
- Take up less ground area in tight spaces like narrow trails or crowded hides
Disadvantages of a monopod
- Less stability than a tripod
- Cannot be used hands-free
- Less suitable for digiscoping with a full-size scope
- Difficult to switch optics if using both binoculars and a scope
- Less easy to share with fellow birders in comparison to a stationary tripod
If saving on weight and size are important to you, then it can be worth finding a good monopod. Depending on the size of the spotting scope, they offer stability that approaches that of a tripod.
Monopods work best for smaller spotting scopes, with objective lenses of 50mm to 56mm. If the scope is really lightweight, then models with objective lens sizes up to 60mm can also work with a monopod if portability is paramount.
But scopes with magnifications over 15x or 20x, or with objectives 60mm+ will benefit from the added stability of a tripod.
As with a tripod, the main considerations when choosing a monopod are its weight and dimensions and its maximum load capacity. Are there other features you require, too, like rubber feet or a cushioned grip?
Ready to choose a tripod for your spotting scope? Solved!
When it comes to choosing a tripod for your spotting scope, there are many factors we have considered here.
Is the height of the tripod adjustable and if so how high can it go? At what angle will the legs extend? How easily manoeuvrable is the head?
If you are looking to buy the legs from one manufacturer and the head from another, these articles may offer assistance. Click here for The best tripod legs for birding spotting scopes or here for the The best tripod heads for birding spotting scopes
Is the tripod made of a material that meets your main priorities, whether they are weight, durability, stability or cost? The type of terrain you will be using this on also matters as well as how much weight the tripod needs to support.
When you are using a spotting scope for birding, a solidly built tripod is the foundation that will stabilize the scope and ensure you can appreciate clear, shake-free images of the bird life. It is a very worthwhile investment, so take your time deciding.
Be prepared to spend as much as you can afford on something stable enough for your spotting scope but light enough that it can easily be carried around on a hike or trip into nature. For a round-up of overall choices for tripod legs and tripod head combined, feel free to take a look to see What are the best tripod kits for birding?
Have fun choosing!
- 1 Stability
- 2 Weight
- 3 Versatility
- 4 Height
- 5 The three kinds of tripods for spotting scopes
- 6 The types of tripod head
- 7 Tripod legs
- 8 What material is best for a tripod?
- 9 Carbon fiber tripods: advantages and disadvantages
- 10 Aluminum tripods: advantages and disadvantages
- 11 Wooden tripods: advantages and disadvantages
- 12 How do the legs lock?
- 13 Tripod feet
- 14 Maximum load weight
- 15 Frequently asked questions: Can I use a spotting scope without a tripod?
- 16 Frequently asked questions: Can I use a monopod instead of a tripod?
- 17 Ready to choose a tripod for your spotting scope? Solved!