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Choosing Between a Spotting Scope and a Telescope

A brief examination of spotting scopes and telescopes will reveal several similarities in their designs. Both of them use a pair of refractor lenses (an objective and an eyepiece lens) to produce a magnified, clear image. They can be mounted on tripods and they re designed for the long range spotting of objects. But this is where the similarities end.

Spotting scopes are optimized for observing terrestrial targets and astronomy telescopes are optimized for observing celestial targets. Spotting scopes are usually armored (with rubber reinforcement) for travel. They tend to be lighter (for portability), are designed to resist deleterious effects of the environment, and have a more ergonomic design. Spotting scopes also tend to have a weaker magnification and a smaller aperture than astronomy telescopes, but they compensate for this by having a wider field of view. Spotting scopes are also much easier to move around and stabilize than astronomy telescopes; spotting scopes are light, as mentioned earlier, and are designed to fit onto generic camera tripods, while astronomy telescopes require specialized and expensive telescope mounts to support them. Finally, the image of a spotting scope is right side up, while that of an astronomy telescope is inverted.

So how does one decide which of the two to get? Well, for starters, you would use a spotting scope any time you need more magnification than a pair of binoculars would provide, if you were looking at targets on land, and if you expected to be moving fairly regularly. Spotting scopes are particularly useful for such diverse applications as birding, hunting, surveillance, surveying the landscape, as well as looking at wildlife, ships and other distant objects. Spotting scopes can also be used for scoring targets at firearms ranges and taking pictures at long distances with cameras. In fact, spotting scopes can even be used to perform astronomy – although, they certainly are not as good at it as an astronomy telescope is.

On the other hand, astronomy telescopes are much better if your viewing needs do not involve moving around much, and you have the time and space to set up the bulky tripod an astronomy telescope needs to properly stabilize it. They are also used when you need a larger magnification and aperture than a spotting scope can provide, for example, when looking at extremely distant objects, like stars and planets. They can also be used to look at terrestrial targets, though they are not recommended if you need to move around at all.

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