The Best Spotting Scopes in 2021 – Buyer’s Guide
“I’ve been using spotting scopes for years and have used dozens of them in testing and in the field. After consulting with other experts I compiled this guide that includes information about spotting scopes, how to choose the best one, and reviews of our favorites on the market right now. But if you want to make it easy, the winner from all this testing and analysis (as of April 2021) is the Athlon Argos HD 20-60x85mm – the best scope for most uses.
It’s hard to label a single scope as the best available since they are so personalized to different uses. But if you made me choose, I would have to pick the Athlon Argos 20-60x85mm. It’s affordable and the glass is super high quality. I personally used it this last year when hunting pronghorn in Idaho extensively, and it helped me pick out minute details on horns from absurdly far away!
Top Spotting Scopes On The Market
|Athlon Argos 20-60x85mm|
|Vortex Razor 27-60x85mm|
|Celestron Ultima 100|
|Swarovski Optik HD-ATS-80|
|Zeiss Conquest Gavia 85|
Not all hunters need a spotting scope, but for those who want to get a detailed look at their quarry before taking a shot, it’s a lifesaver. They are heavy to carry into the field, but the work is worth it if it can save you from stalking an animal that you don’t want to harvest thanks to being able to identify it from so far away. Hunter’s don’t want to have to haul around the most massive scope, but it needs to be substantially more powerful than their binoculars. Here are some great options to consider:
Athlon Argos 20-60x85mm
This scope, which gets our number one overall recommendation right now, is a shockingly good value. The Argos gives excellent images for a scope in this price range, is large enough to be seriously powerful, and has intuitive, solid controls. It’s on the larger side for a hunting scope, and you may not want to pack it in if you’ve already got a heavy pack and are going in deep. But for scouting use it’s perfect, or for spotting from the road. And if you’re really a beast and can pack it in, you’ll be rewarded with great images. Check the price here.
Maven CS.1 15-45x65mm
Maven has a few great spotting scope options (all of which are customizable if you order through their website). The CS.1 is a great option for a hunter looking for a scope they can take into the backcountry. At about 40 ounces, it isn’t the lightest scope, but it gives you an excellent performance to portability ratio. This scope gives some of the crispest images around. While some scopes fall into the trap of giving more magnification while sacrificing clarity, this scope hits it perfectly at the max end of its range.
Vortex Razor Series
If you’ve got a little more money to spend, it’s hard not to recommend the Vortex Razor series for you. This series comes in three sizes: 11-33x50mm, 22-48x65mm, and 27-60x85mm. All three sizes can also be had in either an angled or straight body. This let’s you choose the size of scope that is perfect for the way you’re using it. Very few other manufacturers give you that kind of choice with their high end scope options. Note that the price varies widely on these different models of Razors, with the smallest scope costing half as much as the biggest.
Bird watching is one of the most popular and fast growing hobbies world wide. It requires little equipment, can often be done from your home, and offers unlimited opportunities for expanding on the hobby with trips to see exotic birds. A spotting scope helps you get crystal clear, up close views of birds, and can also help you take pictures of them. Here are my top recommendations:
Swarovski Optik HD-ATS-80 HD
If you’re a serious bird watcher and want to see every detail of the birds you’re looking at from a long way away, Swarovski is probably going to be your go to brand. They offer some of the clearest scopes on the market, and while you definitely pay a premium, they have a very loyal customer base among bird watchers. Their HD-ATS-80 body is awesomely powerful when paired with a 20-60 power eyepiece. Here are the specs that matter most:
- Objective lens: 80mm
- Shortest focusing distance: 16.4 feet
- Weight: 54.3 ounces
- Warranty: Limited lifetime
- Magnification: 20-60x
- Field of view: 108 to 60 feet @ 1,000 yards
- Exit pupil diameter: 3.3 to 1.1mm
You should seriously consider this combo, check the price here.
Celestron Ultima 80 Angled Spotting Scope
Celestron may have started out targeting astronomers with their products, but they’ve expanded into a full sporting optics line suitable to all sorts of activities. Their Ultima is a great scope for bird watchers. It is dramatically more affordable than the other optics we’re recommending here for bird watchers. It may not have their optical clarity, but it is more than good enough for the vast majority of bird watchers. Check it out on Amazon.
Kowa TSN-883 Prominar Spotting Scope
Another very high end scope from an excellent optics company, the Kowa TSN-883 Prominar is a great option for bird watchers trying to get the best. This Japanese scope uses pure fluorite crystal lenses, which is unique in the industry and gives them excellent optical clarity. If you’re a bird watcher that likes to photograph your quarry, you’ll be happy to know this scope has a ton of available accessories for connecting to cameras of all sorts. These seamless connections will give you crystal clear images. It also has a dual focus knob, one of our favorite features on any scope that allows you to focus it both quickly and precisely. It’s an expensive scope, but it’s worth a look.
Target and Long Range Shooting
If you’ve ever been to a rifle range, you know you’re in for some walking. Having to go down and check your target every few shots means you can only get in so many practice shots per round. And if you’re shooting at really long ranges, an afternoon trip to the range can feel more like a lengthy hike. A good spotter can help you see your shots from where you are shooting, eliminating the need to go down range as often. Here are some good picks:
Vortex Viper HD 20-60x85mm
You don’t necessarily need a scope you’re going to use for target shooting to be portable, so you may as well get something with a beefy objective lens. The Vortex Viper is a great choice. It’s more than up to the task at picking out bullet holes from long range, saving you a lot of walking. It’s not quite as spendy as the higher end Razor we recommended for hunting above, which shooters who would rather spend their hard earned money on ammo will definitely appreciate. You can check the price here.
Vanguard Endeavor HD 82A
Another great option that is even more affordable, this scope from Vanguard will give you everything you need as a target shooter. Vanguard is a smaller, more specialized company than many on this list, and they deserve your consideration for their quality products. This scope has extra low dispersion glass, and is one of the least expensive options that has that critical spec. Learn more about it here.
Photography and Digiscoping
If you want to take your photography game to the next level, particularly if photographing animals you don’t want to disturb or things that are dangerous to get to close to, a spotting scope with a digiscoping setup can make all the difference. Just attach your camera and you’ll be taking clear photos from far away. Here are some excellent scopes for that purpose:
Zeiss Conquest Gavia 30-60x85mm
Zeiss makes premium optics, and this scope is no exception. It offers very impressive light transmission and gives unbelievable image quality to its viewer. Hook it up to your camera with Zeiss’s extensive catalog of accessories and you’ll be taking pictures you never thought possible. A nice feature it has that I wish more scopes would include (especially angled scopes) is a sighting line to help you line up with what you’re trying to look at. Check it out here.
Celestron Regal M2 65ED Spotting Scope
Not everyone can afford a Zeiss. If you’re a hobbyist photographer who doesn’t care about squeezing the maximum amount of performance possible from a scope, give the Celestron Regal a look. It’s their higher end scope offering, but is still affordable. It can be had with three different sizes of objective lenses, so you can choose just how big your scope is going to be. Select which one you want here.
Astronomy is usually thought to be done with a big telescope setup, but a spotting scope can also work well for a hobbyist. They especially are a good choice for astronomy if you need your optics to be compact and/or you want to use them for more than just stargazing. Here are the scopes I’d recommend for the budding astronomer:
Celestron Ultima 100 22-66x100mm Spotting Scope
Celestron is kind of the specialist when it comes to astronomy equipment in the sporting optics world. This is probably unsurprising given their name. And while their telescopes are awesome for picking out constellations, their spotting scopes give you some flexibility to use in different situations. The Ultima is a fairly affordable but still massive and powerful scope that works great for astronomy and stargazing. Put it on a tripod, point it at the sky, and you’ll be opened up to a whole new world(s)! You can buy it here.
Celestron Regal M2 100ED Spotting Scope
If you have the budget, Celestron’s Regal is a huge optical upgrade over the Ultima. Though it’s the same size and about the same in terms of zoom power, the money is spent on the quality of glass. It has extra low dispersion glass, a key in the world of high end optics. That means clearer images day and night. The lenses are also fully multicoated, meaning better light transmission and clearer looks at the night sky. A dual focus knob is also great for fine tuning in on far away celestial bodies. You can check the price today and see if it’s the right fit for you.
Ocean and Wildlife Viewing
Whale watching is a very popular activity along the coasts for both tourists and locals. Similarly, if you live anywhere with a lot of wildlife activity, it can be a fun thing to have a spotting scope set up on your back porch, trained on your local ecosystem. Most of the above options will work just as well for any kind of wildlife viewing, but here are a few more options just in case you want them:
Vortex Diamondback Spotting Scopes
Vortex’s least expensive spotter series, the Diamondback is a top seller with great reviews. Don’t let the fact that it’s cheaper than the Viper and Razor deter you, this thing provides stellar optics and is backed by their excellent lifetime warranty program. This scope is offered in either an angled or straight body, and either way you can get a 16-48x65mm or a 20-60x85mm for viewing far off wildlife. Learn more about it here.
Gosky 2020 Updated 20-60×80
If you’re just casually looking at wildlife and don’t want to spend the dollars on a premium scope, then this Gosky model will fill your needs. Far less expensive than the other scopes on this list, it doesn’t offer the same kind of glass or build quality as the more expensive scopes. But for someone on a budget, it will do the job. Check it’s price right now by clicking here.
Best Scopes For the Money
If you can’t spend over a hundred dollars, your options are limited to discount providers. The Gosky 20-60×60 HD Spotting Scope is a top seller in that price range, and gets decent reviews from its many users. You won’t be counting antler tines on a bull three miles away with this thing, but it will at least get you closer than your naked eye.
Celestron shows up in a lot of places on this list, particularly when looking for affordable quality. The Ultima 80 is the definition of the intersection between quality and affordability. It may not have the extra low dispersion glass and other high end features of more expensive scopes, but it does a great job considering how little it takes to get your hands on one. With an 80mm objective lens, it’s big enough to handle pretty much any task you throw at it.
Vortex got mentioned above a lot, and there are good reasons. They produce quality optics that are simple and straightforward, and they stand by them 100% with their lifetime warranty. If you’re in the market for pretty much any optic and don’t have a budget that’s in the stratosphere, they have good options. And with $500, I would definitely buy the Diamondback 20-60x85mm. It’s a solid scope that is large and powerful, is available in angled and straight body options, and will get the job done.
A more compact scope from a newer, fantastic brand, the Maven S.2 12-27x56mm means business. If you’re a hunter who packs in deep it’s worth serious consideration, as its lightweight frame makes it easy to carry into the backcountry. It’s a very solid scope with exceptionally high quality glass. Maven has a direct to consumer business model, so you can get it customized if you want, and you know that no retailer is taking a huge cut of the price you pay. All the money is going straight into the glass.
Nikon is one of the most well known optics brands in the world. While they have specialized in cameras, all of the knowledge they’ve accumulated in building camera optics has transferred over into some incredible sporting optics. Nikon’s Monarch Fieldscope 82ED-A W/MEP-20-60 is a fantastic one to consider for someone who has a larger budget. It has an 82mm objective lens, boasts ED glass for amazing image clarity, and has a field flattener lens system for crisp images all the way to the periphery.
No Budget Limitations
When budget isn’t a limitation, I tend to recommend Swarovski. They just offer the absolute best performance you can possibly get out of a tube filled with glass. Like we mentioned above, the HD-ATS-80 HD is a fantastic scope body that you won’t be disappointed by, and when coupled with their 20-60x eyepiece makes for a powerful spotting scope. Anything you point this scope at, you’re going to get a clear view of.
Understanding Spotting Scope Terminology
Getting up close images is the entire point of a spotting scope, so obviously zoom power is one of the most important things to know about the scope you are going to buy. Most spotting scopes have what’s called a variable zoom, meaning you can adjust how close you are zoomed into what you are looking at.
You should see a set of numbers either in the product’s title or right away in its specifications that look something like 20-60x60mm. These describe the zoom and the objective lens size. The first two, in the above case 20-60, are the zoom. That would mean that the scope has an adjustable zoom range of 20 to 60. This means that objects will appear between 20 and 60 times closer than they actually are, depending on how you have it set.
Spotting scopes are usually used on a tripod, so you don’t need to worry about your hands shaking and distorting high zoom images like you do with binoculars. Get as much zoom power as you need, but keep in mind the more you zoom in, especially with a cheap scope, the more clarity you will lose. If you want to be counting antler points on mule deer from a few miles away you’re going to have to have perfect conditions and a very high end scope, regardless of the zoom power.
Objective Lens Size
While zoom is described by the initial range of all important numbers on spotting scope specs, objective lens size finishes it out. When you see 20-60x85mm, that means that the objective lens (the one that points out towards whatever you are viewing) is 85mm in diameter. The bigger the objective lens, the more light will be allowed into the scope.
Unsurprisingly, letting more light in is what you want. All else being equal, you want the biggest lens possible. But of course all else isn’t equal, and there is a trade off. The bigger the lens, the bigger and heavier the scope. In fact, those factors increase substantially as you go up in objective sizes. Now if you’re using your scope from a fixed position and don’t have to carry it around, this won’t be a problem. Get as big of a scope as is practical for your use.
But if you’re going to be hiking with that scope on your back (and all kinds of other gear), suddenly the idea of a five pound scope isn’t so appealing. 60mm scopes are popular with hunters, although they definitely don’t have the image quality of an 85mm. It’s a tough trade off, and has to be made based on your hunting style.
Glass Dispersion (ED)
Dispersion is an effect in glass that causes distortion as light travels through it, or actually with any kind of waves. If you want clear views, you want to minimize dispersion.
The glass itself in the lenses of your scope is what will determine how much dispersion is happening, and getting glass with lower dispersion is one of the primary differences in cost between different brands and models. There is a range of designations that manufacturers use, and unfortunately there isn’t much standardization. But most commonly, you will see ED (Extra-low Dispersion) used, and that is what you want. When looking through a scope with ED glass compared to another without it, there is a massive difference.
Other labels you might see that all communicate the same thing are LD (low dispersion), SLD (special low dispersion), ELD (extraordinary low dispersion), and ULD (ultra-low dispersion).
There is a massive difference between HD and regular definition television, and everyone has seen it. Therefore it stands to reason that you want the spotter labeled HD, right? Maybe, but maybe not.
With televisions, High Definition has a technical definition that sets a standard of pixels a display has to have in order to earn the HD distinction. There is no such standard in the world of sporting optics, and the term is essentially meaningless. It is used solely as a marketing hook by companies to make their optics seem very high quality.
So should you avoid scopes labeled as HD? Absolutely not, in fact some of the best scopes around carry the HD label. You shouldn’t overlook a scope just because it doesn’t have that name, or give extra consideration to one that does. In short: IGNORE THE TERM HD.
Field of View
Field of view is a measurement of how wide of a picture you will see when you are looking through a scope. For example, the Athlon Argos we recommend has a field of view of 48-102 feet at 1000 yards. What this means is that if you look at a hill that is 1000 yards away, you will see an image that is between 48 and 102 feet wide based on how zoomed in you are. Anything further out than that will not be visible. You can think of it like the limits of your peripheral vision.
Field of view is obviously heavily influenced by the magnification power of your scope. The more powerful it is, the narrower the field of view. As a hunter who uses a spotting scope and binoculars in tandem, I don’t worry too much about the field of view of my scope. I use the binoculars to cover wide swaths of ground, and then use my scope to get really zoomed in on an animal that I’ve found.
One of the lesser known technical specs that you may need to account for is eye relief. Eye relief is the range of distances from the lens within which you won’t get any black rings and missed images from your scope. Most are designed to be held directly up near your eyes and therefore have a short eye relief, and this works perfectly for most situations.
An exception might occur if you are going to be looking through glasses first and then your spotter. It is worth a trip to your local sporting goods store to look through some scopes and make sure that your glasses do not interfere with the normal eye relief on models you are considering.
Exit Pupil Diameter
If you hold any kind of magnified optic up to a light source and at least a foot away from your eyes, you will see a white dot in the middle of the lens. This dot is what is often called the exit pupil, and refers to the actual dot of light that gets transmitted to your eyes through the lenses. The size of that beam of light is directly derived from two of the factors mentioned above: zoom and objective lens size. If you divide the objective size by the zoom, you get the exact diameter of the exit pupil. A 20-60x60mm scope at the lowest 20 power setting has an exit pupil diameter of 60÷20, or 3mm.
The importance of the exit pupil diameter directly relates to how our eyes function. In normal bright conditions, your pupil will usually be open about 2mm. However in dark conditions, your pupil will open to allow more light in, and can get up to 7mm in diameter. If the exit pupil diameter of your scope is smaller than your eye’s pupil, the image you see through them will appear darker than it does with the naked eye.
This can be important depending on what you’ll use your scope for. The average user who uses them primarily during the day won’t have an issue with almost any scope sold on the market, since the exit pupil will be large enough to work effectively during full light conditions. However, astronomers might consider this as one of their primary things to look for given their viewing happens always in low light conditions.
Hunters may have a bit of a trade off here. Since some of the most prime hunting hours are during low light dawn/dusk conditions, it can be tempting to get a scope with a larger exit pupil. The downside is that in order to do so, you will have to either sacrifice zoom power, or get much larger objective lenses (and therefore increase weight). Only you can make the decision on whether the extra ounces and sacrificed zoom power are worth it for some extra low light visibility on opening morning.
What Should YOU Look For?
Consider Your Uses
No one buys a spotting scope just because it looked cool in a store. Carefully consider exactly how you’re going to use it. Is it going to be used from your vehicle? Are you going to pack it deep into the backcountry? Is it going to be aimed permanently at the stars? There are different scope models that are designed specifically for all these purposes. While any scope will meet most people’s needs, it makes sense to get the optimal one.
Angled vs Straight
How you use your scope will impact the type of scope body you get. Scopes are generally sold either with a straight body or with the eyepiece angled up 45 degrees. There is no easy answer on which is best as there are tradeoffs. Here are the main positives of each:
- Requires a shorter tripod height.
- Easier to support digiscoping.
- Can be easier on the neck, particularly if looking up at something above you.
- Much faster target acquisition (angled scopes can be intuitive to find what you’re trying to look at because of the angle).
- Easier to switch between binos and spotting scope.
- Easier to fit in a backpack.
- Usually works better from a vehicle window mount.
Many scopes, particularly the higher end ones, are sold with the option of getting either straight or angled, so you’ll get to choose what works best for you.
Spotting scopes come in a very wide selection of sizes, more so than any other kind of optic. You can get monsters with objective lenses over 100mm designed for leaving in place, or get something portable. You probably don’t want to be lugging around a 100mm Celestron that weighs 4.5 pounds even without the tripod if you’re going deep into elk country. But it could be perfect scope if you are setting it up on your back porch to stargaze with.
How Much Can You Afford?
Along with size, price varies dramatically. I would highly avoid getting a true budget scope (one that costs less than $200). They tend to give mediocre images at best and quality is low. Oftentimes they don’t even end up helping you see better at long distances. If you spend a few hundred dollars, you’re going to get something that will definitely improve on your naked eye’s vision and help you be successful at whatever activity you are doing.
If you have the money and want to get top performance, you definitely have that option. High end manufacturers like Swarovski and Zeiss charge thousands of dollars for their scopes, and will give you crystal clear images that are hard to beat.
You’re Going to Need a Tripod
When you do buy your scope, know that you’re also going to need to budget for a tripod. You could try using it freehand or leaning it against something, but trust me when I tell you this will significantly hamper your viewing. It’s virtually impossible to hold a powerful scope still enough to use effectively.
Which tripod to buy deserves its own article, as again there are a wide range of options. You’ll definitely want something sturdy though, and weight will again be a factor if you are carrying it on your back.
Another great option depending on your uses is a car window mount. They are quick and easy to use when you are based out of your vehicle.
Spotting Scope Brands Reviewed
A smaller company than some others on this list, Athlon continually impresses me with their quality mid range products. They are young, and seem hungry to make a dent in the industry. They offer a wide range of sporting optics, and I use their 85mm spotting scope as my go to when I’m not packing in too deep. You can read more about them here.
Maven is a very unique company in the sporting optics world. They sell their products directly to consumers similarly to Upland Optics, but they are at the higher end of the price/quality spectrum. They also allow most of their products to be fully customized, so you can even get them in the exact color you want! Most amazingly, some of their highest end products are even assembled in the United States, a rarity in this industry. Their scopes are very high quality and I’d definitely recommend them. You can learn more about them here.
Vortex has become a staple in the optics world recently, and for good reason. They offer solid products at affordable prices, as well as higher end options. Most importantly, they have a solid warranty and a great reputation for taking care of their customers. They have been used and recommended by a lot of the most influential people in the industry, like Steven Rinella from Netflix’s Meat Eater. You can learn more about them at VortexOptics.com.
Perhaps the highest end brand in the optics world, Swarovski caters to those who want the absolute clearest glass and the best quality images. You will pay a pretty penny to get your hands on one of their scopes, but if you want the best there is no substitute. They even have a spotting scope eyepiece that functions as a binocular, with two eyepieces! It’ll cost you, but man does it make scopes easier to use. Learn more about their long, family owned history here.
Leupold is one of the oldest names in the sporting optics world. Founded in the United States in 1907, it has been family owned and operated for five generations, an incredible feat for any company. They are well known for supplying many of the high end scopes used by military snipers and special operations units. Most of their consumer scopes are affordable, and are great options. You can learn about them at Leupold.com.
Bushnell is one of the older players in the sporting optics world, having been founded in 1948. They were the company that made optics available to the masses for the first time by importing binoculars from manufacturers in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. They rapidly expanded into a full suite of optics products spanning the entirety of the price ranges, which they still are today, though they mostly focus on the lower/mid range. They are one of the largest and most popular companies in this space.
Bushnell is owned today by Vista Outdoor, a large conglomerate of outdoor products companies. They also have several subsidiaries underneath them, including names you might recognize like Tasco, Browning Sport Optics, and Simmons. If you are buying a lower-mid range scope, the odds of it coming from Bushnell in one form or another are very high. They have come to dominate those segments of the market. Check them out at Bushnell.com.
If you got sick of reading about scopes (or, let’s be honest, you saw there was video and skipped ahead!), here are some great resources to help you buy a scope:
9 Things To Consider Before Buying:
Side By Side Comparison of 19 Scopes
Cheap vs. Expensive Spotting Scope Comparison
How to Choose a Scope