An integral part of your kit for birdwatching using a spotting scope will be a sturdy tripod.
The high power of your spotting scope means that it needs to be supported on a steady base. At this power, even slight movement will blur the images. Without a tripod, you won’t be getting the best from your high-powered optics.
For spotting scopes with a magnification lower than 40x, a monopod may be an option. We debate this in more detail here.
But for any magnifications higher than 40x (most scopes will be in excess of 60x), most birders find that a more stable support is best.
Once you have the most suitable tripod to support your spotting scope, what is the best way to set it up? Here we suggest the main considerations so that you get a great view every time.
Why it’s a good idea to use tripods for straight or angled spotting scopes
A tripod will give you maximum benefit of your scope. To reduce vibrations, purchase a strong and solid tripod.
Spotting scopes are not often very heavy. This is good news because they do not need to be on really large tripods.
The most important consideration for a tripod is to make sure it is of a solid enough construction to be stable, with adjustable legs.
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. The intention of this is to make it easier to keep stable in the hands.
For best results, a tripod is recommended for either a straight or an angled spotting scope. We have a special article on what to look for when buying a suitable tripod for your spotting scope.
Would you like to explore if hand holding the spotting scope would be a viable option for your kind of birding? If so, feel free to check the ideas in this article: Can I hand hold a spotting scope, without a tripod?
How to set up the tripod for a spotting scope
The best height for either type of scope 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.
Precisely how high you set up the tripod will vary. It depends on:
- what kind of spotting scope you have
- the situation in which you are using the scope
First, it’s best to find a rough height for the tripod. At this stage, you are working out the approximate height of the tripod by itself, before attaching the scope.
What to focus on initially is visualizing the addition of the scope and its extra height, without its actual weight making the tripod more cumbersome to set up. Putting the scope on is the next stage.
The key thing to consider, along with what type of scope you have, is where you are in relation to the birds you are watching. Here are a few tips to help figure out a good height to start with.
The best position for a tripod when using an angled scope
The bend of an angled spotting scope puts the eyepiece at a higher position than the body of the tripod. This means that you look down into the scope with the tripod set at a lower position than you would need for a straight spotting scope.
If you are viewing on level ground, the best height for a tripod with an angled spotting scope is lower than your natural eye level.
It is marginally more difficult to use an angled spotting scope in combination with binoculars because of the slight discrepancy in viewing height. This is because the binoculars have straight tubes in contrast to the scope’s angled body.
It doesn’t matter whether you are using binoculars freehand or switching between scope and binoculars on the tripod. In either case, the image that you see through binoculars is the image seen from the level of the naked eye.
In the case of an angled scope, however, the image that your eye sees is actually a little lower than the true level of your eye height.
The difference depends on the steepness of the angle on your scope. Most are now at an angle of around 30 degrees, but the angle could be as much as 45 degrees.
Find the correct height for a tripod with an angled scope
If you are using an angled scope to view something above you – for example, birds in the sky or high up on cliffs – then your scope will need to be at a higher level than it would be for viewing birds at the same elevation.
When viewing something at a lower elevation, it is difficult to use an angled scope. This is due to the need to point the scope at a steep angle. Some scopes will have the capability to loosen the collar.
Once you do this, with many scopes, you can then rotate the scope sideways. This effectively lowers the level of the eyepiece, and therefore allows you to look into it more comfortably.
This is a good feature to look out for to make your scope more versatile in all potential viewing positions.
To compare exact specifications of spotting scopes, including their main features, we have a comprehensive round-up here: Which is the best spotting scope for bird watching?.
The best position for a tripod when using a straight spotting scope
If you are using a straight spotting scope, your eye will need to be aligned horizontally with the eyepiece.
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 lower location, downhill from where you are, then a straight scope is easier to point downwards than an angled one.
Find the correct height for a tripod with a straight scope
If you are using your straight spotting scope in conjunction with binoculars both viewing positions will be at the same height. This is because both instruments have straight tubes. In this situation, it might be easier if you are using the binoculars mounted on your tripod rather than handheld.
If you are viewing something above you, for example birds in the sky or up on cliffs, then your straight scope will need to be at an even higher level than it would be for viewing at the same elevation.
The tripod needs to be holding the straight scope in a position that is slightly above you. That enables you to get underneath it while pointing the scope skywards.
Leave as many parts as possible unextended
The less of the tripod that is extended, the more stability it retains. It’s a good idea to leave as much as possible still retracted.
No matter how well made or tightly secure the tripod, each join or point of extension is a potential spot for movement. And of course what every spotting scope user wants is to be as wobble-free as possible!
In particular, tripods tend to lose stability with the central column extended. Ideally, it would be possible to achieve a sufficient height for the spotting scope without extending the central column.
So if you are using a straight scope on a tripod, the solution for the best stability is a tall tripod. Then the tripod requires less extension and you retain as much stability as possible.
For this purpose, to save you scouring the specifications for maximum heights, we have compiled a list of the tallest tripods that we could find. These are the tallest tripods that manage to achieve a decent height without needing to extend the central column: The best tall tripod for birding (good for straight scopes)
Tips on extending the tripod legs
If the legs of the tripod need to be extended, unlock them from their folded position. Most of them have a clip that lifts out then folds back into place once the leg is at the correct height.
Depending on the level of the ground or rough terrain, the legs may need to be set at different heights. To start with, estimate an approximate height before adding the scope.
Tips on where to place the legs
The adjustable legs of your tripod allow you to ensure that it has maximum stability whatever the terrain.
One pro tip is to pay attention to the placement of the tripod bearing in mind your position. Then you can set up each of the tripod legs to be in a convenient place in relation to where you want to put your own legs!
Allow a gap so that you can plant your own feet in a comfortable and stable position. Also you want to be able to manoeuver around the outside of the tripod as necessary.
Secure the tripod and spotting scope
If the wind is strong, try using the scope while sitting down or kneeling. In this situation, you can leave the tripod only partially extended.
Orienting the tripod so that one of the legs points downwind gives extra stability in really windy conditions.
It can also help to hang your bag or something even heavier from the tripod. Some tripods feature a hook underneath the head for this purpose.
Stability is a really important feature of your tripod. In addition to the brief suggestions above, we have more extensive tips on how to achieve really steady views here.
Practise putting the scope on the tripod
Unpack your scope. Some scopes need to be removed totally from their case. Others can be used while still in a protective jacket.
Attach the scope to the adaptor or mounting plate. Many of these attachments can be detached from the tripod itself. This makes it easier to screw on the scope.
Different adaptors fix onto the tripod in different ways. Some are fitted with a quick-release locking system. For full details of the various easy attachment systems that you might encounter, feel free to check this article: Arca-Swiss vs Manfrotto RC2: all about quick release systems
If the scope has one of these quick-release attachments, ensure that the lock has fully engaged so that the scope is securely fitted onto the tripod. And double check!
We also offer a complete guide on how to attach your spotting scope to the tripod. So you may wish to check that out to make sure you have everything covered before proceeding.
Try it at home first!
Before you leave home it’s best to make sure that you know how to attach the spotting scope to the tripod or tripod head. Usually the attachment will have a thread just like cameras do, so it will fit on a standard tripod.
Some scopes have a special plate attachment that needs to be switched over. If you have already checked this at home then you already know if you need any tools for this and can be sure to have all you need on hand.
Work out the scope’s correct eye level on the tripod
Once the scope is attached to the tripod, you can adjust the height of the tripod to suit your eye level, according to the type of scopes you have and the elevation of what you are looking at.
Always double-check that you have locked each leg after altering the height.
Extending the central pole of the tripod will add more height. Bear in mind that can reduce the stability of the tripod overall.
Setting up a tripod for a scope: next steps
Now you’ve followed these stages to set up a tripod in a suitable position and at the appropriate height to hold a spotting scope. So what is the best thing to develop next?
Keen to refresh your knowledge or hone your skills at using the spotting scope? Feel free to browse this article on using a spotting scope, which covers topics like aiming the scope and the best way to sight birds through it.
Setting up a tripod for a spotting scope could be extra challenging in windy conditions, or on uneven ground and loose surfaces. To get the optimum performance from your tripod in these circumstances, it’s worth knowing some of these simple but effective tricks on how to stabilize a tripod.
All of those tips are easily actionable. They use resources that you are already carrying, or natural objects present in your immediate environment…
We wish you lots of relaxed and enjoyable birding once you have a tripod set up to hold your spotting scope secure and stable!
- 1 Why it’s a good idea to use tripods for straight or angled spotting scopes
- 2 How to set up the tripod for a spotting scope
- 3 Leave as many parts as possible unextended
- 4 Tips on extending the tripod legs
- 5 Secure the tripod and spotting scope
- 6 Work out the scope’s correct eye level on the tripod
- 7 Setting up a tripod for a scope: next steps