Spotting Scope vs Monocular: Which Should Be in Your Bag?

Sharing is caring!

If you’re a bird watcher, your go-to equipment is likely your trusty pair of binoculars, but recent trends have led more and more outdoor enthusiasts to spotting scopes, which provide a bit more power.

A common tool amongst western hunters and wildlife viewers that want to spot game from across a field or through the mountains, spotting scopes have started to become more common amongst birders looking to get as “close” to birds as possible.

Magnification Power

The typical binoculars have a magnification power of eight or 10, although that number could be a little bit higher or lower.

You should see a label that gives a set of numbers, such as “8X42.” The first number is the magnification power, and the second is the lens diameter – the bigger the second number, the wider the field of view you’ll be seeing.

From a typical spotting scope, that magnification level could be closer to 60X. Vortex Optics, for example, sells its Diamondback line of spotting scopes. These scopes have maximum magnification capabilities of between 48 and 60X and a field of view between 65 and 85, depending on the model.

For spotting scopes, the magnification is listed with a series of three numbers: 27-60X85, for example. The final number is the lens diameter, while the first two give you the range of magnification that the scope can achieve.

Magnification rates of 60X are impressive. It’s not quite as high as the average telescope, which offers a maximum magnification of over 100X, but it’s still very good.

It’s also a wide field of view. If you’ve ever felt like your binoculars’ field of view is too narrow, then a spotting scope will offer a wider field of view.

Portability

The downsides to a spotting scope, as opposed to standard binoculars, are going to be cost and portability.

While not as bulky as a telescope, spotting scopes are fairly large and not as easy to use as a handheld device. With a spotting scope, you’ll probably need to use a tripod to get a good, stable view of the birds or wildlife you’re attempting to watch.

Lightweight tripods are available, but that still adds another item to carry with you as you hike. It’s not very convenient to hike with a tripod in hand, but many people still choose to do it to get the best possible view of birds and other wildlife.

If carrying heavy equipment doesn’t bother you, then another couple of pounds for a tripod and spotting scope maybe isn’t a big deal.

Cost

Spotting scopes are also expensive compared to a set of binoculars or a monocular. A good spotting scope is going to set you back hundreds of dollars, whereas you can pick up a solid set of binoculars or a monocular at lower budget prices.

The magnification power won’t be anywhere near 60X, of course, but the tradeoff is in cost savings and the lightweight nature of an item that can go around your neck.

If you’re thinking about adding to your arsenal of bird-watching gear, a monocular is another option.

Binoculars vs Monoculars

Before we compare monoculars to spotting scopes, let’s take a look at the differences between monoculars and binoculars.

Binoculars vs Monoculars: Magnification

You can think of a monocular as a pair of binoculars split in half. Because of this, monoculars often achieve the same magnification that a set of binoculars can.

Binoculars vs Monoculars: Field of Vision

Where monoculars lack, in comparison, is in their field of view. Having two viewing tubes gives binoculars a clear advantage in providing users with a wider field of view.

Binoculars and monoculars are often used differently, so the field of view isn’t a complete deal-breaker. It can certainly serve a specific purpose in your bird-watching bag.

Using a monocular can put a strain on your eyes, so you wouldn’t typically use it for long-term scanning of an open field looking for a hawk, owl, or crane.

Instead, you’d likely use it to get a closer look at something you’ve already spotted. Once you’ve spotted that owl or hawk, you can use a monocular for closer observation of the bird.

In that case, the field of view won’t make too much of a difference, since you already have a good idea of where to look. You wouldn’t want to do it for too long, as keeping one eye closed for a long period isn’t very comfortable, but for quick viewing, monoculars are a good tool to have.

Binoculars vs Monoculars: Cost

By eliminating that other tube, monoculars are usually more lightweight and cost-efficient than binoculars. Since they have to include two fewer prisms and lenses, it takes less money for companies to create a single-tube monocular, and therefore costs less for the consumer.

Binoculars vs Monoculars: Low-Light Viewing

Low-light viewing is also a monocular advantage. If that’s a consideration for you, you may want to consider adding a monocular to your toolbox, even if it won’t completely eliminate the binoculars from your repertoire.

If you want to get high-tech, you can purchase thermal or night-vision monoculars.

Night vision monoculars use available light to allow you to see into the darkness of nightfall with more clarity. If you’ve ever seen an action hero peering through the darkness with night-vision goggles in a movie, his or her view will glow green.

Thermal imaging monoculars, on the other hand, rely on heat to create an image that shows in your monoculars. Warm-blooded animals, including birds, will give off heat, causing their body to show up with a thermal vision.

Other warm objects, such as a vehicle that’s recently run, will also give off heat and show up with a thermal vision.

This can be especially helpful when viewing nocturnal wildlife or birds like owls that are not often seen during daylight.

While these extra features may cost more than regular monoculars, they give you a distinct advantage in certain nighttime situations that you wouldn’t get from a set of binoculars or even a spotting scope.

Spotting Scope vs Monoculars

It isn’t quite fair to monoculars to compare these two tools. While monoculars are lightweight tubes you can hold in your pants pocket, spotting scopes typically aren’t meant for handheld use, making them a very different tool.

Spotting scopes are high-powered but bulky devices that could almost double as a telescope for certain users, whereas monoculars are lightweight devices meant for quick viewing.

A spotting scope such as the Diamondback HD scope from Vortex mentioned earlier weighs just over two pounds. A monocular, on the other hand, weighs closer to half a pound. Vortex’s Razor 27-60X85 spotting scope weighs in at just over four pounds.

If you’re driving around in your car looking for birds or other wildlife in wide open spaces, a spotting scope could be perfect for you.

You can keep it in your car when you’re out hiking, but if you see wildlife out in the mountains or fields, you can set it up quickly and instantly feel like you’re right there with the animals.

A monocular isn’t going to give you that same effect, with its magnification power working at about the same level as binoculars you’ve probably used. However, if you’re out on a hike, a two-pound scope plus a tripod might seem like more than you want to take on.

If a heavy scope and tripod aren’t right for your situation, a compact device like a monocular might be more appropriate. 

As with a monocular compared to binoculars, monoculars have a clear advantage in low light, especially when you purchase a monocular meant for night vision, such as one with thermal or infrared capabilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a monocular or spotting scope better?

A spotting scope is clearly the superior tool when it comes to specifications such as field of view and magnification, but the monocular’s value is in being lightweight, compact, and good for night vision.

Monocular magnification is often similar to that of a set of binoculars, with a more narrow field of view, while spotting scopes’ magnification power is much stronger than both, with a wider field of view as well.

Consider your needs before purchasing either of these optical devices.

If you’re looking for the best in optics, regardless of its size and cost, a spotting scope is clearly top-of-the-line. If you don’t mind setting it up on a tripod to view wildlife, you’ll likely love what a spotting scope offers you.

But if you need something compact to get a closer look at wildlife at an affordable price, a monocular has its pros.

Which is better, a spotting scope or a telescope?

Whether you want a telescope or a spotting scope depends entirely on personal preference and what you plan to use it for.

A spotting scope could give you a pretty good view of the moon and stars, but they’re often not quite as powerful as a telescope.

If you’re really serious about stargazing, you might want to go all in and purchase a telescope. A good telescope will give you the best view of celestial bodies like planets, stars, and the moon. 

However, many people don’t truly need the firepower of a telescope, and there can be a steep learning curve to using a telescope, with all of its capabilities. A spotting scope is a bit more straightforward to use and can be utilized for more than just stargazing.

A spotting scope can help you in wildlife viewing and an occasional view of the sky, while a telescope won’t help you while looking for wildlife.

Considering the high cost of both spotting scopes and telescopes, this extra functionality can make a spotting scope worthwhile for someone who wants to do a little of both.

Can you see planets with a spotting scope?

A spotting scope will give you a view of certain planets and other celestial bodies, but it doesn’t have the same power that a telescope does.

If you’re a casual night sky observer, a spotting scope will certainly do the job, but if you’re serious about it, you may want to consider an upgrade to a telescope.

A telescope may double the magnification power of your spotting scope, giving you better detail of objects like planets.

Can you use a spotting scope as a telescope?

A spotting scope can do many of the same things as a telescope, but it doesn’t have the strength that a telescope does.

Spotting scopes have a magnification power of around 60 to 80X, while a telescope may push above 100X and beyond.

Sharing is caring!

Jacob Swanson

Jacob Swanson is a writer and wildlife photographer born and raised in Wisconsin and currently based in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his work has appeared in over a dozen different web and print outlets. In his free time, he’s on a personal quest to visit every U.S. national park and see as many wildlife species as possible. His favorite birds are whooping and sandhill cranes.