What you need to know in order
choose a scope that's right for you
by Michael and Diane Porter
Here are some basic terms used when describing spotting scopes.
OBJECTIVE LENS The lens in front,
nearest the object you're looking at. It focuses an upside down and backward
image of the object.
(Don't worry — the image is put right before it gets to your eye.)
EYEPIECE The lens you look through.
It magnifies the image created by the objective lens and presents it to
the eye. Many scopes allow you to change eyepieces.
ERECTING PRISMS They flip the image
right side up and left to right, to make it look normal. They fit between
the objective lens and the eyepiece, in the big bump near the back of
the scope body.
APERTURE The diameter of the front
lens, usually expressed in millimeters (mm). In describing a scope, the
aperture is the first specification mentioned. The larger the aperture,
the more light the scope takes in, and the better quality the image, but
also the bigger and heavier the scope.
MAGNIFICATION You change the magnifying
power of a scope by putting in a different eyepiece. A zoom eyepiece lets
you dial the power you want. The new, rather expensive, zoom eyepieces
in high-end scopes offer excellent optical quality and are a good choice
EYE RELIEF Long eye-relief lets you
see the whole picture even if your glasses hold your eye away from the
eyepiece. If you wear glasses, eye relief is one of the most important
considerations in choosing a scope/eyepiece combination.
CHROMATIC ABERRATION When light passes
through glass at an angle, its path bends. This law of nature enables
a lens to focus an image. However, each color of light bends to a different
degree, as you can see when a prism spreads a rainbow on a wall. In an
image focused by a single glass lens, only one color is truly sharp: the
others are slightly out of focus. This effect is called chromatic
aberration. Telescopes use compound lenses made of different kinds
of glass to try to cancel out chromatic aberration and bring the colors
into focus at the same point.
To further reduce chromatic aberration, some lenses use special materials,
such as fluorite crystal or ED glass, because they disperse the colors
less than regular glass. Such lenses can produce sharper images at high
magnification, but they cost more, sometimes doubling the scope's price.
A scope that uses a mirror instead of a lens to focus the image, such
as the Questar, escapes the problem of chromatic aberration, because the
light is not refracted through glass.
ANGLED OR STRAIGHT You can often choose
between two scope stylesstraight-through or 45° angle eyepiece.
It's a personal choice, but we think the angled scopes have the advantage
for birding. Here's why:
1) Most angled scopes can be rotated in their mounts, allowing variable
viewing angles. They make it easier to look up, without bending your neck.
2) They can be mounted lower and therefore produce a steadier, better
3) They work with shorter, lighter tripods.
4) They let people of different heights see a bird without moving the
5) They have a larger arc of use. For example, on a car window mount,
they let you see further ahead and behind the car.
KINDS OF SCOPES Birding scopes fall
generally into two groups, dedicated birding scopes and astronomical scopes
that have been adapted for terrestrial or birding use.
Rugged and well sealed against water, dust and weather, dedicated birding
scopes are designed for heavy field use. Many are waterproof, with their
focus mechanism and prisms protected inside the scope body.
Astronomical scopes often have their erecting prisms and focusing mechanisms
outside the scope body, allowing you to customize the back end. Instead
of using prisms, as most birding scopes do, with the inevitable loss of
brightness and resolution that results when light passes through the prisms,
you can replace the prisms with a 90 degree diagonal mirror and get better
image quality. The eyepiece will then look down at a 90 degree angle into
the scope. The picture will be right side up but reversed left to right.
Note that astronomical telescopes tend to be somewhat fragile, and they
need to be protected from the elements.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD BIRDING SCOPE?
Optical excellence. We all love bright, high-contrast images with
true-to-life colors. Birders also appreciate rugged construction and optics
well sealed from dust and weather — preferably nitrogen-filled so they won't
Usability is equally important. A birding
scope shouldn't be too heavy to carry. It should be easy to focus and
usable on a car window mount. Built-in, slide-out sunshades and easy-to-use
lens caps help a lot.
Last but not least, a birding scope needs a good
aiming device, to help you find the bird quickly.
An earlier version of this article, by Michael and Diane Porter, appeared in Bird Watcher's Digest, July, 2000. It has been revised and updated here.