Spotting Scope Vs Telescope – Which Is Best & Why?

You may be wondering what the differences are between a spotting scope and a telescope.

It’s a common question and a valid one.

If you’re a beginner to telescopes, you may quickly come to recognize how features may blur and blend between the two types of optics and getting a clear picture of their differences may be difficult.

Features and other important considerations are put the test here. By the end, you should have a clear path to which is the right optic for you.

Telescope & Spotting Scope Uses

To pit these scopes head to head in competition, they must be adequately examined beforehand.

What uses do they provide, and can they be compared?

Let’s find out.

Spotting Scopes

These are excellent optics for both close and long-range terrestrial use. Applications include:

  • Target Range (rifle & bow)
  • Sniper Shooting
  • Surveillance
  • Hunting
  • Birdwatching
  • Digiscoping
  • Entry-level astronomy

Telescopes

Telescopes are made to explore objects in space whether it’s to observe the moon and planets within our solar system or investigate deep space objects, solar eclipses and more. Astronomy is its primary use and therefore a main strength and benefit. With the right specs and accessories, astrophotography is also possible.

However, some telescopes with additional accessories like that of a diagonal can help to expand applications to include terrestrial viewing which can consist of:

  • Birdwatching
  • Target Range (rifle & bow)
  • Digiscoping

When comparing the two types of optics, it’s like trying to compare between boots and dress shoes. They’re both shoes that can be worn, but one is made for heavy-duty wear and tear while the other is made for a completely different set of circumstances. Yes, they can be compared, but the circumstances matter.

Consider the 80/20 rule with the 80% percent determining what type of scope is needed. For example, if you’re land-based viewing 80% of the time, a spotting scope does it. If you’re looking into the skies 80% of the time, a telescope is the way to go.

Spotting Scopes VS Telescopes

What are the differences between telescopes and spotting scopes?

Which one will serve you better in the field or for astrophotography?

Think over the following and evaluate what your needs are. You may confirm your suspicions or find yourself on the other team as you learn more about what these scopes can offer you.

Magnification

Telescopes will always come out ahead in the magnification race. They can produce much better image quality for the amount of magnification provided at high powers compared to spotting scopes. They can offer very low magnification of, say 40x, but they can also provide up to 140x magnification and more. The ability to add eyepieces and attachments to increase magnification is available, and extreme high power is well within your telescope’s ability to achieve.

However, you must note that actual useful maximum magnification can be very different to the numbers you may assume. For example, an eyepiece with 120x magnification combined with a 2x Barlow lens may offer 240x magnification. But, if your scope’s theoretical maximum magnification (aperture in inches multiplied by 50) is 140x, then optical image quality will be compromised above 140x regardless of what the eyepiece can achieve.

Winner: Telescopes

Zoom Magnification

Being able to zoom (variable power) with an optic is helpful to those who want to scan an area and then home in on a target for detail. This is popular for terrestrial viewing such as birdwatching, wildlife observation, and more. As such, spotting scopes come in first place for variable power ability. They’re primarily designed with a magnification ring that allows for distant viewing at low power around 20x and zooming in for greater detail at 60x, 80x, and 100x.

On the other hand, telescopes don’t generally offer variable power. Eyepieces are attached to the scope to offer a high, fixed magnification. To get even greater or less power, you must change out the eyepiece or use eyepiece lens attachments.

Winner: Spotting Scopes

Image Orientation

How will you see an image through a telescope versus a spotting scope? Since spotting scopes are made primarily made for terrestrial use, optical components are arranged to provide a right-way up and right-way round image – just as you would normally see. However, telescopes work differently.

Reflector telescopes are excellent for astronomy, but image orientation is presented upside down.

Refractor telescopes produce a backwards image from left to right. This is fine for celestial viewing but not for terrestrial, however, they’re often used for terrestrial viewing when a diagonal is incorporated. This accessory corrects the backwards image so you can see right-way round.

Why an upside down or inverted image at all? Telescope optics are designed to let in maximum light and introducing more glass to correct image orientation can interfere with image quality and increased light loss. One argument is that you don’t need “corrected” image orientation when looking into deep space.

As far as image orientation goes, it really depends on what you’re using your type of scope for. If it’s terrestrial with some astronomy, then a spotting scope is the way to go. If it’s astronomy with minimal land-use, a telescope with a diagonal will serve you well. If astronomy is the name of the game, a telescope is your best buy and image orientation will be a non-issue – you’ll learn the skills needed to orient yourself with the night sky.

Winner: Tie

Image Stability

You’d might assume that spotting scopes take the lead here with image stability. Telescopes require a tripod, whereas spotting scopes provide the best image stability with a tripod, but you can use some models as a handheld optic. The concept is, the lower the magnification, the easier it is to achieve a stable image. Since spotters offer less magnification than telescopes, they would have an advantage.  

However, spotting scopes suffer from image instability as do telescopes. What is the common component? The tripod, base, whatever is used to secure the optic. Many tripods and mounts are included with purchase of both a spotting scope and telescope, but oftentimes, they’re mediocre in quality, are only usable at table/bench height, and are very flimsy fully extended.

At some point, you must upgrade to a higher quality tripod and possibly replace the mount. Since both types of optics depend on these separate purchases for the best stabilized image, it’s a draw.

Winner: Tie

Terrestrial Viewing

Land-based viewing. If you’re looking to buy a scope for short-range observation, which would be land-based observation, you’ll need a spotting scope. Spotting scopes offer lower power, variable magnification, and ease of use due to their compact and lightweight design. Due to their prismatic optics, images are shown as static – images represented to the eye as your natural vision would see it.

Although telescopes offer more powerful magnification, you can’t zoom, they can be inconvenient for travel, and depending on the type of telescope you get, images may be upside down or backwards as they are designed for celestial viewing.

Additionally, spotting scopes offer a nearer close focus distance which means you can focus an image for as close as 6-25 feet depending on the type of spotter you choose. Telescopes are meant for long-range use, so their close focus distance would be significantly longer than a spotting scope.

Winner: Spotting Scopes

Celestial Viewing

Telescopes are the obvious choice for stargazing, night sky tracking, and everything to do with space. They offer incredible high magnification to see details and objects in outer space. Besides the high power, you must have the image quality needed to observe these details. Because many DSO (Deep Space Objects) don’t have their own source of light, it’s essential that the scope is capable of allowing maximum light in to be focused to the eyepiece. Reflecting telescopes use mirrors that allow objective diameters to be as large as possible without compromising on other factors. Long-range observation into the skies is a task for a telescope.

Winner: Telescopes

Portability/Travel

Spotting scopes and telescopes come in different sizes and weights, but the consensus is that telescopes are made to be set up and remain static whereas spotting scopes can be a lot more flexible and portable in design.

The most common compact and portable telescopes are dual-purpose refracting telescopes. They can be as lightweight as 1.5 lbs and as long as 17”. This setup is obviously ideal for travel and backpacking, but you may be compromising on magnification and optical quality for the convenience of portability. Most telescopes are large, bulky, and fragile, and those with the best optics are not ideal for travel or constant setting up and taking down.

Spotting scopes are generally made for being on-the-go optics. You have compact and portable models that are made specifically for travel and hunting and others that are much larger in size that can sit permanently on your deck overlooking the landscape. However, for as heavy as they can get, they’re still much lighter in weight with an easier setup than most telescopes. They also tend to be more rugged and have weatherproof features to protect it from the elements.

But, the real question is what are you using your scope for? If you’re traveling to get the best location for night-sky observation, you may want to consider dual-purpose refracting telescopes. If you want better optical quality out of your telescope, you may have to learn to deal with the inconveniences of hauling a full-size telescope. If you’re buying a spotting scope for stargazing, you may want to spend more to ensure you get improved optical quality. Of course, it would offer better value if you were also using it for other purposes such as terrestrial viewing.

Winner: Spotting Scopes

Photography

Man Looking Through Telescope

Yes! You can take photos with both telescopes and spotting scopes, but there’s a catch. Both types of optics will require an adapter to mount to the eyepiece of the scope for recording images. Whether it’s a camera or smartphone, it can be done.

Spotting scopes are relatively easy to configure for photography. Of course, image quality is dependent on the optics, so the better the glass, the better the pics. A simple adapter that allows you to attach your device can range from $10 to $250 at your local sports store.

For telescopes, a little more must be taken into account. You can use your point and shoot device (camera or smartphone) by free-holding the camera lens behind the focused eyepiece or mounting the camera to a tripod and placing it directly behind the eyepiece. Cheap and easy but maintaining image stability or purchasing a separate tripod are considerations you must think about. You can purchase an adapter for around $25 or more but ensure it’s compatible for your device and telescope.

Then there are additional factors you must consider with a telescope. Is the focal length longer than 300 mm to fully frame the moon? Will moon motion affect picture quality? Consider manual focus, shutter shake, and exposure to get the best quality pictures. Not all telescopes are good for astrophotography, so it’s best to do some research before investing specifically for this purpose.

What are you taking pictures of? While a telescope will offer the ability to take excellent pictures of DSOs, a spotting scope will give sharper images of short-range objects like animals, birds, and other land-based targets and features.

Winner: Tie

Price

If you’re just getting into things, an entry-level telescope will get you into business with the least cost. Some of these are dual-purpose refractor telescopes priced under $100. You will spend more for an entry-level spotting scope, but it seems that even mid-range spotters will do you better than mid-range telescopes – that is, if your needs are in alignment with spotting scope capabilities. High-end telescopes will quickly outrun high-end spotting scopes. While spotters offer more versatility and weatherproof qualities, telescopes offer the cheapest, beginning price points with more magnification.

Winner: Telescopes

No One Scope Does It All

Unfortunately, no one scope does it all.

A low-powered, compact spotting scope will not be capable of achieving great detail on long-range, terrestrial objects let alone DSOs. It’s the same way that no one telescope is optimal for all types of astronomy.

There are many components involved from internal to external, and it really depends on how much you’re willing to invest, what your goals are, and how dedicated you are to your passion.

Don’t be surprised to find that serious stargazers may own more than one type of telescope and a spotting scope may very well be counted amongst their collection. But, a starting point is a start.

A spotting scope may very well be okay for astronomy, and it will offer more uses if interest in the night sky wanes.

A telescope will always be best for looking into the heavens as that is what it was made to do.

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