Spotting Scopes vs. Telescopes for Beginner Astronomers

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Spotting Scopes vs. Telescopes for Beginner Astronomers

A few times over the past year, I have met people who, when they had a youngster express interest in astronomy, rushed out to B&H Photo to purchase the family a telescope. In a few of these anecdotes, the telescope saw limited initial use and then it was simply incorporated into the home’s décor—gathering dust in a corner. It became obvious to me that what the family could have benefited from more would have been a spotting scope. And, in all of the cases, the spotting scope wasn’t even on the purchase radar. By default, everyone thinks the telescope is the best way to explore the heavens and it truly is, but the spotting scope presents a great and versatile alternative. Let’s look at the buying choices between spotting scopes and telescopes so that, if you are in the market for yourself, the family, or a space-exploring enthusiastic youngster, you can get something that everyone will enjoy and something from which all will enjoy a great deal of use.

Before we dive in: if you arrived here knowing you want a telescope, but are unsure what type to get, click on over to our telescope buying guide and enjoy the view!

TL;DR

Spotting scopes offer unmatched versatility and durability for primarily terrestrial viewing (think birding) and some astronomical viewing. Telescopes give you a superior view of the heavens, but are less portable, less durable, and slightly more difficult to use than a spotting scope.

Want to know more? Let us look at the pros and cons of the telescope versus the spotting scope…

The Upside-Down

When you look through a telescope, the image is inverted. Spotting scopes, like binoculars, have prisms that flip the image before it reaches your eye so that up is up and down is down. When looking at deep sky objects, the moon, sun, and stars, this reversal is insignificant or a non-issue. When looking at the upside-down bird in the upside-down tree across the upside-down street, it is a bit strange. You can add an erecting diagonal prism to your telescope to “correct” this, but they can degrade the image quality a bit. Spotting scopes, with the built-in prism, do not have this issue.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Durability

Many spotting scopes, like their binocular cousins, are waterproof and fog proof and can also tolerate a bit of shock. They are designed to be taken into the field by hunters, birders, and wildlife watchers. Telescopes, especially larger scopes, are precision devices that are not designed for moving around much, getting bumped, or getting rained on.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Portability

While there are certainly small and portable telescopes, the spotting scope is relatively lightweight and designed for use in the field. Many come with “C-thru” cases (or they are available separately) that protect the scope’s body from wear and scratches while allowing you to use the scope. Larger telescopes can be boxed up and taken out into a dark sky area—often the big telescopes will be transported in two or three separate boxes—they are definitely not designed around portability in the same way a spotting scope is designed.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Configuration

Many spotting scopes are available in two configurations: straight or angled viewing. For birders and casual users, the most popular is, by far, the angled view. Some hunters and shooters prefer the straight view because they are often lying prone on the ground when using the scope. Also, straight viewing makes it easier to find your target and track moving subjects—critical for those terrestrial uses. Telescopes, depending on the type, might have a right-angle viewing option, but some are designed to allow viewing when the scope is pointed skyward—not at terrestrial targets. To emphasize this difference in the two types of scopes, the Dobsonian-type telescope (in the photo below) cannot be used for terrestrial viewing at all.

Advantage: Tie

Ease of Use

Neither the telescope nor the spotting scope, in their basic forms, are difficult to use. One advantage that the spotting scope has is that many come with zoom eyepieces that allow you to zoom in on a distant object once you have the target sighted. Most telescopes change magnification through the use of different eyepieces that need to be switched out. This is not a difficult task, but it means you are carrying multiple items out into the field with your telescope, whereas the spotting scope is pretty much one piece of kit. By the way, you’ll be using a tripod for both types of scopes. While camera tripods will work fine with a spotting scope, larger telescopes will require specialized tripods.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Magnification

There are exceptions, but many spotting scopes max out, with their zoom eyepieces, at 60x magnification. For the photographers, this is basically the equivalent of a 3000mm lens. Larger telescopes are designed for viewing deep sky objects far away in the cosmos. Because of this, they are capable of much larger powers of magnification—more than double the spotting scope. With greater magnification comes more difficulty in targeting—you are pointing a smaller and smaller soda straw at a distant object—and many telescopes come with a finder scope to help with aiming—something I sometimes wish I had on my spotting scope. Spotting scopes sometimes have sight lines to assist (much better for terrestrial viewing), but a finder scope is always a pleasure to use. Also, it is good to note that there are some spotting scopes that accept standard telescope eyepieces for greater magnification capabilities.

Advantage: Telescope

Close Focus

Telescopes are designed to look at objects anywhere from hundreds of thousands of miles away to millions of light years away. Because of this, they do not have admirable close-focusing capabilities. The spotting scope, however, is designed for terrestrial use and can usually focus very close—you can use a spotting scope to get a close-up view of hummingbirds on a feeder or butterflies on a flower from just a few feet away. This is one more thing that adds to the spotting scope’s versatility.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

Light Gathering

In an effort to be portable and relatively lightweight, many spotting scopes do not have the light-gathering power of telescopes with their larger diameter optical tube assemblies (OTA). Even the diameter of the largest spotting scopes pales in comparison to the larger home reflector telescopes. The more light that the scope can collect, the brighter the image and the more you will be able to see in the night sky.

Advantage: Telescope

Price

Like everything else in the photography/optics world, you can get in for a little or get in for a lot. Some telescopes and spotting scopes cost less than a nice dinner for two in Manhattan—with cocktails. Some cost more than an automobile. And, here is where it gets wonky in this debate: you can probably get an entry-level telescope for less than an entry-level spotting scope, but a mid-range spotting scope is probably a better value than a mid-range telescope and, at the second mortgage end of things, the big pro telescopes cost much more than a high-end spotting scope. So, you can get started into telescopes for less, but I still think the value lies in the versatility of the spotting scope.

Advantage: Tie

Digiscoping

With the ease of digital photography, lots of folks have the desire to photograph and share what they see through a telescope or spotting scopes. This is called: digiscoping. Most telescopes and spotting scopes can be configured to adapt cameras and/or smartphones with which you can take photos of what is shining through the scope. Depending on your scope and camera, this can be an easy process or a complicated one because some newer scopes are designed for digiscoping compatibility and others require adapters and accessories.

Advantage: Tie

Versatility

While you can certainly use a telescope for terrestrial viewing, they aren’t specifically designed for that task. Conversely, the spotting scope wasn’t designed to look at the moon and planets, but it does a pretty good job of that when needed. Circling back to the budding astronomer who may or may not be in an “it’s just a space-phase” of childhood, the spotting scope can look at the moon, planets, and some deep sky stuff, but it also can look at birds, wildlife, and more without missing a beat. Your family member’s interest in the stars may fade, but almost everyone loves watching birds, mammals, and other creatures up close.

Advantage: Spotting Scope

My $0.02

Based on tales relayed to me about kids temporarily interested in astronomy, I have been recommending that people start their astronomical viewing with a spotting scope. The spotting scope is amazing for studying the moon, seeing the four Jovian moons orbit Jupiter, and for seeing the rings of Saturn. You can also see some deep-sky stuff with this device but, if interest wanes, or clouds are overhead, the versatility, size, and durability of the spotting scope make it a great choice to have around the house or in the field because the entire family can get shared enjoyment out of it without too much hassle or fuss. If interest persists, you can always add a telescope to the family down the road and still have a spotting scope for daily use with birds and other wildlife.

On the other hand, if you, or the intended recipient is super-serious about the stars, then feel free to forgo my advice and head straight for a serious telescope.

2 Comments

Horrible advise, a spotting scope is the wrong tool for astronomy and you will quickly become "disillusioned" with the hobby because you are trying to see things that are constantly moving (telescope mounts track the night sky, tripods do not) and are limited in what you can see because of the often small optics and more basic coatings of spotting scopes because they are ultimately designed to see bright static objects (like a bird sitting on a branch).

Hi Graeme,

Thank you for your comment. You make a very good point regarding tracking telescope mounts and spotting scope coatings. However, when most people begin their astronomy adventures with a telescope, they do not invest in a tracking mount for their first scope so that advantage is not realized until later on. Regarding coatings, you are correct, but, for the eyes of the novice, the subtleties of different coatings will be likely lost. It is rare that a beginning astronomer or someone getting a gift for another person interested in astronomy spends enough money out of the gate to ensure a phenomenal viewing experience.

I will stand by my advice as I think that the spotting scope is a much better value for the consumer that is starting out with astronomy. I personally know several folks who invested in large and complex telescopes that now collect dust in their living rooms where, had they had a spotting scope, they could enjoy both terrestrial and celestial viewing for the whole family.

Thanks for reading Explora and stopping by!

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