On the face of it, trying to decide between binoculars vs spotting scope may seem fairly academic. After all, they both help you magnify objects that are far away. But the reality is significantly different, unlike telescopes vs binoculars for instance.
While the two items notionally perform the same job, how they do it, and the benefits and drawbacks of each, are surprisingly different.
But before you start browsing the very best binoculars and best spotting scopes, we've put together some of the most important things for you to think about, to help ensure you choose the most suitable item, to meet your specific needs. By the time you've finished reading, you'll be armed with everything you need to know.
Binoculars vs Spotting Scope: Key Differences
First, and most obviously, a spotting scope has only one lens, while binoculars have two. This means that a spotting scope works more like a monocular or a telescope, in that you only employ one eye at a time. This is more significant than you may think. Using only one eye can increase the possibility of eye fatigue (especially when used for long periods) which is less of a problem with binoculars.
Binoculars tend to be smaller, lighter, and more manoeuvrable than spotting scopes. And spotting scopes, much like a telescope, require a stable base to offer a good image. They tend to offer greater magnification than a pair of binoculars, which means that any shake will disrupt the image to a greater degree.
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Can Binoculars Work Like a Spotting Scope?
There is undoubtedly some overlap between binoculars and spotting scopes. Both are typically designed to be used outdoors, so have similar functions and weather resistance, for example. They are both also designed to make distant objects easier to see. But the differences we outlined above do mean they fill slightly different niches.
Binoculars tend to offer a wider field of vision than a spotting scope. And spotting scopes usually have more powerful magnification. And this means there are slightly different use cases for each.
Why Do People Use Spotting Scopes Instead of Binoculars?
Spotting scopes are typically great for people who aren't intending to move much once they get set up. For example, a birdwatcher may use a spotting scope to watch a nest. The nest isn't going anywhere, so once it is set up, it doesn't need to be mobile.
The larger magnification that spotting scopes offer means users can zoom much closer to a subject. Again, this might be beneficial for watching wildlife without disturbing it. And as with many telescopes, lots of spotting scopes are designed to connect to cameras, so photography can be much easier with a spotting scope.
And in comparison to a dedicated telephoto lens, a spotting scope can be a fair bit cheaper.
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Binoculars vs Spotting Scope: Lenses
We could probably write an entire article all about this. But we know you’re busy people, so we’ll try to summarize it as succinctly as possible.
With binoculars, there are three main types: Galilean, Roof prism and Porro prism. The basic principle is that they use convex lenses to magnify the image. Porro and roof prisms both then ‘flip’ the image so it’s the right way up when it reaches your eye. Galilean binoculars don’t have a prism, and their magnification options are limited to about 4x. Roof prism binoculars allow for a more compact and lighter design than Porro prism.
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The prisms themselves can come in one of two categories: BaK-4 and BK-7. BaK-4 allows more light from the periphery of the field of view. This makes the edges of the image brighter. BK-7 tends to be more expensive, but can actually be more suitable for certain purposes, such as stargazing. Binoculars will typically offer a magnification range of between 6x and 40x.
Spotting scopes offer a higher magnification range, usually between 15x and 60x. And the vast majority of spotting scopes use Porro prisms, with the same BaK-4 and BaK-7 glass that we find in binoculars.
With spotting scopes, a larger objective lens generally lets in more light, and allows for sharper images, especially at high magnification. But bigger only equals better when the quality is equally good. Lenses can range from 45mm-100mm, but will usually fall between 60mm-80mm.
Binoculars vs Spotting Scope: Price
There tends to be a significant difference in price between binoculars and spotting scopes. A basic pair of binoculars can cost between $50-100. Spotting scopes can also be found for under $100. But many will cost you closer to $500. A professional-grade spotting scope could be in excess of $1000.
Of course, you can buy more expensive binoculars that will cost you significantly more than fifty bucks. Some will set you back thousands. But generally speaking, a spotting scope is likely to be more expensive than a pair of binoculars.
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Binoculars vs Spotting Scope: Pros and Cons
By now, you've hopefully realised that binoculars and spotting scopes each have their strengths, and their weaknesses. Let's look at these in more detail.
Spotting scopes are more specialised than binoculars but more versatile than a telescope. They can be used in outdoor environments, and are easier to transport than telescopes. They also offer better magnification capability than a pair of binoculars. And many can be connected to cameras for capturing great photos.
But while they are more portable than a telescope, they remain heavier and more cumbersome than a pair of binoculars. They also need to be mounted on a tripod to keep them stable, so if you're on the go, that's additional weight you'll need to carry. And while they have a greater degree of magnification, this does then lead to a narrower field of view.
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The narrower field of view also means they are less suitable for tracking a moving object. As well as making it harder to follow what's going on (for instance while watching sports) it can make you feel a bit queasy, or cause headaches.
Finally, the cost of a spotting scope tends to be significantly higher than that of a pair of binoculars.
Binoculars benefit from being really easy to use, and are much more portable. Because they offer a wider field of vision, it can make distant objects easier to spot, and to track. They are more versatile than a spotting scope, as they can be used for moving or static objects. And they don't need a tripod to use them effectively. The cost to buy is also lower.
But while they are smaller, this also means they tend to have smaller magnification capabilities, which limits how far you can see with them. Distant objects won't be as clear as they would be with a spotting scope. And you won't be able to use them for photography as you can with a spotting scope.
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Binoculars vs Spotting Scope: Which Should You Buy?
If you hadn't already figured this out, the decision about whether to buy binoculars or a spotting scope will come down to a few factors:
- Are you going to be moving, or set up in one spot?
- Will portability be an issue?
- How powerful do you need the magnification to be?
- Are you going to want to scan quickly, or follow a moving object?
- Do you want to be able to use it for photography?
- How much are you prepared to pay?
Generally speaking, a spotting scope will probably take the edge for viewing things like wildlife, or for stargazing. Binoculars will usually be better for watching sports. But as always, it comes down to personal choice.