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A spotting scope is somewhere between a monocular and a telescope, and while they can be quite expensive pieces of gear, it is possible to find quality brand-name scopes (Bushnell, Celestron, Redfield etc.) at a reasonable price.
Why a spotting scope from a reputable optics brand is a worthwhile investment
Binoculars are great for close-up wildlife spotting, and they are good at giving you an idea of what lies in the distance, but a spotting scope really does make a big difference in your wildlife observation travel experience.
For that reason, I’ve put together some options to help you choose the best spotting scope on a budget.
They are the ideal piece of optics for observing wildlife from a fixed position. Go to any birdwatching lodge in the Americas or game reserve in Africa, and you are pretty much guaranteed to see at least one person using a spotting scope.
I’ve used spotting scopes to watch whales off the west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada, in front of watering holes in the Orinoco, waiting for jaguars and capybaras to come and have a drink, and while bird watching in the Colombian Amazon.
The clarity and magnification you get from a spotting scope are second to none, and even budget-friendly spotting scopes are going to greatly improve your wildlife viewing experience.
The Winner of The Best Spotting Scope on a Budget Overall: Celestron – Ultima 65 Straight Spotting Scope
Celestron is a renowned maker of optics, and the Ultimate 18-55×65 is my top choice for best spotting scope on a budget because you get full multi coated optics, which means less glare, better colour contrast and an all-around sharper image when you’re viewing wildlife (or anything else), great magnification, top-notch prism material and I like a bit heftier scope, and this one weighs in at 2.31 lbs.
If you are looking for the best spotting scope on a budget, in this case, one of the best spotting scopes under 200, the Celestron Ultima is a frontrunner for sure.
The power-image clarity-cost dynamic and the quality craftsmanship make this my top spotting scope on budget.
Keep in mind that, because this is an entry-level scope, you are not going to be getting stunning clarity at full zoom, the way you would if you were to pay triple the price for something (from Celestron or otherwise).
Other Great Options
While the Celestron – Ultima 65 Straight Spotting Scope is the clear winner, there are still several other great pieces of gear from respected optics manufacturers on the market that might be ideal for your needs or budget.
- #2: Gosky 20-60 X 80 Porro Prism Spotting Scope
- #3: Celestron – Ultima 80 Angled Spotting Scope
- #4: Bushnell Trophy Xtreme Spotting Scope
- #5: Athlon Optics Talos
#2: Gosky 20-60 X 80 Porro Prism Spotting Scope
Gosky has been making great optics and spotting scopes since the 1980s, so it’s no surprise that one of their products made it onto an affordable spotting scope list.
Like the Celestron Ultima, the prism is multi-coated for optimum colour contrast, and clarity and the robust magnalium frame and rubber armour means this is a piece of gear that is going to stand up to harsh weather conditions-whether you’re bird watching or whale-watching in a downpour or setting up in a blind in the middle of a steamy jungle.
I also had to include the Gosky on my list because it comes with an adapter for digiscoping. If you aren’t familiar with digiscoping, it is basically another term for afocal photography, which the Cornell Lab defines as:
Placing the lens of a digital camera to the eyepiece of a spotting scope to take photos is called “digiscoping.” It’s an inexpensive way to take good pictures without a long, heavy telephoto lens and the expensive camera body that goes with it.
Keep in mind that the original picture is contained inside a circle, so you need to zoom the camera in to get a full-screen picture.
The Gosky also comes with a nice carrying case, a cleaning cloth, straps and lens protection and eyepiece covers, and a metal extended tripod mounting plate so that you can use it on a table or window base (i.e., a car window mount). Ideally, you would mount it on a standard tripod.
As tends to be the major issue with even the best budget scope at such a low price, over 100 yards, there is going to be a notable difference in image clarity and quality from what you’d get if you were to quadruple your budget, or even go for the best spotting scope under 500.
If you want more impressive magnification and top of the line high quality optics, you do need to spend a bit more.
#4: Celestron – Ultima 80 Angled Spotting Scope
The Celestron Ultima 80 (80mm objective lens) is the slightly more powerful big brother to Celestron’s Ultima 65-the best budget spotting scope overall. This angled spotting scope is perfect for wildlife viewing and long-distance observation.
You get a zoom eyepiece with an integrated adapter for digiscoping, a lens cloth, soft carrying case, and an eyepiece port cover and pouch and eyepiece lens cap.
All of the lens surfaces are multi-coated for optimal image clarity, colour contrast and brightness,so you see everything up close and personal in fantastic detail.
The Ultima 80 also has a large focus dial that makes it easier to zoom in quickly so that you never miss a moment of natural history while out in the field. Keep in mind that to get the most out of an entry-level scope-even the best spotting scope on a budget-you should really invest in a tripod, especially with the Ultima 80 because it is a bit on the heavy side for a small scope (over 3lbs).
#5: Bushnell Trophy Xtreme Spotting Scope
Bushnell is synonymous with optical quality in optics manufacturing, whether it’s a target shooting spotting scope for long range shooting, a rifle scope, or something for wildlife or bird watching.
The Trophy Xtreme Spotting Scope is not only an example of an affordable spotting scope but maybe the best spotting scope under 500 on the market.
A portable, all-weather spotting scope, the Trophy Xtreme’s Porro-prism design, multi-coated optics, 60x zoom magnification range (impressive magnification), 100 percent waterproof rubber armour and 50mm aperture make this a great all-day, all-weather, ultra-compact entry-level spotter for nature and wildlife enthusiasts.
A recurring theme in this part of the optics market, even the very best affordable scope (and this one is at the upper range of what you might consider “budget”) is going to start dropping in performance the closer you get to the magnification limits.
Will still far outperform your binoculars, and you will definitely be able to see that breaching whale or nesting eagle in closer detail, but you’d have to spend over $500 to get a really spectacular piece of optics.
This is definitely the most affordable option on our best spotting scope on a budget list. At close to the $100 mark, this is a scope you can still feel good about because, ultimately, you are purchasing the Athlon Optics name.
For those just getting into spotting scopes or who don’t have a lot of money to spend, the Talos 20-60×80 is a great little entry scope that performs well, but don’t expect it to blow more powerful, more expensive scopes out of the water.
On the upside, you get a nice, well-made composite body that is waterproof and fog proof, a silver prism coating and FMC optics.
However, the biggest demerit with this budget scope is that it uses K9 prism glass instead of the BaK4 or BaK5 (higher quality glass) that the other scopes on this list use, and which name brand optics, in general, tend to use.
What the K9 glass basically means is a lower level of image quality.
But again, you’re paying just over a hundred bucks for this piece of gear from a reputable manufacturer. Even still, the myriad positive reviews indicate that, despite being quite a bit less expensive, even serious hunters, shooters, and wildlife viewers give this little scope its due.
What Went Into My Selection Process for the Best Spotting Scope on a Budget List
I used my first spotting scope on a whale-watching trip off the coast of Vancouver Island when I was ten, and ever since I saw my first wild orca up close, I’ve been in love with this gear.
Granted, my first introduction to the gear wasn’t with a budget spotting scope, I have used more budget spotting scopes since
Over the past few decades, I’ve used spotting scopes at different lodges and field stations around the world, from Danum Valley in Borneo spotting orangutans and silver leaf monkeys as they settle in for the evening to the Pacific Coast of Colombia, watching frigate birds glide about and bully other marine birds out of their hard-won meals.
I spent many hours accounting for the scopes that I’ve used in the past and spoke to my birder friends, including my good friends and renowned birders Jurgen Beckers, owner of R.N. La Isla Escondida in Putumayo, Colombia, a famous international birding destination and Carlos Bocos, a world-renowned wildlife photographer and birding guide in West Papua, Indonesia.
I also perused dozens of options for the best spotting scope on a budget, reading reviews, watching footage and deciding which I wanted to include and exclude from my list.
Main Evaluation Criteria to Choose the Best Spotting Scope Under 200
Binoculars are great for close-up viewing, but a spotting scope (even an entry-level one under 200) is going to allow you to find and observe more wildlife (whether it be birds or anything else).
When choosing the best spotting scope on a budget, keep the below criteria in mind:
**avoid astronomy-specific scopes for wildlife viewing. Their zoom is overkill, they’re often not protected against the elements and they tend to be difficult to sight through.
A spotting scope is basically a medium-range telescope and you want something with between 15 and 60x zoom.
You want a zoom lens from between 20x to 60x that allows you to make simple adjustments. This makes wildlife viewing more convenient, allowing you to scan better at lower power and quickly shift to high power for fine details.
Keep in mind that a fixed lens surface collects more light than a zoom lens and that more magnification means reduced light transmission, increased vibration and a more narrow field of view. This is true whether you’re talking about camera lenses or a spotting scope lens.
Top-of-the-line spotting scopes are going to be made with flourite-coated, high-density and/or extra-low dispersion glass, which improves light transmission (especially at high magnification) and provide better, more high contrast images.
This is what’s known as an ed spotting scope (or extra dispersion scope) and this kind of scope features the higher quality optics, hands down.
Even the best budget scopes are going to be outperformed by the higher-end models from the same manufacturer when it comes to low light viewing and at high power because they use these more sophisticated glass prisms (i.e. better glass quality).
Look for BaK4 or 5 in a spotting scope under 200 or 500.
(i.e., aperture). Look for a value between 50-100mm.
Keep in mind that with a larger objective lens, the brighter the images, but the heavier the scope will be, which will affect portability and how appropriate the gear is for travel.
Eyepiece placement (angled or straight)
There are essentially two placement types: a straight eyepiece scope or an angled scope.
Straight eyepiece configurations make it easier to quickly locate and follow wildlife.
A 45-degree angled eyepiece scope makes it easier to view above the horizon, and they work better with shorter tripods (which come with most of the options on this list.)
Your eye-relief is the amount of space in between the eye cup frame and the lens itself, which is an important consideration for people wearing eyeglasses.
I wear glasses, and generally speaking, 12-15mm is enough eye relief for most people. Some scopes have folding or adjustable rubber eyecups specifically for people wearing glasses.
For the most part, there are two focusing mechanism styles. The first is the focusing collar, where the entire barrel of your scope is knurled or rubberized and you have to twist the entirety of the barrel to sharpen the image.
The second design has a smaller focus nob on the top of the scope by the zoom eyepiece. This latter design is slower to focus but gives you more precision.
I’ve found that different hand sizes are better suited to each setup.
Spotting Scope Terms and Measurement Meanings
Throughout this article, and anywhere you see people talking about spotting scopes, you are bound to find a recurring set of terms used to describe performance, materials, and specifications.
The specs that I believe are the most important when selecting a scope, and which I’ve used throughout this article are:
Also called zoom, this is the most straightforward measurement that refers to how many times closer a distant object appears because of the scope’s prism design.
Field of View (feet at 1000 yards)
This is a common optics measurement in both binoculars and scopes, and it essentially refers to how wide of a field of view you have (measured in feet) if you were to measure it from 1,000 yards (10 football fields) away.
A shorter field of view means you are more constrained in what you are able to observe while long distance viewing.
Eye relief is the measurement of the distance between the outer surface of the eyepiece lens to the place where the exit pupil is formed.
Lens coatings refer to the anti-reflective coating that is (or isn’t applied) to the lens in order to give you better colour contrast, less glare and sharper image quality.
Prism or Glass Material
This refers to the design of the glass used in the scope’s lens. Generally speaking, BaK4 (which refers to Barium Crown Glass-the best type of prism material) is the industry-leading standard for high-end scope manufacturers. It is better than, say, BaK7.
Weight just refers to the weight of the scope itself when fully assembled (without the tripod or digiscoping adapter). I travel a lot, so a lightweight, compact scope is always preferable.
Reasons To Bring a Spotting Scope When Traveling
Serious birders with serious bird watching budgets probably aren’t looking for budget scopes, and are probably willing to spend upwards of a grand on the main piece of gear that they need to follow their passion and practice their hobby.
A decent entry-level spotting scope, however is going to take your wildlife viewing to the next level no matter what you’re after.
If you are a nature traveller and general wildlife enthusiast (the kind of people I try to gear my content towards), and spend a lot of your vacations and trip planning looking for wildlife viewing opportunities, then a spotting scope (perhaps in addition to a pair of binoculars) is going to open your eyes to what you’ve been missing out on.
For a couple of hundred dollars, you can purchase a well-made piece of gear from a respected optics manufacturer that is easily transported and set up and which makes birdwatching, whale watching, mammal watching, and landscape viewing such a thrill.
If you are more intent on astronomy, there are spotting scopes that are better suited for star and celestial body gazing.
Looking After Spotting Scopes
There are a few things you can do to ensure that your spotting scope remains in good working order and that you get many years of useful life out of your purchase.
- Store your scope with the eyepiece cover on, in its protective soft carrying case and in a non-humid environment
- Use your microfibre cloth to remove dirt and debris from the lens after each use and then either a lens blower or a camel-hair brush to clean off metal parts and ports.
- Never use your t-shirt, paper towel or anything not designed for delicate prism glass to clean your scope’s objective lens.
- To remove dirt and grease, add a drop of lens cleaner or isopropyl alcohol to your lens cloth.
- Don’t use household cleaning products on your lens.
- Never open your scope and try to clean the internal components on your own. There are professional optics cleaners that you can (and should) pay to do this if you think you have an internal issue. If you open your scope, you are almost surely invalidating your warranty and could end up doing irreversible to the delicate inner workings.
Why Investing in Good Quality Spotting Scope Makes Sense
I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again, I put together this review because a good quality spotting scope (even an entry-level one), especially if it has digiscoping capabilities, will make any nature travel and wildlife-oriented vacation so much richer and more memorable.
You don’t need to spend many hundreds or thousands of dollars to pick up a respectable piece of optics from a reputable company to add something great to your wildlife viewing and recording arsenal. I hope the above review and breakdown will help you choose the best spotting scope on a budget for your needs and objectives.
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